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Precrastination and the Problem With Completing Tasks Too Soon

Think all those crossed-out items on your to-do list is a good thing? Think again

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as completing tasks too soon. For instance, there are actually people who answer emails the second they get them. There are actually people who grab groceries from the front of the store right by the checkout only to carry them around with them the whole time. There are actually real, honest-to-God people who pay their bills the second they get them in the mail — and others who show up for job interviews a month early.

This shouldn’t seem bad, but it is. Because you might reply to the emails far too hastily. Because carrying around groceries you can just grab later is a waste of energy. Because if the money you’re using for bill pay is from savings, you’re prematurely forfeiting some interest that could’ve generated a few more weeks. Because showing up for a job interview an hour early, let alone a month early, can look a tad too desperate.

This utter madness is called precrastination — with an e, not an o — and according to a recent exploration of it in the New York Times, it’s the terrible habit of doing things too soon rather than too late. Unlike its opposite, procrastination, which we all know is waiting until the last minute to get something done, this is rushing through tasks in a panic on the front end so as to simply check them off.

Why anyone might precrastinate is anyone’s guess, but we know about it thanks to psychologist David Rosenbaum at the University of California, Riverside, who coined the term in a 2014 study called “Pre-crastenation: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort.” In the study, some students who had the option of picking up a bucket on the left or right side of an alley to then carry it to the end of that alley somehow chose the bucket closer to themselves, rather than the one clearly closer to the end of the alley — even when they were told to go for the easiest possible option.

In another study at Washington State University, psychologist Lisa Fournier asked students to pick up some buckets full of balls and carry them back to a starting point. The same thing, of course, happened again: Some 80 percent of the participants chose to pick up the bucket closest on the journey toward the second bucket, then turned around and carried back each bucket as they passed by where the first one had sat, and would’ve still been there, all along.

In both instances, the participants gave themselves extra work for no discernible reason. Rosenbaum and his researchers conducted another nine experiments and concluded that this seemingly irrational behavior is just how some people reduce their mental load. In Fournier’s research, she reasoned that not only was it a mental-load reduction strategy, but one that was employed whenever a to-do list grew too long. Basically, the more participants had to do, the greater the chances they would do some of the stuff too soon — and badly.

Animals precrastinate, too. One example is pigeons, who, like humans, are also smart and bad at getting things done. In recent research from psychologist Ed Wasserman at the University of Iowa (who has conducted work with Rosenbaum and who refers to precrastination as the “fierce urgency of now”), pigeons were given food after three pecks on a screen, but were presented with multiple places to peck around the screen’s parameters as if some sort of pecking order was required of them. Even though it actually didn’t matter where they pecked or in what order, because the food appeared after the last peck regardless, the pigeons still effectively went straight to the second peck option that appeared as soon as possible, which was unnecessary, as they could’ve just stayed in the same spot the whole time for three pecks.

Since humans and pigeons went their own evolutionary way more than 300 million years ago, Wasserman and Rosenbaum argue that precrastinating could very well have to do with a scarcity mindset, such as simply wanting to get our hands on what’s available before it’s gone. They think it may also be a way to free up memory by doing something so we don’t have to remember it for later. Another theory is that it just feels good to get something done, so we want those good feelings as soon as possible, even if we don’t realize the premature completion of a task might end up sucking later.

Obviously, what would suck later about a lot of these tasks is highly debatable. Take nearly any of the examples listed here that count as precrastination — routinely declared as bad as procrastination — and most of them not only don’t sound that bad. Plus, there are easy fixes to dealing with the anxious urge to knock something out quickly that actually needs more time and attention. Case in point: Inbox zero. You don’t necessarily have to fire off careless responses; you can categorize them into delete, delegate, respond, defer and do. Not to mention, precrastinators look conscientious. For instance, the woman who showed up a month early for a job interview with Microsoft was inundated with job offers from recruiters wildly impressed with her.

Other ways to prevent precrastination from turning against you, per the Times:

  • Lightening your load.
  • Scheduling better.
  • Slowing down so you can actually measure the progress of something rather than merely getting it done.

Then there’s the reality that you can be both — a precrastinator and a procrastinator. In a theoretical example Wasserman gives, a student might be dreading all weekend a term paper due by noon on Monday when another student asks her to go out for pizza. She might go for the pizza because she has to eat dinner anyway, and prepping and cooking a meal would’ve derailed the term paper, essentially finding a way to procrastinate on the term paper by also precrastinating on dinner.

Ultimately, it just means our productivity Achilles heel is still us, and that we’re capable of dealing with the overwhelming anxiety of our task list many different ways.

As for Wasserman, he tells me over email that he’s a procrastinator himself, but that he could see how precrastination might have an advantage if it coincides with another quality. “There’s the matter of also being a perfectionist,” he writes. “That can work in concert with precrastination — you then have more time to put the finishing touches on a project.”