What exactly is … precrastination?

Many chronic procrastinators would be delighted to stop putting things off and get things done well ahead of the deadline. They observe with envy their team colleagues and partners, who immediately complete any task, seemingly impervious to digital distractions and pointless ruminations. 

While procrastinators “leave things till tomorrow”, as the Latin etymology has it, precrastinators don’t even wait until the next day but get right down to business on the spot. But even this approach, which is not uncommon in the working world, has its challenges. In the desire to “get everything done”, precrastinators run the risk of wearing themselves out with activity. And often work vigorously on tasks that are neither important nor urgent, or for which required information is still forthcoming. 

Still planning or already working? The bucket experiments

The phenomenon of precrastination was named by psychology professor David Rosenbaum, who in 2014 carried out what came to be known as the bucket experiments with students at Pennsylvania State University. In this series of tests, students were instructed to carry one of two buckets filled with water over a distance to the endpoint. The only difference between the buckets was that they were positioned at different distances away from the finish line.

Contrary to the experimenter’s expectations, many participants picked up the first bucket and carried it to the finish (rather than taking it easier with the second bucket, which was closer to the end point and had to be carried for a shorter distance). When participants were asked about their choice, they replied that they had wanted to “complete the task as quickly as possible”. Rosenbaum concluded that the psychological pressure of the unfinished task was so great that they could not wait to reach the further-away bucket to initiate it.

Let’s do it now!

At first glance, the precrastinators would seem to be in the advantage over procrastinators, particularly in the work context. To be honest, I was always somewhat amazed by colleagues and supervisors who quickly completed tasks, were easily accessible and answered emails within an hour.

But what may appear to be exceptional motivation from the outside may be associated with extreme effort and exhaustion for the precrastinator. Everything has to be done before you have time for your partner or the kids, the movie date with friends, the evening run or simply sleep. But why?

  • Wanting to have more time. Paradoxically, many precrastinators hurry precisely because they want to have (free) time more quickly. They “work ahead” so that there will be “less going on” at some later stage. But it seldom comes to that—the more tasks that are completed, the more emails that are answered, the more that are added to the pile.
  • Off-loading the working memory: If you complete a task immediately, you can mentally check it off the list and no longer have to hold it in your working memory. People will actually undertake extra effort just to shed the cognitive “load”.
  • Recognition: Those who work harder and “more efficiently” than others in the work setting hope to distinguish themselves in a positive way. But even those who wish to be considered reliable and don’t want to let others down also avoid putting things off—even if the tasks are not a high priority for them personally.
  • Inner motivations and beliefs: Those who have internalized phrases such as “I have to do this”, “well begun is half done” and “the early bird gets the worm” are likewise driven by the desire to get as much as possible, if not everything, done quickly.
  • Pleasure and “instant gratification”: If you have a to-do list, you know all about that pleasant feeling of being able to tick off an item on the list. That little burst of dopamine is short-lived but powerful. (Many will be familiar with the phenomenon of putting a small, totally unimportant but finished task on the list retroactively just for the sake of being able to cross it off immediately.)
  • Survival advantage? Some researchers suggest that precrastination might be a legacy of evolution that continues to shape us today. It can, after all, be of critical importance to our survival to pick the low-hanging fruit from the tree or eat something immediately, provided there is no saber-toothed tiger lurking around the bend.

What helps against precrastination?

With so many different reasons driving people to do things right away, strategies to counteract precrastination need to be as diverse as the causes. The “top 5 tips against precrastination” will most likely be an exercise in futility. In coaching, taking a close look at one’s attitudes, values and motivations is often the first step towards getting over the urge to “do everything straight away”. If I recognize when precrastinating behavior is harming me (for example because I am using more energy than I have), I can gradually steer my behavior in a different direction.

And sometimes it helps to keep this passage from Oliver Burkeman’s highly recommended book, “Four Thousand Weeks. Time Management for Mortals”, in mind: “[t]he day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.”

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