Procrastination is cited as a common problem for most people, but there’s a new pitfall to watch out for: “precrastination.”
New research from Pennsylvania State University shows that people are willing to expend large amounts of physical effort just to have the feeling of completing a task.
In one experiment, students were asked to pick one of two buckets and bring them to the end of an alleyway.
One bucket was placed closer to the end point, therefore requiring less physical effort, and the other was placed closer to the start. Students were advised to choose the first, easier task — yet most of them chose the bucket closer to them, even though they had to carry it farther.
The reason they were willing to do so was because the assigned task was weighing on their minds. They wanted to get it done as soon as they could, just to lighten their mental loads.
This helps explain why people are often inclined to clean their rooms, answer emails, or wash the dishes before starting their “real work.” It allows them to feel like they are actually getting things done and to check something off their mental to-do list, even though it isn’t necessary at the moment.
The problem is that when people spend their time on the wrong things, they postpone the important tasks until they’re too exhausted to devote sufficient mental energy toward them. According to the Times article, “People who are checking things off the list all the time might look like they’re getting stuff done, but they’re not getting the big stuff done.”
Even though the task at hand gets finished quickly, performance on other tasks may decrease in quality as people rush to complete something else. Precrastination also results in missed opportunities for cognitive processing, because people don’t give themselves the time to think things through.
Furthermore, if people finish their work early, they might waste the remaining time. “Suppose you have two employees, and you give them both a task,” says John Perry, professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford University. “One of them is a procrastinator, so they spend the entire day doing other tasks before finishing their assignment. Another one isn’t a procrastinator and finishes the task early, but then spends the rest of the day loafing around.” In this example, the procrastinator accomplishes more than the one who gets the job done early.
Precrastination is tempting because it feels so good. In an article for The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes, “The special danger of precrastination is that, unlike procrastination, it doesn’t feel naughty.”
A root of precastination is that people tend to treat insignificant tasks as more urgent than they truly are. For example, they are inclined to respond to emails immediately after they receive them, even though their inbox isn’t necessarily the most important thing to attend to.
To prevent this mistake, try using the Eisenhower Box. Sort your tasks into four boxes: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, neither urgent nor important. This will help you prioritise your tasks and become more productive and efficient with your time.
You can also stick to a simple rule. Schedule a time to relieve yourself of the minor tasks taking up your mental load by blocking off an hour or so in your calendar for chores. That way, whenever you are tempted to get the “little things” out of your way first, write them down in your calendar and continue with your work. You can also practice mindfulness training, which will help you reduce your overall stress levels.
As Burkeman writes, “It’s time to abandon the secret pride we precrastinators feel in having completed 25 small tasks by 10 a.m.: if they’re not the right tasks, that’s not really something to be proud of.”
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.