Devil in disguise: is precrastination getting the better of you?

Written on 
January 27, 2020

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We all know about procrastination – the tendency to delay working on something until the very last minute – but are you also guilty of its inverse, precrastination? Since procrastination has been well established as “bad”, surely it must follow that precrastination is a good thing? Well, not really – in fact, it can be worse in the sense that precrastination often feels productive without delivering any beneficial results. But what is precrastination exactly? What does it involve and how can we stop it getting the better of us?

What is precrastination?

The term "precrastination" was coined in 2014 by psychology professor David Rosenbaum, who defined it as “a tendency to work on tasks at the earliest opportunity — even if it means more work or comes with extra costs.” It means rushing into tasks quickly, often spending gratuitous effort that could have been avoided. The main takeaway is that it doesn’t help you get work done sooner; it just creates more work.

It’s important to make the distinction between precrastinating and planning here, because they’re not the same thing – not even close. Precrastinating often means starting on something haphazardly in a vague attempt to make early progress, or prioritizing low-value work for the sake of simply getting something done. If procrastination is about postponing important tasks, precrastination is about prioritizing unimportant ones.

The main problem with precrastination is that it frequently feels productive. We think we’re getting more done, laying groundwork that our future self will thank us for. But more often than not, we’re actually just creating more work for ourselves. Unlike procrastination (which we consciously know is bad), precrastination can feel pretty good… and this is precisely why it can be so dangerous.

Precrastination in action

Another problem with precrastination is that there are so many ways to do it – both in our personal and professional lives. A common example of precrastination in action is how you respond to email.

Picture the scene:

You sit down at your desk, ready to work on an important task – but take a quick peek at your inbox before you begin. You have 50 new messages. You know most of them are probably unimportant, but find yourself reading and replying to them all nonetheless.

If that sounds familiar, you’re guilty of a little bit of precrastination. The main issue here is that while cracking through your emails gets them neatly out the way, it depletes your energy and focus. After an hour of replying to emails, the motivation you had to get on with your important task has dissipated. Now the only thing you feel like doing is taking a break – or, at best, doing another lightweight low-value piece of work, like writing a to-do lists or blasting through a few more inconsequential tasks. It all works to put more space between you and actually working on the big tasks that matter –textbook precrastination.

Other forms can be tidying up your desk – or if you work from home, cleaning the room you work from. You may think you’re being productive (after all, an organized desk means an organized mind, right?) but in truth, you’re just wasting your focus on trivial things. None of these tasks contributes anything substantial towards your progress. And precrastination is so problematic because it can be endless – emails will continue to arrive and your desk will get messy again. Whatever the form, the end result of precrastination is always the same: you’re wasting energy on the wrong things.

A very human problem

The best way to can stop precrastination is to understand why we do it in the first place. One big reason is simply instinct. Humans are hard-wired to go for easy, low-hanging fruit, since it’s simple, safe and promises a quick return. While this approach makes sense to survive in a physical world full of danger, it doesn’t apply to modern knowledge work – in fact, going for the easiest or quickest option will rarely get you ahead of the competition.

But obviously, it’s difficult to go against our biological grain. We’re tempted to precrastinate and cross those small little jobs off our list simply because we want to enjoy the immediate satisfaction of feeling like we’ve done something. Even though we understand these tasks aren’t very important, research actually shows we often get more pleasure from completing easy, simple jobs than bigger, vaguer tasks. The more conscientiousness or eager to please someone is, the more they tend to precrastinate, according to Rosenbaum.

Finding the solution

So how do you go against your natural inclination to precrastinate? By becoming conscious of your working habits. Awareness is essential for behavioral change – in fact, many people aren’t even aware they’re precrastinating until it's brought to their attention. An automatic activity tracker can reveal your precrastination without requiring any effort on your part. Once you can see where and how you precrastinate, you can figure out why. Only once you know why you’re precrastinating – e.g. if you’re dreading getting stuck into a certain project – can you can take steps to remedy it.

It’s also important to remember that precrastination is deeply rooted in emotion – in trying to obtain a cheap, immediate feeling of satisfaction. So making time to regularly reflect on what’s important to you is also essential. This could be something as big as a career development goal, or more immediate like building a new product or writing a book by a specific date. Once you have a clear objective, you can easily filter the tasks that support and detract from it.

Remember, you should always assess the value of any piece of work before jumping into it. Don’t be tempted to reach for that low-hanging fruit; while it might taste sweet, the pleasure rarely lasts.

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