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‘Pre-crastination,’ procrastination’s opposite, has its downsides too

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
David A. Rosenbaum and Edward Wasserman: “People answer emails immediately rather than carefully contemplating their replies. People pay bills as soon as they arrive, thus failing to collect interest income.”

You’ve heard, of course, of procrastination — that thief of time, that assassin of opportunity, that evil genius.

But have you heard of pre-crastination?

Well, two psychologists, David A. Rosenbaum of Pennsylvania State University and Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa, think it may be a serious problem, too — for some people, that is.

“Pre-crastination is the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later,” they explain in an article recently published on Scientific American’s “Mind Matters” website. “People answer emails immediately rather than carefully contemplating their replies. People pay bills as soon as they arrive, thus failing to collect interest income. And, people grab items when they first enter the grocery store, carry them to the back of the store, pick up more groceries at the back, and then return to the front of the store to pay and exit, thus toting the items farther than necessary.”

The hazard of pre-crastination — taking action without careful thought — can be found in the warnings of many old and familiar adages, such as “Measure twice, cut once” and “Look before you leap,” Rosenbaum and Wasserman add.

People and pigeons

Rosenbaum stumbled across pre-crastination while doing studies on the economics of effort. He found that people tend to want to complete a task (say, carrying a bucket from one site to another) as soon as possible, even if doing so ends up having the opposite effect — causing them to take longer at the task.

In other studies, Wasserman has found that even pigeons pre-crastinate  — at least when presented with different ways of pecking a screen for food.  This discovery is particularly important, Rosenbaum and Wasserman say, because it suggests that this behavior may have an evolutionary purpose:

It is possible … that pre-crastination amounts to grabbing low-hanging fruit. If grain is nearby or if a bucket is close at hand then it may be best to get it while it’s available. Another explanation is that completing tasks immediately may relieve working memory. By doing a task right away, you don’t have to remember to do it later; it can be taxing to keep future tasks in mind. Requiring people to delay performance of a task often worsens their performance of it.

Yet, we doubt this is the whole story. … A simpler account is that task completion is rewarding in and of itself. Tasks that can be completed quickly woo us more than tasks that must be delayed. All potential tasks, or their underlying neural circuits, compete for completion. Neural circuits for tasks that get completed may endure longer than neural circuits for tasks that don’t.

Breaking down the task

Unfortunately, pre-crastination makes dealing with procrastination more difficult.

“Not only must procrastinators start sooner to begin tasks they’d rather defer, but they must also inhibit the urge to complete small, trivial tasks that bring immediate rewards just for being completed,” write Rosenbaum and Wasserman.

But you can use your pre-crastination tendencies to overcome your procrastination ones.

“Break larger tasks into smaller ones,” the two men advise. “Such smaller tasks, when completed, will promote a sense of accomplishment, will bring one closer to the final goal, and, via trial-and-error learning, may support the discovery of even more adaptive or innovative ways of behaving.”

I may try that — tomorrow.

You can read Rosenbaum and Wasserman’s article on the Scientific American website.

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