Procrastination has a bad rap, and people who procrastinate a lot tend to get judged as passive, slow, or having some sort of moral failing. But what about those of us who leap at a task straight away? Does it mean that we have taken the best route and should congratulate ourselves? Here’s what you need to know about precrastination, the opposite of procrastination that’s not as great as it might seem.
What is precrastination?
Precrastination is the act of charging forward with the quickest action. Sounds good in theory, except that this fervor is often tinged with impulsivity and can actually end up taking more effort. In addition, because precrastination is all about completion rather than accuracy or the best long-term or medium-term outcomes, it can increase your likelihood of making mistakes and then having to repair them.
Research on precrastination confirms the drawbacks of being the proverbial early bird: Back in 2014, psychologist David Rosenbaum, Ph.D., and his colleagues had college students carry one of a pair of buckets to the end of a walkway, asking them to choose whichever bucket seemed easier. Instead of choosing the bucket closer to the end, most of them chose the one closer to the starting point. That meant they carried the bucket for a longer distance, when it would’ve been easier to complete the task by waiting to grab the bucket closer to the end.
Why do some people prescrastinate?
Precrastination isn’t simply a symptom of our harried lives. Even pigeons do it, suggesting a tendency hardwired into us.
Rosenbaum and his fellow researchers speculate a few reasons driving precrastination. It could be driven by the belief that it’s best to get it done when we can, to relieve the load on our working memory. Or the idea that something as inconsequential as doing the task serves as its own reward. Or, that completing the task is rewarding in itself.
Consider how awesome it feels to check that task off your to-do list. Or better still, after having done something that wasn’t on your to-do list, to write that in and then check that off.
Why precrastination is hurting your productivity
1. Precrastination uses up more energy
At Next Evolution Performance we frame it this way: consider that we only have 100 energy credits to spend on a typical day. Depending on how stressed you already feel or your health, this number may drop even lower.
By precrastinating, you are actually expending more mental and physical effort, meaning you are unnecessarily spending some of your energy credits. Just because you’ve finished something faster doesn’t mean the time savings are proportional to your energy savings— consider the things you’ve completed quickly but ended up having to rest for a long time as it wiped out your energy.
2. Precrastination makes you more likely to make mistakes
If you’re rushing to get something done as quickly as possible, you’re more likely to make mistakes along the way. Having to go back and fix those mistakes wastes even more of those energy credits—and don’t forget the energy incinerated as you beat yourself up for that.
3. Precrastination can mask underlying anxiety
Precrastination is often a reactive stance: you leap to precrastinating in order to feel better or to distract yourself. When experiencing anxiety, we vacillate between obsessively worrying and doing anything to run away from our anxiety. Translation: Any task to do feels like sweet salve for our frazzled minds.
The problem is that we are running away from the root of the problem, and the background anxiety is still there. As you add the energy burnt from precrastinating and fixing mistakes, your anxiety will just build, possibly to a point where you fear you’re losing control. Along with that, your self-image will likely decline.
In many ways, precrastination can be a cocktail for self-sabotage if left unchecked.
How to be more efficient
1. Understand your precrastination
If you feel the need to react immediately, then it may be worth contemplating:
- Am I doing this to avoid worrying? If so, what can I do to get to the root of my anxiety?
- Who taught me I need to react immediately? What stories do I tell myself regarding that, and who has shamed me for stepping back?
- What new story can I live by, and how can I stand up to those who shame me?
Of course, you didn’t grow your figurative precrastination muscle overnight, and it’s not going to go away with an Abracadabra-type incantation.
2. Spend time to buy more time (and energy)
Consider this scenario many of us are familiar with: writing essays in exams. When coaching students who insist they have no time and therefore have to charge forward, I present them with two routes:
- Jumping in, scribbling feverishly and incoherently, feeling frazzled and then getting paralyzed— what they’re familiar with.
- Spending five minutes to write a coherent plan, curate important information, and allocate time to each section.
They’ve come to me because they know that the first option has not worked. Gingerly, they try number two The result? They have time left over, they write feeling confident, and they score way beyond their target grades. It’s a win-win-win.
Here’s where the Taoist principle of WuWei comes in. In his book The Lunar Tao, Taoist master Deng Ming-Dao explains that WuWei is a form of acting without acting. It “does not mean refraining from acting. Rather, it means to act naturally.” In my head, WuWei is the opposite to charging forward like a bull in a china shop.
There is an inherent wisdom to knowing when to step back, rather than being reactive.
3. Catch yourself in the act
As you catch yourself precrastinating, do this:
- Acknowledge it like you’re acknowledging a fact: “The moon is full tonight.” “I feel hungry.” “I’m precrastinating.”
- Remind yourself gently: “Can I take 5 minutes to create a plan?”
- Set a timer.
- Get the job done.
- Reward yourself.
The problem with evolving is that we fear we become the exact opposite, that we’ll spiral into uncontrollable procrastination. But here’s the deal: If you’re already precrastinating, then you are an expert at meeting deadlines. Have faith that by slowing things down a little, you’ll still meet your deadlines, do less unnecessary work, and probably do better on your tasks. And most importantly, you’ll reduce your underlying stress and improve your well-being along the way.
Of course if you would like help using your energy credits more efficiently, check out The Neuroscience of Getting More Done.