You’ve no doubt heard of procrastination. You might be procrastinating right now by reading this story. But have you met procrastination’s cousin, “pre-crastination”?
The term was recently coined by researchers from Penn State University, who define it as “the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later.”
Pre-crastinators are compelled to check things off their to-do list ASAP, whether or not the job is well done, according to research by psychology professor David Rosenbaum and Cory Potts, a graduate student.
The researchers came to this conclusion after studying the economics of effort. They asked participants to carry one of two buckets a certain distance. One bucket was closer to the subject, and the other closer to the finish line. They wondered whether people would naturally pick up the bucket they could carry the least—that is, the one closer to the finish line. That required the least amount of effort.
But to their surprise, that’s not what many participants did. “We got instead this strange thing where they were frequently picking up the closer of the two buckets,” Potts explains to mental_floss. Over and over, in a series of nine experiments involving 250 participants, many people chose the bucket closest to them and carried it all the way to the finish line, increasing the amount of effort they had to expend. Why?
“‘I wanted to get it done more quickly,’” Potts says these participants reported. But there was no reason for them to believe that picking up the closer bucket would get the job done faster. They had to walk the same distance regardless.
We see real-life examples of pre-crastination all the time. “People answer emails immediately rather than carefully contemplating their replies,” explains Rosenbaum in Scientific American. “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.”
Rosenbaum and Potts speculate that our pre-crastination tendencies are rooted in evolution. (In other experiments they ran, pigeons proved to be pre-crastinators too.) One theory is that getting things done quickly frees up part of our working memory, making room for other more demanding tasks. Or perhaps it’s a remnant of our need to take whatever we can while it’s available—a sort of “low-hanging fruit” approach.
But maybe the answer is even simpler, Potts says. Checking things off a to-do list just feels good, no matter how trivial the task. How many times have you put on your to-do list something that’s easy to accomplish just so you could cross it off?
Wait, so now we have to worry about not getting things done too late or too early? Actually, Rosenbaum and Potts say these two forces can work together. “Break larger tasks into smaller ones,” Rosenbaum says. “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.”
And we admire pre-crastinators. “Finishing tasks quickly gets you a reputation as being a conscientious person,” Potts says.