We all know procrastination is bad for productivity.
A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Economics, Finance and Administrative Sciences showed procrastination was one of the leading factors affecting work-related stress. Procrastination has been linked to poor performance, and even poor health.
It would seem likely then that the opposite of procrastination—completing tasks sooner than they need to be done—would improve productivity and relieve stress. Yet, a recent study by Pennsylvania State University psychology researchers shows this may not be the case.
Professor David Rosenbaum and graduate student Cory Adam Potts conducted an experiment in which participants were given the choice of carrying one of two heavy buckets full of pennies down an alleyway. One bucket was placed near participants at the start line, while the other bucket was placed closer to the finish line.
Surprising the researchers, the majority of participants picked up the bucket that was closest to them, even though it meant they had to carry it farther and expend more physical effort. When the participants were asked why they’d chosen that bucket, the majority replied they wanted to get the task done as quickly as possible. The desire to lighten their mental load was stronger than their determination to reduce their physical effort.
We can liken the bucket-carrying experiment to the urge to clear the desk before the real work begins. To describe this phenomenon, the researchers coined the term precrastination. But while expediting the task at hand—precrastination—may seem to improve productivity by allowing you to check items off your to-do list easier, is precrastination really any less of a vice than procrastination?
Maybe not, says Potts, who co-wrote the precrastination study. "Imagine if you devote a lot of energy toward completing a task immediately, and then [a client] calls and interrupts you when you’re in the middle of that task," he says. "Is your attention going to go to the phone call or is it still going to be on the task?"
While performance on the task at hand may improve, performance on other tasks—like meetings, email interruptions, and phone calls—is going to falter because your attention is directed elsewhere. A procrastinator, on the other hand, may capitalize on that interruption and perform better because it delays work further.
Precrastinating may feel better than procrastinating, as you avoid that nagging knowledge that you should be doing something else, but rushing to complete a task may result in decreased performance. "If you want to start and finish something as fast as possible—before you have the full instruction on how to complete the task—it could potentially be a problem," says Potts.
Precrastination can also result in lost details and even missed opportunities for cognitive processing. We’ve all heard the expression "to sleep on something."
"Oftentimes, you’re able to remember things better or things occur to you that wouldn’t have occurred to you [in the moment], says Potts. "If you’re a procrastinator, you have that time to incubate, whereas if you’re a precrastinator you don’t." Rushing to complete the task could mean you’re losing out on ideas that would have occurred to you later if you’d taken the time to mentally percolate on the task.
It isn’t clear whether we’re wired to be precrastinators or procrastinators, Potts says, but if you find your pre- or procrastinating tendencies are getting in the way of your normal work functions, you may want to steal a page from its opponent’s manual.