We often procrastinate when facing tasks that are either distasteful or challenging, as if a delay will make them disappear. This evasion can create problems, of course, but so can the flip side: pre-crastination, a term coined by psychology professors Dr David Rosenbaum of Penn State and Dr Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa in Scientific American.
The professors conducted a series of trials with college students to investigate this phenomenon. Participants were asked to carry a bucket to the end of a walkway. They could choose to carry either of two buckets, each one placed at a different point along the route. The students typically opted to carry the bucket that was nearest to their starting point. Their irrational explanation: they wanted to complete the task sooner. Not only did this choice not achieve that goal, but it of course required them to expend more effort.
Acting fast eases the burden on memory
Reasons for the students’ behavior are not readily apparent. One theory cited by the researchers is that jumping into a task sooner helps reduce the burden on working memory (also known as short-term memory). This type of memory provides access to information relevant to a task while performing it. Working memory is a limited resource, since only about seven pieces of information (such as the digits of a phone number) can be stored in it at a time. It can also be easily compromised by distraction. By starting a task sooner, we don’t have to think about it later, when the memory of how to handle it may have started fading. Another factor that may favor pre-crastination is that starting a task earlier triggers a desired reward mechanism. We feel better when we start accomplishing something, and the sooner we start the sooner we have this feeling.
From an evolutionary perspective, pre-crastination may also provide a benefit because it often involves trial and error. Trial-and-error learning is very effective for teaching us how to weigh the costs and benefits of an action. If we act more rashly, errors are more likely and therefore learning is enhanced. Impulsive action could also serve as a prompt for creative problem solving.
Not all procrastinations are created equal
Procrastination is generally considered a liability, but it may be an asset for people who thrive on pressure. There are two different types of procrastinators: passive and active. While passive ones lament and feel stressed out about their tardiness in task completion, active ones procrastinate deliberately because they have learned that they perform better under the gun.
The impact of both pre-crastination and procrastination also changes with age. Researchers reporting in Psychology and Aging say that this may occur because it becomes more difficult to keep information in our awareness as we get older. When the delay between establishing an intention and following through increases, older adults (those over 60) are more likely to experience difficulty following through. They also are less likely than younger adults (those under 40) to “rehearse” for an upcoming task in their minds.
Most people pre-crastinate or procrastinate at different times, depending on the situation. Someone who feels compelled to pay bills right away, for example, may delay taking care of tasks that involve an unpleasant emotion (such as having to reprimand a subordinate at work who isn’t pulling his weight). Since we are social animals, it makes sense that we would tend to hesitate before acting in a way that could alienate us from others—even when we are in a position of authority.
How about you? Depending on whether you consider yourself a pre-crastinator or procrastinator, here are some handy clichés you can use to justify your behavior:
The early bird catches the worm
No time to waste
Time is of the essence
There’s no time like the present
Procrastination is the thief of time
Better late than never
Haste makes waste
All the time in the world
Tomorrow is another day
All good things come to those who wait