Precrastinating: the obsession with checking tasks off a list

Apr 05, 2022

4 mins

Precrastinating: the obsession with checking tasks off a list
Núria López

Periodista freelance

No, we haven’t made a mistake in the article’s title. You may be familiar with the idea of procrastinating – the art of leaving everything for later – but what is this “precrastinating” thing? If you’re a “precrastinator,” you may be reading this article with no sense of guilt whatsoever because, as usual, you’ve finished all your work before the deadline. You take the words “I needed this yesterday” quite literally and you hate leaving everything to the last minute. But, it may well be that in your fight to get all your tasks done as quickly as possible, you’ve taken things too far. Could this pleasing sensation of working ahead of deadlines be working against you?

The origin of the term ‘precrastinate’

The term was first coined by David Rosenbaum, a professor of psychology at the University of California, in his study Pre-crastination: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort, published in 2014. In the study, college students were asked to choose between two buckets that they had to carry to the end of an alley. In some of the experiments, one of the buckets was closer to the end point, so they would have to carry it for a shorter distance. However, many of the participants chose the bucket that was closer to the starting point. The study concluded that this apparently irrational choice reflected a tendency to make progress with a current project at all costs, even if this entails additional physical exertion, as well as the desire to reduce working memory loads.

Applied to a work setting, coach and therapist Begoña Serra defines the concept as the need to “finish an activity or task before the deadline – a behavior motivated by the “need to have everything finished as soon as possible.” The problem, Serra explains, resides in the fact that these people “associate swiftness with efficacy and efficiency, when in reality they’re not the same.” Serra adds, “A person who precrastinates will feel happy if they have everything finished by 3pm instead of 5pm. And if it’s by 1pm – even better.” This allows them to take on a bigger workload, but also increases the risk of making mistakes in the process.

Their inability to take breaks can cause them to proceed in a more “hasty way”. “People who precrastinate may be preparing a report or a meeting, but at the same time they may be thinking about taking their car to the garage for a service or booking an appointment with the dentist. On the whole, they struggle to stay focused and choose to start other activities, because they want to finish them all. And that’s when it’s difficult to do them all well, because their attention span and energy dissipate,” says Serra.

Where does this obsession with ‘doing’ come from?

When you speak to a precrastinator, you realize that their outlook is linked to certain beliefs such as, for example, that everything has to be quick.” But, this shouldn’t surprise us: we live in a society that glorifies immediacy. “If you want something, you buy it and you have it at home the next day,” Serra says. “Everything is needed yesterday and this has gradually affected all sectors including the labor market. Currently, everything needs to happen right away and there is very little tolerance or patience.” Serra says we tend not to appreciate that some things take time and reflection.

But, this shouldn’t surprise us: we live in a society that glorifies immediacy.

Alba, an auditor in the pharmaceutical industry, can’t imagine leaving work to the last minute and identifies with the need to reduce her to-do list as quickly as possible. She says she hasn’t always been like this but that the tendency to do things quickly, both in her professional and personal life, has developed over time. She doesn’t feel guilty about this – quite the contrary. However, she does confess that when it comes to tackling a task or a project, she feels the “need to start working as soon as possible – without further fuss.”*

For Alba, making headway with tasks enables her to have “greater room to maneuver” when it comes to dealing with problems. This allows her to be able “to envision the process and plan better.” Getting a head start is key, she says.

Is it possible to address?

Precrastination isn’t necessarily a conscious thing, Serra explains, and many people, such as Alba, don’t see it as a problem. The therapist gives an example of behaviors learned during childhood: “Precrastinating children may have had precrastinating parents and this is something that they’ve learned gradually, they’ve adopted their behavior.” She says, “When you speak to a precrastinator and you work on internal dialogue, you find a set of beliefs such as, for example, that everything has to be done quickly, that everything has to be tackled, that everything has to be accomplished.” This can be difficult to manage.

To help you recognize and try to change the tendency for precrastination, you can:

  1. Plan your tasks
    One of the keys for doing away with precrastination is to design a schedule for all the tasks you need to do. This is fundamental to tackling the impulse to finish everything as quickly as possible. Serra explains that the ideal thing is to create a calendar and design a weekly plan – or a daily one if necessary. This can help you to differentiate between urgent and important tasks and to establish priorities.
  2. Focus on the present
    This can help you to overcome precrastination by helping to give meaning to whatever you’re doing at the time. It involves being in the moment. According to Serra, this can be illustrated with a simple example: “When I’m answering an email, I’m answering an email. I’m not doing hundreds of other activities at the same time.” In other words, say goodbye to multitasking.
  3. Release energy with other activities
    Some of those who precrastinate have very high levels of energy. Serra says, “They struggle to regulate that energy, even to relax, and that’s why they need to be doing something all the time.Doing exercise, mindful breathing and meditation can help to regulate energy levels.
  4. It’s not a competition
    Slow work, which values controlled and meaningful productivity over speed, can be key in finding that halfway point between rushing to finish all your tasks and leaving them all to the last minute. Putting this into practice involves learning to establish a steady pace of work and knowing when to rest, which then will lead to better concentration and greater productivity.

(*The name has been changed to protect their identity)

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Jamie Broadway

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