Precrastination: The Dark Side of Getting Things Done

Pre-crastination is the compulsion to immediately work on new tasks, despite long-term costs and tradeoffs.

Just a few days ago I made a strange mistake in my work.

I was really humming along on a draft for a new article. I was in one of those rare grooves when the words just seem to appear and writing feels easy. I was knocking out paragraph after paragraph in a burst of productivity that was approaching flow-state status. It felt great!

But then I heard a notification ding on my iPad. I glanced over at it reflexively and saw that I had an email from my website hosting provider saying there was an error I needed to take care of. I quickly opened the email and read the whole message.

Turns out, it wasn’t a big deal—the kind of thing I could get to later in the day or even the following day without any repercussions.

And at first, that was my plan. I even jotted it down as a task on my to-do list. But as I returned to writing my article, the thought of that error on my website popped into my head again.

And then, I did something strange: I abandoned my precious and productive writing groove and hopped online to fix the website error.

Of course, as soon as I fixed the error, I got distracted by an email, which lead to an interesting article, and an hour later I still hadn’t got back to my writing. When I finally did attempt to pick up where I left off, I had lost my momentum, felt bad about myself for it, and gave up on writing until the next day.

I had fallen into a little-known psychological trap called precrastination.


What is Precrastination?

We’re all familiar with procrastination, the age-old temptation to put something off ‘till later even though it means more work and stress in the long run. And while procrastination can be a major problem for us and cause of much suffering and lost productivity, the opposite of procrastination—precrastiantion—can be just as harmful.

Precrastination was coined by psychology professor David Rosenbaum in a study he published in 2014. He defined it like this:

Precrastination is a tendency to work on tasks at the earliest opportunity—even if it means more work or comes with extra costs.

While the procrastinator delays important tasks too long, the precrastinator doesn’t delay unimportant tasks long enough.

Common examples of precrastination

Precrastination is a more common problem than most people realize. But because for so long we never had a name for it, it went largely unnoticed. Here are a few examples of precrastination you might be able to relate to:

  • Inefficient grocery shopping. As you’re checking off items from your list at the grocery store, you grab the gallon of milk right away because the dairy section happens to be at the front of the store. But you could just as easily grab it at the end and save yourself the extra effort of carrying around a heavy milk carton while you shop for everything else.
  • Poorly prioritized to-do lists. First thing in the morning you tackle the many small items on your to-do list because they’re first on the list and it feels good checking stuff off. Unfortunately, you’ve wasted your best energy and the quietest time at the office on the least important tasks. Now you have to complete your biggest, most important tasks in the afternoon when you have less energy and focus and more distractions.
  • Interrupting in conversations. In the middle of an important conversation with your spouse, a great idea pops into your head. Because you’re worried you’ll forget it, you interrupted her and explain your idea.

What causes precrastination?

Ironically, the ultimate cause of precrastination is the same as procrastination: the alleviation of painful emotion.

If you pay attention closely, the urge to procrastinate is always accompanied by a strong, uncomfortable emotion. Sometimes it’s anxiety, sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes it’s shame. But whatever that feeling is, we don’t like it. And putting off our work until later is a great way to temporarily make that uncomfortable emotion dissipate or go away entirely. In other words, when we procrastinate, we’re making a decision based on what feels good in the moment rather than what’s in our overall best interest in the long run.

In precrastination, an almost identical process occurs. In my example about the website error notification from earlier, the thought of the outstanding task produced a little burst of anxiety in me. By choosing to complete that task immediately, my goal was to stop feeling anxious. And while it worked temporarily, it came at a steep cost: Losing momentum on a pretty epic run of productive writing! Just like in procrastination, precrastination involves making a decision based on what feels good in the moment rather than what’s in our long-term best interest.

The cause of precrastination, then, is short-term, emotionally-driven decision-making which comes at the expense of our long-term values and ideals.

Other causes of precrastination

In addition to this fundamental psychological dynamic underlying precrastination, there are a handful of other common causes of precrastination:

  • Cheap satisfaction. Research shows that we tend to get a stronger pleasure response from accomplishing small, easy-to-achieve tasks with fixed timeframes than more important but ambiguous ones. In other words, checking off the little things on our to-do list gives us immediate satisfaction.
  • Survival instinct. For most of our history as a species, going after the easy, low-hanging fruit in life probably made more sense than putting things off in order to get a long-term payoff. When daily life was imminently dangerous—Who knows if there’s a saber tooth tiger in that cave? What if our hunting trips are unsuccessful and we don’t eat for a few days?—it probably made sense to go for the quick wins. And because our brains spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving under those circumstances, and have only had a couple hundred years under the relatively safe circumstances of modern life, putting off the easy small stuff is going against the biological grain.
  • Time management vs Energy management. Most of us are taught to think about work and productivity in terms of managing our time well. If you only have an hour to get a test finished, it makes sense to start with the easy questions then work your way up. But in the complex world of serious work, the more intelligent strategy is often to manage your energy, not your time: I work at least twice as well first thing in the morning than in the afternoons, which means I should prioritize my most important work for the morning when I have the best energy.
  • Conscientiousness. People who tend to be diligent, attentive, and hard working often suffer more from precrastination than procrastination. If your overarching rule is to get things done in a timely manner, it’s easy to start checking off tasks without pausing to consider whether some tasks are worth your effort and time as much as other tasks. So while being conscientious and getting your work done is generally a good trait, it can become problematic if unchecked and unexamined.

How to stop precrastinating and work smarter

If you think you struggle with precrastination and the tendency to fixate on small but less-important aspects of your work, here are a few suggestions for fighting back.

Expand your awareness of how you work

As with any new habit change goal, awareness is always the first step. It’s difficult to stop doing something if you’re not aware that you’re doing it in the first place. So hopefully simply by reading this article and having a name for this problem, you’ll start to notice it and become more aware of it in your life.

At first, before you even begin trying to change anything, I recommend simply tracking and taking notes on where precrastination tends to show up in your life. Does it mostly happen at work? And does it tend to happen on certain types of projects or when working with certain people? Or does it tend to show up more in your personal life? Maybe when it comes to parenting or household chores, for example?

Create a “Precrastination” note on your phone, and for a couple weeks, just try to be aware of your tendency to precrastinate, briefly noting what happened and where in your note.

Once you’ve done this and have a better “lay of the land,” you’ll be in a much better place to actually tackle your precrastination habit.

Practice emotional tolerance

Although precrastination takes many different forms, ultimately it’s all about emotion. Whether it’s hoping for the little hit of satisfaction that comes from crossing off a tiny to-do list item or the alleviation of major anxiety, precrastination is always about emotion.

This means that working through precrastination will always involve working through difficult emotion. And the best way to do this is to slowly but systematically work to increase our emotional tolerance.

When we first get back into the gym and start lifting weights or running on the treadmill, our tolerance for physical exertion isn’t very strong. Both the amount of time we can exercise and the degree of difficulty is limited because our muscles are weak. But as we continue to practice straining those muscles and exposing them to increasingly difficult challenges, they adapt by getting stronger. And the end result is that exercises that were torturously hard a few months ago are relatively easy now.

Our capacity to tolerate difficult emotion works the same way. The more we practice facing our negative emotions and letting them be, the easier it becomes to live with them in the future. The problem is, most of us are in the habit of instantly trying to eliminate or escape from painful emotions. Which means we never get the chance to develop a tolerance for them.

When you notice the urge to precrastinate or “just get it done,” pause briefly. Then ask yourself: What emotion am I feeling right now? After labeling the emotion, set a timer on your phone for 60 seconds and give yourself the challenge of just sitting with that uncomfortable emotion for one minute without doing anything and see what happens.

As you practice doing this, progressively increase the length of your pause. In a relatively short amount of time, you’ll find that your emotional tolerance will have gone up considerably—and with it, your ability to fight back against precrastination.

Start by improving on one small area of precrastination

Arguably the most common cause of failure in any new endeavor or habit change is biting off more than we can chew. The classic example is hitting the gym so hard during the first week of the new year, that you’re in so much pain that you avoid going to the gym at all the next week and then completely fall off the wagon.

Instead, it’s usually better in the long run to start with a more modest goal and only work up once you’ve mastered that first level.

So when it comes to working through precrastination, choose one area of your life where you precrastinate in a small or medium way and work on it there first. Once you’ve had some success, then move on to progressively difficult areas.


Summary and Key Points

Precrastination is the tendency to work on tasks at the earliest opportunity—even if it means more work or comes with extra costs.

It can be a serious problem because it often leads to excessive levels of stress and fatigue and is usually not the most efficient or productive way to approach most forms of work.

Precrastination is caused by our tendency to avoid negative emotions and go for “quick wins” rather than deferring these tasks in favor of more important ones.

There are three simple steps you can take to get a handle on your tendency to precrastinate and start to work smarter and more efficiently:

  1. Increase your awareness of precrastination by tracking it.
  2. Practice emotional tolerance during precrastination.
  3. Start by improving one small area of precrastination before moving on to more challenging areas.
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