You’ve heard of procrastination, but what about its equally problematic counterpart?

By Helen Sondag
March 11, 2020

It’s an all-too-familiar situation for most. You’ve just pulled into the driveway after a trip to the grocery store. It’s late, and you need to get dinner started. So, you pop the trunk, take stock of the tote bags teeming with produce, eggs, bread, and rapidly thawing ice cream, and make a call: Do you take multiple trips or do you grab all the bags at once, even if you risk a broken carton of eggs or sore forearms? Grabbing all at once is just one example of what’s called precrastination. While procrastination refers to putting off a task until the last minute, “precrastination is the tendency to hurry to get things done as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra effort,” says David A. Rosenbaum, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California. 

Rosenbaum helped come up with the term in 2014 and recently co-wrote and published an article detailing his and others’ research titled “Sooner Rather Than Later: Precrastination Rather Than Procrastination.”

Credit: champja/Getty Images

Another example of precrastination, also known as the mere-urgency effect? Immediately answering unimportant emails in order to clear your inbox, even if your responses are unclear or if it zaps you of energy needed for the rest of the day. Or parking in the first spot you see, resulting in a much longer walk to your destination. Essentially, the idea is that haste makes waste. 

Why Do People Precrastinate?

This tendency is believed to be an example of “optimal foraging,” or an urgency to gather scarce resources. But studies have shown that cognitive demands play a part, too. 

“People do it to reduce anxiety, largely by getting rid of the mental load of having to remember what they need to do,” Rosenbaum explains. In other words, one less thing on that neverending to-do list in your head.

How to Know If You’re a Precrastinator

“People who precrastinate tend to be highly conscientious,” Rosenbaum says. “They also tend to be high-energy people, and they like to please others. They are not impulsive, so precrastination is typically done for strategic rather than whimsical reasons.”

It’s not always a bad thing. To put it bluntly, precrastinators get stuff done. However, the double-edged sword is that they often don’t give themselves time to, say, craft thoughtful responses or get really creative. They can tend to get sucked into tasks, and maybe even convinced to take on other people’s projects as well. 

“You can become a slave to your work, feeling like you always have to get things done right away or others won't like or respect you anymore,” Rosenbaum tells us. “It's possible that co-workers will come to resent you, too.”

How to Stop Precrastinating

Rosenbaum’s advice for precrastinators is pretty simple and actionable: 

  1. Wait. “Don't answer emails immediately if possible,” our expert cautions. “They will wait, especially if questions are not urgent.” Giving yourself that time to think may lead to smarter solutions and clearer responses. 
  2. Gather info first, act second. Rosenbaum gives scheduling as an example. It’s more effective to get a sense of everyone’s availability before booking that conference room for your meeting or that Airbnb for your group getaway. Similarly, “Don't work hard on assignments before you know what's really required,” he adds, and “don’t send incomplete work to supervisors before they say they want it. This may annoy them, especially if you do this repeatedly.”
  3. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Think back to the grocery example. It’s better to spread the work out than try to power through everything in too short a time. 
  4. Get a second opinion. This can apply to serious situations such as surgery. “There have been some (tragic) cases of people having surgeries that proved unnecessary,” Rosenbaum explains. “If you're on a jury, be wary of arrests that seem to have been made too quickly.”

In other words, slow down, take a deep breath, and prioritize; or as he puts it, “Chill.”


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