Close up of female hands holding headphones

Pre-crastination: Hurrying to get a task over and done with as soon as possible. Photo: Chad Springer

In the interests of full disclosure, let me begin by revealing that I am a procrastinator. I put off writing this piece for three weeks. Today, before starting I vacuumed and did a load of washing. Hell, while writing it, I got a coffee, threw the dog a ball, rang a friend and clicked on Tony Abbott’s latest gaffe video …  you get the drift. Except for those annoyingly efficient types, it seems everyone procrastinates.  But now it seems procrastination has an evil twin. An opposite act that goes against all reason and makes us just as inefficient.

I’m talking pre-crastination. 

Pre-crastination is hurrying to getting a task over and done with as soon as possible. It is the act of doing something right now, despite the fact it would make more sense to wait and do it at a later, more suitable time.

Research published in Psychological Science, recently outlined how the phenomenon was discovered. 

Researchers set up buckets full of coins at different distances and asked students to carry them over a line.  Most picked up the bucket closest to them even though that meant they had to carry it further to the finish line. When the students were asked to explain why they chose the bucket that had to be carried longer, they often said that they “wanted to get the task done as soon as they could”. The researchers concluded that the participants may have cared about physical effort but they cared even more about mental effort. By picking up the closest bucket they could check that task off their mental to-do lists more quickly than if they picked up the far bucket. The desire to lighten their mental load was stronger than the extra physical effort to do so.

Now, buckets ain’t life. But we all have lots of lists in our heads. From bucket lists to shopping, to must dos, to should dos, to I don’t want to dos.  The brain is often so overloaded that we can develop a hole in that bucket.  I know I do. I procrastinate for so long about paying my mobile bill that my service gets blocked.  I put off getting a babysitter until I can’t find one and miss a party.  I put off saying no to something and end up having to say yes so I don’t let people down.

So why do we pre-crastinate?  Is it the act of avoiding the dangers of procrastinating? Is it another response to the modern malaise of having way too much on our minds and a checklist that never ends? Does it come from a need to do things immediately, so we don't add more weight to our overloaded brains?

We pre-crastinate by answering that email while having dinner with friends, sending a text back while watching kids play sport, putting something in our calendar while in a meeting.  We stretch ourselves to rudeness and exhaustion just to take the damn thing off our minds.  We figure if we do it now it won’t wake us at 2am.

It’s depressing that we are becoming increasingly inefficient because we are weighed down with so much.  Perhaps parents and busy people without assistants are more likely to suffer from pre-crastination, given their to-do lists are seemingly endless. Or perhaps we have lost the ability to prioritise.  I actually am not a busy person compared to most, yet I still forget things. You know the old adage … if you want something done, ask a busy person.

The ability to structure time, organise and prioritise is now seen as such an important factor in life it’s being taught in schools.  Parents are told for students to succeed they will need to learn to time manage.  Even free play is placed on homework grids in case it is procrastinated out of being.  It’s probably a good one for pre-crastinating after a day of schoolwork.   

To go back to the bucket analogy, these days so many of us feel our bucket is full.  A psychologist friend explains it to clients like this “Your bucket is brimming to top with things to do, responsibilities, work, life and stress you are living on the edge.  So when a stressful event, something not prepared for, comes along, it overflows”.  This is when people often end up needing help.  Mindfulness training can reduce the level of stress and built up worry that we carry and so often drop. By living in the moment we may reduce our stress enough to remember what we need to do tomorrow.

The researchers of the study want to examine further the relationship between pre and procrastination. They also want to study whether physical ability limitations might play a role in the effect: perhaps as we get older and less physically able we become more judicious in decision-making.

I am trying to improve my memory management and it’s comforting to know one part of it may get better with age.   The human mind is infinitely wonderful and memory can be improved.  We just need to learn to empty our minds to drain them of all the crap they fill up with and enjoy temporary nothingness.  No pre, no pro just now.  Try it now, pre-crastinate it. I dare you.