You may think that one of America’s biggest problems is procrastination. It turns out that is not the case, it’s precrastination.
Precrastination is when you actually do things earlier than you have to. I didn’t even know it existed until I read an article in The New York Times about some research done at Pennsylvania State University by Professor of Psychology David Rosenbaum.
I invited Rosenbaum for an interview and first asked him to explain how they tested for procrastination.
“We set up a very modest little experiment,” says Rosenbaum, “in which we asked people to stand at the foot of an alley. Along the left edge of the alley they saw one children’s beach bucket, and along the right end of the alley they saw another children’s beach bucket and they got the following instructions: Just walk along and pick up whichever bucket is easier for you.”
They were told to place whichever bucket they picked up on a table at the end of the alley. The two buckets were placed at different distances from the table. They expected people would pick up the bucket that was closer to the table, so they wouldn’t have to carry it as far. But that’s not what happened.
“What happened is that right from the get go people did something awfully unexpected. They almost uniformly preferred to pick up the bucket that was closer to them, rather than the bucket that was farther from them,” Rosenbaum says. “That meant that they actually carried one bucket farther than the other.”
When the two buckets were placed at the same distance from the starting point, people preferred picking up the bucket on the right, which Rosenbaum says is not surprising.
“We did a total of nine experiments and the conclusion we reached is that people precrastinate. What does that mean? Based on our conversations with the subjects in the experiment, they all said, ‘I just wanted to get the test done as soon as I could.'”
When they considered the results of the experiment, Rosenbaum says they realized people really had in mind two things as they were setting out to complete the action requested of them.
“The main test was get the silly bucket to the end of the alley. The other was a subordinate test. It was pick up a bucket, and however trivial that sub-goal is, it was something that they had to keep in their minds. The jargon is working memory and what they were doing was getting rid of that requirement from their working memory as soon as they could,” says Rosenbaum. “They were willing to do extra physical work in order to relieve the burden on working memory.”
Rosenbaum says it turns out there are many, many ways virtually all of us precrastinate:
“A lot of us do email these days and here comes an email, somebody has a question, you could answer it three hours from now or maybe tomorrow, but if, in your estimation, you can deal with it right here and now I think most people just deal with it right then and there. Get it off my plate.”
While we all seem to do it, Rosenbaum says it’s not always advantageous to do things well before a deadline.
“Another example in finance is you get a notice from the credit card company, they say you owe $100 and it’s due three months from now. From some optimization perspectives the best thing to do would be to wait nearly three months and collect a little interest on the $100, but if you’re like me, you say I’ll just pay it right this second and get it over with. So people are actually losing a little bit of interest.”
Alan Castel, another professor of psychology from University of California, told The New York Times in the article that another problem with precrastination is that trying to check off all these little tasks might gum up the works when it comes to the big things you’re trying to get done.
“People who are checking things off the list all the time might look like they’re getting stuff done,” he said, “but they’re not getting the big stuff done.”
MyNorthwest.com’s Jamie Skorheim contributed to this report.