Are you a precrastinator? The opposite of procrastinating has its downsides

<span>‘You’re at the airport waiting for your flight to board. Even though Group 4 isn’t going to be called for 20 more minutes, you hover near the gate, holding your heavy duffel and suitcase. This is a classic case of precrastination.’</span><span>Photograph: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images</span>
‘You’re at the airport waiting for your flight to board. Even though Group 4 isn’t going to be called for 20 more minutes, you hover near the gate, holding your heavy duffel and suitcase. This is a classic case of precrastination.’Photograph: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

You are probably familiar with the perils of procrastination – putting things off until the last minute until there’s a mountain of emails, chores or homework to get through. Advice on productivity and time management often covers procrastination, understanding why you waited so long to do something and how to start on a project sooner.

Yet, there’s another way we manage our tasks that can get overlooked: precrastination, considered by some psychologists to be the opposite of procrastination.

Precrastination is when a person does a task as soon as they can, so they don’t have to think about it any more – often before it needs to be completed. If you’re a procrastinator, this might sound like a goal to work towards, but precrastination comes with its own downsides.

“One can envision precrastination and procrastination as two extremes,” said Christopher Gehrig, a psychology professor at Helmut Schmidt University in Germany. In order to check something off their to-do list, precrastinators expend extra energy on a task, or rush through projects to arrive at the relief of having it be over.

Here’s how to know if you have precrastinating tendencies and when it can be the right time to slow down.

What is precrastination?

You’re at the airport waiting for your flight to board. Even though Group 4 isn’t going to be called for 20 more minutes, you hover near the gate, holding your heavy duffel and suitcase. This is a classic case of precrastination: wanting to get something over with (getting on the plane) so that you don’t have to anticipate doing it any longer. This comes at a cost: carrying all your stuff – rather than sitting and relaxing in a chair, reading a book.

Precrastination is when you do something early “at an extra expense”, wrote the psychologist Kyle Sauerberger in a 2019 paper about the phenomenon. The expense might be physical, as in the airport example, financial or mental.

Why do people precrastinate?

The concept of precrastination surfaced by accident in a 2014 study led by David Rosenbaum, now a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, during an experiment on walking and reaching. In the study, people picked up a bucket full of pennies to carry, and could choose between two buckets: one closer to them, and one at the end of the alley. Most people picked the bucket that was closer to them, even if it meant that they had to carry it a greater distance.

When Rosenbaum and his colleagues asked people why they chose the closer bucket, the participants said it was because they wanted to get the task done sooner. “Their desire to lighten their mental load was so strong that they were willing to expend quite a bit of extra physical effort to do so,” Rosenbaum said in a press release at the time.

In precrastination, you rush to do something merely so you don’t have to think about doing it anymore. “[It’s] the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later,” explained Ed Wasserman, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Iowa.

A study from 2018 similarly found that when participants were told to grab two buckets of balls, most people picked up the first one on their way to the farther bucket, then carried both back – rather than picking up the closer bucket on their return. People wanted to mentally offload the obligation of picking up the first bucket, even if it meant extra physical labor.

But doing something right away, like deep-cleaning your kitchen, to put off another task, like writing an essay, isn’t precrastination – that’s still classic procrastination behavior.

Some people answer emails right as they come in, instead of stopping to think about what they’re going to say. Precrastinating can push people to start a number of tasks at once and do a worse job on them – rushing to finish, rather than devoting enough time to each.

Who precrastinates?

If procrastination is generally viewed as negative, wouldn’t its opposite be good? Not necessarily. We have plenty of idioms that warn us against blazing through tasks: measure twice, cut once; look before you leap.

“Being impetuous does have its costs,” Wasserman said.

I am not prone to much procrastination, but I’m easy prey for precrastination. Lingering tasks, unread notifications and incomplete projects stress me out, mostly because I worry they will never get done. “People may precrastinate out of the fear of not being able to finish something on time,” Gehrig said, which means that stress or burnout might accompany it in some cases.

In one study, Gehrig connected precrastination to the personality trait of neuroticism, which entails a higher occurrence of negative emotions and more emotional instability. “Rather than feeling intrinsically rewarded by accomplishing goals – by checking things off their to-do lists – as conscientious people are, those high in neuroticism want to get things done because it causes them anxiety to have many tasks to do,” agreed Sauerberger.

In 2014, writer Oliver Burkeman confessed in the Guardian to being a precrastinator, and sometimes being more interested in the feeling of having completed something than the experience of the task itself, or doing the best job he could.

“I sometimes worry that that’ll be my epitaph: ‘He crossed a lot of items off his to-do list,’” he wrote.

How can I stop precrastinating?

There’s no exact right time to do anything, whether it’s putting away your socks or answering emails. But if you think you tend to precrastinate, practice putting off tasks that don’t need to be done right away and could use a little more breathing room. “A healthy balance between precrastination and procrastination may involve effectively planning and prioritizing tasks without feeling too pressured to complete them immediately,” Gehrig said. For instance, schedule out when you’re going to do certain things, and batch activities like responding to emails or texts. Also, recognize that some don’t need to be answered right away, but can wait until later.

“The special danger of precrastination is that, unlike procrastination, it doesn’t feel naughty,” wrote Burkeman. And it’s true: precrastinators can go unnoticed, because they’re proud of accomplishing a million little tasks all at once, and others may value their productivity. It’s tough, but we precrastinators need to distinguish between the feeling of alleviating anxiety and the true feeling of accomplishment. Then we can learn that some tasks are better left untouched – or even procrastinated.