Precrastination: The Problem with Doing Things Too Early

Precrastination involves rushing to do things early, even when doing so is expected to lead to issues such as reduced efficiency and worse outcomes. For example, a person is precrastinating if they rush to complete a task as soon as it’s assigned to them, even though they don’t have all the relevant information yet so they end up working harder and doing a worse job than if they waited.

Since precrastination can lead to various issues, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about precrastination, and see what you can do to deal with it effectively.

 

Terminology

“Precrastination” is sometimes also spelled as pre-crastination, and is sometimes also referred to as antecrastination, though this latter term is informal and rare.

 

Examples of precrastination

An example of precrastination is a student who rushes to write and submit a paper as soon as they can, without taking the time to get feedback or edit it, which leads them to get a bad grade.

Another example of precrastination comes from the original study that described this phenomenon, where participants had to walk down an alley, and along the way pick up one of two buckets, one of which was near the start of the alley and the other of which was near the alley’s end. Though participants were told to pick the bucket that would be easier to carry, they often picked the one at the start of the alley, which needed to be carried for a longer distance than the one near the end of the alley. When asked about this choice, participants justified it by saying that they wanted to get the task done as soon as possible, even though picking the nearer bucket did not help in this regard, and simply meant that they had to expend more physical effort.

In addition, the following are other examples of ways in which people precrastinate:

  • Reading emails immediately upon opening the computer in the morning, even though it would be better to work on creative tasks first.
  • Checking every phone notification as soon as it’s received, even if this is distracting and it would be better to check the notifications in batches.
  • Parking the car in the first available spot when going grocery shopping, even though there will likely be more convenient spots available.
  • Interrupting other people during conversations in order to say things that come to mind, even if it would be better to wait until others stopped talking first.
  • Rushing to build a product or run an experiment, without dedicating enough time to checking its design.

Finally, there are also many adages that warn about precrastination. For example, “look before you leap” could apply to someone who precrastinates by rushing to get things done without considering the potential consequences of their actions. Similarly, “measure twice, cut once” could apply to someone who precrastinates by rushing to work on a project without checking that their intended actions are the right ones.

 

The psychology and causes of precrastination

Precrastination (i.e., doing things too early) can be attributed to a number of potential causes:

  • Doing things early can be expected to lead to better outcomes in general. Specifically, if starting things earlier rather than later generally leads to better outcomes, or if the potential cost of delaying is generally much greater than the potential cost of starting early, people may be driven to start early by default, as an automatic heuristic, even when doing so is disadvantageous. This can be the case, for example, if starting too early on school assignments can lead to a slightly worse grade, but starting too late can lead to failing, so students would rather start too early than too late.
  • It can free up mental resources. Specifically, thinking about tasks and deadlines creates a cognitive load (e.g., in terms of working memory), and this load can be reduced by starting or completing tasks early. Accordingly, people are more likely to precrastinate when doing so reduces the cognitive load associated with a task. In addition, the process of assessing situations to determine their optimal starting time can also incur a mental cost, so it may be easier and more efficient, from a cognitive perspective, to simply start things early by default.
  • It can increase satisfaction in the short term. Specifically, since people generally assign more value to things that are closer to them in time, and consequently prioritize short-term mood, they may rush to complete certain tasks (especially those that are perceived as low-hanging fruit), even if completing these tasks later will lead to more satisfaction overall. This ties in to the fact that dealing with subgoals makes the completion of the full task feel closer, which can lead to a sense of progress and satisfaction, even if completing the subgoal early is disadvantageous.
  • It can reduce the length of time one has to worry about aversive tasks. For example, if someone dreads having to deal with a certain task, they might want to get it over with as soon as possible.
  • It can help mitigate concerns about tasks. For example, if someone is worried that they’ll be unable to complete an important task on time, they might get started on it much early than they need to, in order to relieve their anxiety about missing the deadline.
  • It can be a way to postpone dealing with unpleasant tasks. For example, if someone wants to avoid dealing with a task that they dread, they might procrastinate on that task by getting started on a different task early, in order to still feel like they’re getting things done, a phenomenon known as productive procrastination.

A person might precrastinate due to a combination of these causes, which can be interrelated. For example, someone might precrastinate when the benefits of freeing up mental resources also means that getting started early is a useful heuristic to adopt in general, or when reducing the length of time the person has to worry about a task also means that they free up mental resources.

These causes also explain why precrastination can feel like the right thing to do, in the sense that keeping busy and getting things done can be more psychologically appealing than waiting or doing nothing, even in cases where delaying would be better. This also means that people who precrastinate may not feel any negative emotions as a result of their behavior, unlike in the case of procrastination, which can make them less likely to notice the issues with it or to try to avoid it.

Finally, other causes may also be responsible for people’s precrastination. This includes various personal and situational factors, such as peer pressure and people’s susceptibility to it. Furthermore, there are some psychological phenomena that may also contribute to precrastination, such as people’s tendency to prefer action over inaction, or to focus on things that are urgent rather than on those that are important.

Overall, precrastination can occur due to a number of potential interrelated causes, including that starting early can lead to better outcomes in general, free up mental resources, increase short-term satisfaction, and reduce the time one has to worry about aversive tasks.

Note: evidence of precrastination has been found not only in humans, but also in animals such as pigeons. This and associated tendencies, such as the action bias, may have been advantageous from an evolutionary perspective, for example if taking immediate action helped ensure access to potentially scarce resources.

 

The potential dangers and benefits of precrastination

Precrastination (i.e., doing things too early) is associated with various potential issues, such as:

  • Worse decisions. For example, this can happen when people rush to make a decision as fast as possible, without considering all the available options.
  • Worse performance. For example, this can happen when people rush to complete a task without checking their work or getting feedback from others.
  • Lower efficiency. For example, this can happen when people rush to get started on a project before they have all the relevant information, which causes them to waste time and effort doing things that they could have known are unnecessary.
  • Flawed prioritization. For example, this can happen when people spend all their energy on the first task that they encounter during the day, rather than on the most important task that they should be dedicating their energy to.
  • Worse mental and emotional state. For example, this can happen when people feel bad about their inability to prioritize tasks properly.

Nevertheless, precrastination can also have some benefits, even if it leads to negative outcomes overall.

Most notably, precrastination can serve as a reasonable way to trade certain resources for others. For example, this is the case when finishing a task early requires more effort, but also saves the person from having to think about the task (i.e., frees up mental resources).

In addition, precrastination can sometimes have some emotional benefits, especially in the short term, for example when it leads to a sense of satisfaction. However, these benefits may be outweighed by reduced satisfaction in the long term, compared to not precrastinating at all.

Overall, precrastination is associated with a number of potential issues, including worse decisions, worse performance, lower efficiency, flawed prioritization of tasks, and worse mental and emotional state. Nevertheless, precrastination may also have some benefits, such as freeing up mental resources, though they may come at a cost, for example in terms of increased required effort.

Note: similarly to how purposeful delay does not constitute procrastination, intentionally getting started early on a task because doing so is likely to lead to a positive outcome does not generally constitute precrastination.

 

Precrastination vs. procrastination

Precrastination is sometimes described as the opposite of procrastination, since precrastination involves doing things too early, while procrastination involves doing things too late.

Accordingly, there are also substantial differences in terms of who is likely to engage in these behaviors. Notably, precrastination is positively correlated with conscientiousness, which is the trait of being organized, disciplined, achievement-oriented, and focused, meaning that people who are more conscientious are also more likely to precrastinate. Conversely, procrastination is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, meaning that people who are less conscientious are more likely to procrastinate. Similarly, another difference in the personality profile of the people who engage in these behaviors is that there is no association between impulsiveness and precrastination, but there is an association between increased impulsiveness and increased procrastination.

Nevertheless, despite these differences, both behaviors are somewhat similar when it comes to the outcomes that they lead to, since both generally lead to negative outcomes, and as such are considered to be maladaptive.

Furthermore, both behaviors can have similar causes in some cases. For example, task aversion can cause people to precrastinate, when it leads them to rush to deal with a task as fast as possible in order to get it out of the way, and it can also cause people to procrastinate, when it leads them to delay dealing with a task that they dread.

Finally, note that precrastination is a concept that is much less known and less commonly discussed than procrastination. Precrastination is also a much newer term, which was formally coined in a 2014 study, whereas the word “procrastination” dates back to 1548 in English writing, though the word “precrastination” was used very rarely and informally before the aforementioned study, and similar phenomena have been identified in some earlier research.

 

How to stop precrastinating

To stop precrastinating (i.e., doing things too early), you should first figure out when, how, and why you to precrastinate. Then, taking this information into account, you should select and implement relevant techniques for precrastination, such as the following:

  • Prioritize your tasks. Figure out which tasks you have to work on, how urgent they are, how important they are, and when would be the best time to work on each of them.
  • Weigh the pros and cons of starting early. This can help you identify cases where starting early is costly compared to starting later, and will help you identify and internalize the associated costs.
  • Focus on the downsides of starting early or the upsides of starting later. This can motivate you to avoid starting too early. For example, you can think about how much more effort you will have to spend if you do things inefficiently because you started too soon, or how much more enjoyable your work will be if you have everything that you need before you get started.
  • Question your choice to get started. For example, before you start a task, ask yourself “why do you want to start now?” or “would it be better to wait with this task until later?”.
  • Find alternative things to focus on. If you know that you might get started too early on some task, then instead of trying yourself to do nothing at all, focus your attention on other tasks or things that can serve as a distraction.
  • Schedule your tasks. Rather than dealing with tasks immediately as you encounter them, schedule them to the time when they are the most appropriate.
  • Write down your tasks and schedules. You can do this in various ways, such as by keeping a written to-do list, or using a dedicated app. This is important, since it can reduce the cognitive load that’s associated with keeping those tasks in mind, which is one of the reasons why people precrastinate in the first place.
  • Account for your natural cycles. For example, if you realize that you tend to rush when it comes to making decisions late at night, because that’s when you’re tired and unfocused, you can schedule making those decisions for the morning, when you’re able to think more clearly.
  • Set intermediate goals and deadlines. For example, if you have a large project to deal with, break it apart into a series of manageable tasks and assign a deadline to each one. This will help structure the way you handle tasks, and will help you experience a continuous stream of rewarding progress, all of which reduces the likelihood that you’ll rush to complete the entire project too soon.
  • Prepare for future contingencies. For example, if you know that you’re prone to starting school assignments too early, then you can decide that before starting any assignment, you will first look at your planner and actively ask yourself whether it’s better to do this task later.
  • Identify and address your concerns. For example, if you realize that you tend to precrastinate because of perfectionism, you can tell yourself that it’s fine if your work won’t be perfect, so there’s no need to start way too early.
  • Develop self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to carry out the actions that you need to achieve your goals, and it can help you reduce your precrastination, for example by reducing fears that you won’t be able to complete tasks on time unless you start very early. To develop self-efficacy, try to identify the various strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and think about your ability to execute those strategies successfully.

You can use similar techniques to stop or prevent precrastination in others (e.g., in your students if you’re a teacher, or in your employees if you’re a project manager). You can do this in various ways, such as by implementing those techniques on their behalf (e.g., by setting intermediate deadlines for them), or by encouraging and helping them to implement those techniques (e.g., by encouraging them to set intermediate deadlines for themselves). Furthermore, when doing this, it might also help to teach them what precrastination is, what causes it, and why it can be problematic, which can increase their motivation to deal with this issue, and help them understand how to do so effectively.

In addition, note that many of these techniques are effective not only for dealing with precrastination, but also for dealing with procrastination. For example, accounting for your natural productivity cycles can help you identify the best time of the day for decision-making, which will not only help reduce the likelihood that you’ll rush to make decisions (i.e., precrastinate), but also reduce the likelihood that you’ll delay making them unnecessarily (i.e., procrastinate).

In summary, to stop precrastinating (i.e., doing things too early), you should first figure out when, how, and why you to precrastinate. Then, taking this information into account, you should select and implement relevant techniques for avoiding precrastination, such as prioritizing and scheduling tasks, writing down your tasks and schedule, weighing the pros and cons of starting early, questioning your choice to get started, finding alternative things to focus on, and preparing for future contingencies.