There are a million and one articles out there about how to stop procrastinating. This column isn't one of them. This column is here to tell you that this is such a thing as procrastinating too little.
If that seems like utter nonsense to you, fear not. It was complete gibberish to me too when I first came across the science of something called "precrastination," but the research on the subject turns out to be pretty clear. We can make ourselves less productive by rushing to do tasks, just as much as by putting them off. Here's how.
How the hyper diligent make more work for themselves.
Think back to high school or college. Did you have one eager beaver, hyper-organized friend who always rushed to get started on that term paper the very moment it was assigned? Who mapped out their studying a semester in advance and never dreamed of pulling an allnighter? Did you envy them their diligence?
You probably shouldn't have, according to a now classic 2014 experiment by Pennsylvania State University psychologist David Rosenbaum. For his study Rosenbaum asked students to pick up a bucket and carry it down a hallway, specifically asking them to do the task in the easiest way possible. That sounds simple enough, but here's the twist: the students could choose to either grab one bucket that was halfway down the hallway or another that was just a short distance from the end.
The logical choice here is obvious: pick up the bucket that's closest to the finish line and save yourself some schlepping. But that's not what all the students did.
"Surprisingly, most of the participants chose the bucket closest to the starting point. When interviewed after the experiment, the students said they chose the near bucket to get the task done as quickly as possible. This made no sense; the time it would take to reach the end of the alley would be the same no matter which bucket they picked up," reports the Association for Psychological Science blog.
Why people precrastinate and why it's a problem
In the years since Rosenbaum's work, several more studies have confirmed the phenomenon. Some people rush to check tasks off their to-do lists as soon as possible, even if it means more effort overall. The tendency has been dubbed "precrastination."
Scientists think people do it, essentially, to get the thought of the undone task out of their heads and quiet their minds. If you finish the term paper in October, you don't have to think about it every day until December.
Wharton professor Adam Grant has called precrastiination, "the dark side of being really good at getting things done,... It stems from the concern that you won't have enough time to do something well, especially when other people are depending on you."
And so what? Is it necessarily a bad thing if you rush through tasks to quiet your anxiety? Carrying a bucket a few extra feet might not be a huge deal but, in the real world, the consequences of this overeager behavior can be more problematic.
Precrastination leads people to focus on urgent tasks rather than important ones, or to rush into projects without enough forethought and planning. Over diligence can harm productivity just as much as putting things off.
How to stop precrastinating
If you recognize yourself as a precrastinator (my hand is in the air), what should you do to make sure this tendency doesn't tank your productivity? The New York Times looked into the research and offered a handful of suggestions.
Just do less stuff. We're more likely to precrastinate the busier we are, so taking time to clear out your to-do list by delegating tasks, streamlining processes, or simple getting better at saying no can help you feel less of a need to rush.
Schedule your to-dos. Don't just write down what you need to do, also write down when you're going to do it to quiet the mental chatter that leads to prescrastination.
Schedule your life too for that matter. Another danger of precrastination is busy work crowding out what really matters. Fight back with a favorite tool of the hyper organized: your calendar. "If it'll matter to you on your deathbed, put it on your calendar," instructs the Times. So stick that gym class or date night in there along with your reports and meetings.
Redefine progress. Precrastinators tend to focus on quantity -- how many words did I write or files did I review -- but quality matters too. Take a minute to remind yourself of that, and of the fact that the road to quality work is often longer and more meandering, before you start a task.