If you think procrastination is the primary enemy in your battle to work your way through the old to-do list, scientists at Pennsylvania State University would like to introduce you to your new enemy: precrastination, the tendency to focus on intermediate goals at the expense of quickly achieving the final result.
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In the recent study, published in Psychological Science, co-authors David Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong, and Cory Adam Potts asked 27 college students to choose between two buckets and carry it to the finish line. One was closer to the students, and one was closer the end point of the exercise.
“Contrary to our expectation, participants chose the bucket that was closer to the start position, carrying it farther than the other bucket,” the authors write. “On the basis of results from nine experiments and participants’ reports, we concluded that this seemingly irrational choice reflected a tendency to pre-crastinate, a term we introduce to refer to the hastening of subgoal completion, even at the expense of extra physical effort.”
At The Atlantic, Olga Khazan says that many participants explained their actions with some variation on the following: “I wanted to get the task done as soon as I could.”
The problem, of course, is that picking up the bucket earlier didn’t help the participants complete the task any more quickly: it just got them to the first step in the process sooner, and required them to work harder for longer than they otherwise would have.
The takeaway for you, the non-bucket-carrying office worker, is that sometimes, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the project as a whole, before you jump in and start working on its component tasks. If you need to have something to cross off your to-do list in order to feel accomplished — an important motivational tool — you’re better off creating an entry for something you’d do anyway, e.g., “Check email,” than grabbing the first task you see and getting to work.
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