to do list
Of course, you have heard of PROcrastination. That is the action of delaying or postponing something. It’s the “put off until tomorrow” that we feel bad about because we know we should have done it today. You can find lots of advice on how to stop procrastinating, but recently I read that there is a science of PREcrastination.

Precrastination, according to this new research, is the idea that we can make ourselves less productive by rushing to do tasks in the same way that we are less productive by putting them off.

The research goes back a few years to an odd experiment by psychologist David Rosenbaum. I was a psych minor as an undergrad and loved these weird experiments. In this one, he asked students to pick up a bucket and carry it down a hallway in the “easiest way possible.” They could pick up either a bucket that was halfway down the hallway or one that was close to the end of the hallway.

You would think that the logical choice is to pick up the one near the end. That way you wouldn’t have to carry it as far and be slowed down in the process.

But most of the students chose the bucket closest to the starting point. Huh?

Since this behavior was a surprise, the students were interviewed. Those that chose the near bucket said they did so that they would “get the task done as quickly as possible.” Of course, that makes no sense as it would take the same amount of time to reach the end of the hall with either bucket.

Subsequent studies have confirmed the phenomenon. There will always be some people who try to get tasks done as soon as possible, even if it means more effort overall.

This subsequent experimentation with other tasks has led Rosenbaum and other researchers to suggest that precrastination enables people to “reduce cognitive demand.” That is the official way to say that we like to get those items on our mental To-Do list off that list. It is the opposite of procrastination in that that it is nice to get things done rather than add to that cognitive load. But doing so may not actually be efficient in the end.

Carrying a bucket a bit further isn’t such a big deal, but real-world focus on urgent tasks rather than important ones, or rushing to finish tasks without planning and preparation can definitely affect productivity.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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