The evils of procrastination are well known to everyone. Putting things off into the future that ought to be done now can create all kinds of havoc in your life. People have many reasons to procrastinate, not the least of which is that most of us would rather put off an unpleasant, difficult, or boring task. It's possible that what seems like procrastination is simply multitasking gone awry. You might have overcommitted yourself and can’t keep up with all of the deadlines to which you’ve agreed.
Most of the times, when you procrastinate for one of these obvious reasons, you’re more or less aware of what’s behind your tardiness. However, people also procrastinate for reasons that are less obvious. By procrastinating, you more or less guarantee that you won’t succeed at the task. You then can account for your failure not for any lack of ability on your part, but because you waited too long to get started.
University of Liverpool psychologist Minna Lyons and Liverpool Hope University psychologist Holly Rice suggested that people who score high on “avoidant” procrastination (meaning they avoid starting a task) and who are also high on psychopathy put things off so that they can avoid receiving negative feedback about their performance. It’s also possible that their impulsivity also leads them to become distracted, so that the pleasures of the moment outweigh the demands of the future.
People also may procrastinate as a form of passive aggressiveness against others. By making others wait, you cause them discomfort if not outright inconvenience. You don’t really want to clean out the refrigerator, but if your roommate or partner is going to insist that you need to, then you’ll do it in your own sweet time. Another reason that we procrastinate is that we say "yes" to requests just to please others. Unfortunately, too many "yesses" can lead you to be late in coming through on at least some of thos promises.
Into psychology’s lore about how people use, or misuse, their time comes a new concept- that of “pre-crastination.” Pennsylvania State University psychologists David Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong, and Cory Adam Potts came across a serendipitous finding while investigating the ways that people walk and reach. They designed an experiment in which participants would be asked to make what they thought would be the easier choice of either moving a heavy bucket a short distance or a light bucket a long distance to a specified end point. As a check of the study’s method, they first carried out a set of studies with buckets of the same weight. Participants could choose either to pick up the bucket that was closer to them but farther from the target point, or farther from themselves and closer to the target point.
The findings surprised the investigators, who expected that if rationality prevailed, participants would prefer to carry the bucket the shortest distance possible. Instead, participants consistently chose to pick up the bucket that was closer to them but farther from the end point. In other words, according to Rosenbaum and his team, they “precrastinated.” As the participants explained, they thought that carrying the bucket the long distance made it seem easier to them. By picking up the bucket that was closer at hand, they felt that they would be better able to accomplish the goal of getting the bucket to the target point.
In one manipulation that varied the weight of the bucket, Rosenbaum and team found that participants were willing to use the left hand (but not the right) to carry a heavy object if it was near to them and therefore had to be carried further. This seems to go completely counter to a rational explanation that picking up a heavier object and carrying it further should seem harder, not easier.
In accounting for their findings, Rosenbaum and colleagues maintain that people prefer to expend physical rather than mental effort when given the choice. By picking up the bucket, participants no longer had to remember what they were supposed to do because the bucket was in their hand. The situation is similar to what you might do as you organize yourself to leave the house in the morning. To make sure you remember to take your keys, it’s less mentally draining to carry them through an extra room or two of your home rather than wait until you've shut the door behind you, only to find out they're inside. Once they’re in your hand, you can be sure you won’t forget them.
As I thought about this explanation provided by the authors, I also wondered if there isn’t something more to precrastination than they theorize to be the case. We all know people who are constantly planning for the future. A week before leaving for a trip, they start packing their bags. Their winter holiday presents are all purchased by July. In their 30s or 40s, they’re thinking about retirement and perhaps even anticipating how they’ll spend their time when they reach 60 or 70. Their bills are paid early and they are never late for anything.
DePaul University’s Joseph Ferraro and Carleton University’s Timothy Pychyl examined the relationships among academic procrastination, “social loafing” (where you let others in a group work harder than you do) and conscientiousness. The findings showed that people high in conscientiousness are less likely to let others shoulder their loads and also to procrastinate. These are the people, we might expect, who engage in extensive planning for the future so that they can be certain to carry out their responsibilities.
In discussing the Rosenthal and Adam study, Pychyl’s Psychology Today article questions the working memory explanation of precrastination. He believes that people are more likely to precrastinate on the bucket task because they just don’t care that much about it. If given a more important job, such as getting started on planning their significant life goals, Pychyl expects the findings would have been very different.
I believe that the phenomenon of precrastination does exist. Rather than be solely a cognitive phenomenon, it seems that It might relate to future time perspective as well as conscientiousness. In other words, the more you think about the future, the more likely you are to take actions now that will prepare you for it. In a study examining the relationships among future time perspective, conscientiousness, and health-related behaviors, Newcastle University psychologists Jean Adams and Daniel Nettle (2009) found that people who are highly conscientious are more likely to have a future time perspective. Having a future time perspective was also related to lower rates of smoking and lower Body Mass Index (BMI) scores. Living in the future gives you a greater incentive to live healthier in the present.
Returning to the notion of precrastination, then, there may be some adaptive value to it in terms of promoting overall health. The drawback is that you’re enjoying less of your present activities. Fast-forwarding to what you need to do may make you less able to experience what you’re doing right now.
Precrastinators, then, seem to have the following 7 characteristics:
- Prefer to get something unpleasant out of the way just to get it done.
- Plan ahead, perhaps even far into the distant future.
- Try to reduce mental load by acting now so they don’t forget what they need to do.
- Take on their share of a joint task rather than leave it for someone else to do.
- Be honest with others.
- Take responsibility for their actions.
- Avoid acting impulsively.
The downside to precrastination is that your mind is constantly shifting from the present to the future and you're not enjoying yourself now. Precrastinators may also grow old before their time. The benefits, though, are that by planning your future actions you get done what needs to be done. As long as you can stop and enjoy the fruits of your labors before tackling the next job, it’s possible that precrastinations benefits outweigh its risks.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Adams, J., & Nettle, D. (2009). Time perspective, personality and smoking, body mass, and physical activity: An empirical study. British Journal Of Health Psychology, 14(1), 83-105. doi:10.1348/135910708X299664
Ferrari, J. R., & Pychyl, T. A. (2012). 'If I wait, my partner will do it:' The role of conscientiousness as a mediator in the relation of academic procrastination and perceived social loafing. North American Journal Of Psychology, 14(1), 13-24.
Lyons, M., & Rice, H. (2014). Thieves of time? Procrastination and the Dark Triad of personality. Personality And Individual Differences, 61-6234-37. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.002
Rosenbaum, D. A., Gong, L., & Potts, C. (2014). Pre-crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1487-1496. doi:10.1177/0956797614532657
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