My parents used to pack for trips weeks ahead of when they were scheduled to leave. My mom sets the table for Thanksgiving dinner a few days in advance. They are classic precrastinators.
Maybe you are, too.
Perhaps you answer emails the moment they land in your inbox — and then quickly file them away to maintain inbox zero. Or you arrive early everywhere. Maybe you can’t start your work until you clear the decks: answer emails, organize your files, make your calls.
Cultural norms condition us to the mindset that early action is a virtue:
Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.
The early bird gets the worm.
The secret to getting it done is getting started.
Take massive action.
How many of these sayings are embedded in your psyche?
Precrastination is the inclination to complete tasks as soon as possible, even when there is no benefit to doing so.
On the surface, precrastination looks and feels virtuous. After all, you’re “getting things done.”
What could possibly be the problem with “getting things done”?
This is one of the biggest problems with precrastination: our culture sanctions it. In our overachieving society we assume that any activity is better than no activity.
Productivity Is Not About Getting Things Done
The problem is that “getting things done” is a poor metric for productivity. Progress towards an outcome is not about “getting things done.” It’s about doing the right things — at the right time.
Precrastination is not about taking the first step toward a bigger goal; it’s not about doing the easiest task first. It’s about doing the task that can be completed most quickly.
The problem with it is that the most important things on your “to-do list” are typically not the most quickly completed.
(The most important things on your list are likely not even on your list, but that’s another topic for another time.)
It Blocks Our Creative Work
This is especially true with creative work — whether thought leadership, writing, design, innovation, leading teams, solving problems. Creative work is difficult.
Creative work often doesn’t have a clear completion metric.
What makes a blog post or an article or a painting complete? Only the decision to publish it.
Creative work requires sitting with the discomfort of fear, incompleteness, and emptiness — the void from which all new ideas are birthed. Precrastination is triggered by the desire to avoid these discomforts — to just “get it over with.”
If you’re not willing to sit with the discomfort of creating, you’re blocking your ability to create your best work.
As Lisa Evans writes at FastCompany.com
Rushing to complete the task could mean you’re losing out on ideas that would have occurred to you later if you’d taken the time to mentally percolate on the task.
It Expends Unnecessary Effort
What about situations outside of creative work?
Precrastination was first defined in the context of a physical task.
The initial study from which the term derived involved a physical task. Participants were told to choose one of two buckets to carry to the finish line. Most of them chose the bucket that was closer to them at the starting line over the one closer to the finish line.
They exerted more effort than they needed to: carrying a heavy bucket further when they could have saved themselves the physical exertion by picking up the one closer to the finish line.
Why would anyone do this?
And yet we do it often in our work and life.
Creates Unnecessary Tension and Stress
Being too quick to act can create unnecessary tension and stress for yourself and others.
One of the best examples of this in the work setting is email. You may think you’re being diligent and productive by “firing off” a quick reply to an email. But those quick replies often create more work or misunderstandings.
A carefully-crafted reply will always be more effective. And sometimes, after sitting with it for a while, you might realize that the best reply is no reply.
As Bob Pothier, Director of the Partners in Leadership, notes,
Most of our cognitive biases (making poor/faulty assumptions in our analysis) are based on the automatic/quick parts of our brains.
Wastes Money, Time, and Other Resources
Outside of work, it can cost you money, time, physical effort, and other resources.
For example, have you ever bought something in a store only to realize that the store down the block sold the same item for less money?
Or maybe you were quick to enroll in a program, only to realize after that the program didn’t meet your needs.
Perhaps you purchased tickets for the wrong date.
In each of those situations, you paid a financial price for your precrastination.
If you had stopped to think things through, or waited for more information, you would have saved yourself unnecessary expense, not to mention time and energy involved in rectifying your early actions.
The End Result: Fatigue, Frustration and Burnout
When you move forward with the intention to “get things done” as opposed to doing the right things, you end up spinning your wheels.
It’s motion without movement.
At best, it slows your progress. At worst, it creates bigger problems and more work for you to do to course-correct. You end up exerting more effort than you needed to.
Precrastination therefore, is a waste of time, money, effort, and energy.
But it doesn’t end there.
When you expend effort to “get things done” and you’re not making progress to what you really want, you end up feeling frustrated and fatigued. This leads to burnout.
And once you’ve hit burnout, you’re unlikely to get much done at all.