On the surface, precrastination looks like the opposite of procrastination.
Procrastinators delay doing tasks. Precrastinators take quick action and get things done.
A closer look, however, indicates that they may not be so different after all. In fact, I would argue that they both stem from the same underlying issue of emotional regulation.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotion Regulation is a term that describes our ability to cope with our emotional experience. It’s a phrase psychologists use as shorthand for “willingness to feel your feelings.”
To be clear, “feelings” in this context means the emotions that our culture tends to label as “negative.” These include emotions like sadness, fear, overwhelm, grief, anxiety, worry, dread, anger, and hate.
Although technically emotional regulation would include an inability or unwillingness to feel “positive” emotions — like happiness, joy, contentment, love, and trust — I haven’t seen anyone use the term in that context.
(That said, my experience with both precrastination and procrastination tells me that avoidance of these positive emotions is also often at play in these tendencies, but I’ll leave that for another time.)
With that grounding, let’s look at both procrastination and precrastination.
Procrastination is often defined as “delay.” This is an incomplete and incorrect definition.
Procrastination is an intentional and irrational delay — a delay where the procrastinator knows, or expects, the delay will cause harm.
Timothy Pychyl, a leading procrastination researcher, points out that “all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.”
Pychyl and other leading researchers on procrastination say that procrastination is not an issue of time management or prioritization, but of emotional regulation — instead of dealing with “negative” emotions around a task, procrastinators avoid the task and seek a distraction that makes triggers “positive” emotions.
Pychl explains that
We use task avoidance to escape the negative emotions associated with a task (e.g., frustration, boredom, stress, anxiety)… “we give in to feel good,” prioritizing the management of aversive mood states over our goal pursuit.
Precrastination is defined as
the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra physical effort.
In my reading on precrastination, I haven’t seen anyone talk about it as a consequence of emotional regulation. But it’s clear in the subtext that this is at the root of the tendency.
In the studies that led to naming the tendency of precrastination, participants were asked to carry one of two heavy buckets to the end of an alley. One bucket was closer to the participants at the starting line; the other was closer to the end point.
Those who chose to pick up the bucket closer the the starting point were the precrastinators.
Psychologists are clear that what’s going on in precrastination is not impulse control.
When asked why they chose to pick up the first bucket, instead of the one closer to the finish line, they all gave a variation of the same answer:
I just wanted to get it over with.
Essentially, precrastinators take quick action to avoid the discomfort of being in the empty space that arises when waiting for the right time to act.
This is a form of emotional avoidance — by staying busy, precrastinators avoid the space in which the “negative” emotions even have a chance to arise.
(I use quotes around the word negative because I believe labeling emotions in this manner is misguided. All emotions have their place and serve us in some capacity. The more we can appreciate this, the easier it becomes to feel everything without judgment.)
Two Sides of the Same Coin
With this understanding, we see that both procrastination and precrastination involve the same two elements:
- avoidance of feeling certain emotions that cause discomfort
- a resulting action (or inaction) that causes harm
Rather than being opposites, they are simply two different strategies of emotional avoidance.
Whichever one you prefer, the path to productivity is clear: feel your feelings.
Which Is Better?
As for which one is better, I’ll answer this one like a lawyer: a case can be made for both.
I’d love to hear what you think.