The pleasures and perils of precrastination

4th June, 2020

Many writers are notorious for leaving things to the last possible moment. Not I. I’m always itching to get started and, for that matter, to get finished. I would gladly have written this column on Monday, but in her wisdom my editor pointed out that in a busy week for news, it might be a good idea to wait. So I did, soothing myself by working on an episode of my podcast that I expect to be broadcast early in 2021.

I can’t help myself. In a world full of procrastinators, I am a precrastinator. I’ve been like this for a long time. At school, we had homework diaries in which the tasks for each subject and each day would be recorded. However slapdash my work, I itched for the moment of completion when I could score a bold line through each item. Even better, when every piece of work on a page was complete, I would tear out the page with relish. Sometimes, infuriatingly, some ugly outlier could not be completed promptly. It would sit there like an unsqueezed spot.

One of my children has the looking-glass variant of this trait: while I am desperate to get to grips with unpleasant tasks, she is happy to postpone pleasant tasks indefinitely. To her, the highest form of gratification is gratification delayed. Christmas sweets are still in storage come Easter; her chocolate eggs last until her birthday in September; her birthday treats last until Christmas. Coronavirus be damned; we’re in no danger of running out of candy.

My daughter and I are both inverting the natural order of things, in which uncomfortable tasks are postponed in favour of easy pleasures. There are advantages in such behaviour, but traps as well. My daughter’s siblings have realised that her chocolate hoard is a tempting target for sweet-toothed marauders. And a new study from the behavioural economists Paola Giuliano and Paola Sapienza finds that very patient people are also less likely to be happy with their lives — possibly because they delay gratification so long that it never arrives at all.

Meanwhile I am suffering the curse of the precrastinator in a world turned upside down by a virus. I regret my early purchases of cheap rail tickets, given that the meetings to which I intended to travel keep being cancelled. Booking Easter and summer holidays seemed far-sighted at the time; now it seems short-sighted. Or perhaps that is just hindsightedness. We precrastinators enjoy the benefits of better choice and cheaper reservations; in exchange, we have to be willing to accept that sometimes we will face painful conflicts between new opportunities and prior engagements. At times, we must abandon our plans.

I’m an economist, so that’s fine by me; I’m trained to believe the sunk-cost fallacy is a fallacy. While regular humans tend to obsess about spending that cannot be recouped, throwing good money after bad, we economists can sound almost Buddhist on the topic. Attachment to such sunk costs is the root of suffering.

The psychological study that coined the word “precrastination” was conducted by a team of psychologists led by David Rosenbaum. The experimenters showed people an alley, along which were distributed two heavy buckets. The experimental subjects were asked to walk down the alley, pick up a bucket and carry it to the far end. The total distance walked is the same either way, so the easiest way to do this task is to pick up the furthest bucket, minimising the distance over which one has to carry the load. However, the majority of people choose the nearest bucket, instinctively believing “soonest started, soonest finished”.

Psychologists who study old-fashioned procrastination argue that it’s a behaviour designed to manage negative emotions: we avoid tasks that make us feel anxious.

Surely we precrastinate for the same reason: to manage our worries. Here, the dread is not about the process of engaging with the task, but the anxiety of leaving a task unfinished.

It’s plausible that the feeling intensifies as the list of incomplete tasks grows. One suggestive study, by Francesca Gino and colleagues, looked at the emergency room of a hospital. As the department became busier, the doctors tended to favour the easier tasks — healthier patients with simpler problems — presumably because as they felt overwhelmed, they started looking for the quick wins. The researchers dubbed this behaviour “completion bias”, and it seems closely related to precrastination. The busier and more stressed we get, the more desperately we look for opportunities to tick something off the to-do list.

Nevertheless I shall keep precrastinating, and gladly. The advantages of getting stuck into a task are clear enough, so it is a question of managing the downsides. My to-do lists are structured to keep the important stuff in plain sight while the trivia is tucked below the fold. I try not to hold too tightly to my plans.

I will admit that sometimes I go too far. A timeworn saying advises us to eat a live toad for breakfast each morning, to put the worst behind us. There’s wisdom in that. But is there any way I can eat tomorrow’s toad today?
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 March 2020.

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