Most of my college friends were impressive procrastinators—they'd be doing their homework on their way to class, scribbling it all down before the professor would walk around to collect it. Many of them would spend all-nighters in the library writing up 40-page essays, finishing up and printing them out just moments before class the next morning.
I've always been quite the opposite—and largely because carrying around the mental load of work stresses me out even more than filing my taxes every year. Lingering deadlines—in the coming days, weeks or even months ahead—clutter my headspace. It's almost like I always just need to clear the slate. It's for the same reason that I pay my credit card bills in full every month, even when it crushes me. And it's exactly why I simply have to read or clear every unread email each morning to clean up those inexplicably exasperating little red notifications.
As I've progressed through my career, little has changed—especially when I began freelance writing full time, juggling multiple assignments for multiple editors each week. There's nothing more satisfying than literally crossing off a tangible to-do list. I'll work through the night on a Tuesday to finish a story due on Monday the following week, just because I'm in a groove and, well, why shouldn't I?
But science says that there's an easy answer to that. In fact, there are plenty of valid reasons not to pre-crastinate. While it's usually done with good intentions, it's setting a lot of women back in the workplace.
Pre-crastination is, in short, the opposite of procrastination. But pre-crastination, which refers to getting the job done well in advance of its deadline, isn't necessarily a better plan. But why do we do it?
"Is pre-crastination—exhibited by college students, bill payers, e-mailers, and shoppers—a symptom of our harried lives?" asks David A. Rosenbaum and Edward A. Wasserman in their piece, "Pre-Crastination: The Opposite of Procrastination," for the Scientific American. "It is possible ... that pre-crastination amounts to grabbing low-hanging fruit. If grain is nearby or if a bucket is close at hand, then it may be best to get it while it’s available. Another explanation is that completing tasks immediately may relieve working memory. By doing a task right away, you don’t have to remember to do it later; it can be taxing to keep future tasks in mind. Requiring people to delay performance of a task often worsens their performance of it."
A simpler account, they suggest, is that task completion, in and of itself, is just plain rewarding.
One study on the economics of effort, "Pre-Crastination: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort," suggests that many of us are willing to exert extra effort just to complete jobs faster. The study asked university students to pick up one of two buckets (one to the left of an alley and one to the right), and carry it to the alley's end. The researchers emphasized choosing the easier task and, in most of the trials, one of those buckets was closer to the end point. While the researchers expected the students to choose the bucket closer to the end point, which would mean that they didn't have to carry it as far, most students actually grabbed the closer bucket because they wanted to get it done faster. But, the fact of the matter is, it took just about the same amount of time, after all.
"We concluded that this seemingly irrational choice reflected a tendency to pre-crastinate, a term we introduce to refer to the hastening of subgoal completion, even at the expense of extra physical effort," the researchers report. "Other tasks also reveal this preference, which we ascribe to the desire to reduce working memory loads."
In other words, pre-crastinating can be taxing too. While it helps to alleviate the mental load of work that needs to get done, it often means that we're working ourselves harder just to achieve the same results. I also think about how, if I make more time for myself by finishing my work early, I'll always fill that time with more work. In other words, I often find myself giving myself more work than I'd otherwise do, which can sometimes lead to burnout.
So if pre-crastinating can actually set us back since we're exerting extra effort for little or no obvious reward, how can we avoid this behavior (without falling into procrastination)? Here are three ways to stop pre-crastinating.
1. Make a prioritized to-do list.
One way to help you stop pre-crastinating is by prioritizing the work you have on your plate. When you write a physical list of everything you have to do and by when you have to do it all, you can prioritize the most urgent (or time-consuming) tasks. This way, you won't feel like you have to get it all done at once and you can rest assured that it's on your list to think about another day.
2. Set starting deadlines.
Speaking of leaving tasks for another day, you can actually make plans to do just that.
Often, the idea of a deadline can induce stress, because we know that we have to get something finished by a certain date. But one way to ease the stress of feeling like we have to get started ASAP is by setting a start deadline that leaves enough time to complete the task by the finish deadline.
3. Take breaks for self-care.
It's important to slow down and take a step back to take mental breaks. If you're always busy worrying about all the things you have to do, you'll spend a lot of your time and energy thinking about it rather than actually doing it.
Mental breaks to journal, meditate, practice breathwork techniques, listen to music or do other calming self-care activities can help you to maintain your sanity, which you need to be productive and perform well in all of your tasks. While doing these activities, you'll learn to stop living such a harried lifestyle and to be more mindful of the ways in which your work is affecting you mentally and physically. —AnnaMarie Houlis
Written by Fairygodboss for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.