Lisa Fournier is a professor of psychology at Washington State University. A couple of years ago, she did an interesting study.
The test was simple. Subjects stood in front of a line on the floor. Six feet in front of them was a bucket of balls. A second bucket was six feet from the first one. The test subjects were told to go get the buckets and bring them back.
Over 80% of the people trotted six feet ahead, then stopped and picked up the first bucket. They carried it with them to get the second bucket. Finally, they turned around and carried both buckets back to the starting point. 80%.
Less than 20% of the subjects walked by the first bucket and went to pick up the farthest bucket first. They they grabbed the closer one on the way back. They were the minority. Less than 20%.
We are hardwired to precrastinate
There’s a name for what the 80% did. Precrastination.
“We tend to start with the task that can be done as soon as possible,” Dr. Fournier said.
What the heck is precrastination?
David Rosenbaum is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. He coined the term “precrastination” in a 2014 study, four years before Fournier would do her bucket test.
Precrastination, Rosenbaum said, is the tendency to tackle goals at the earliest opportunity, even if it costs extra effort or time. Like carrying a bucket of balls 12 feet farther than you needed to, apparently.
“It’s like going to the grocery store, loading up your basket with a bunch of apples, then schlepping them with you as you shop, even though you know you’ll pass them again on the way to the checkout counter,” Rosenbaum said.
Precrastination is doing the first thing we “can” do without thinking too much about it. We like to think of it as “getting stuff done!”
Usually, we’re proud of our “get it done” mindset, but Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor of management and psychology at Wharton, says precrastination is often a perversion of diligence. The dark side of getting stuff done, he calls it.
“Precrastination is the dark side of being really good at getting things done” — Adam Grant, psychologist
Mostly, we see it play out in our daily to-do lists. We look at the list and go for the quick wins. If it’s quick and easy and we know how to do it, that’s what we do first. So we can stroke things off the list and feel productive.
Precrastinators are “get it done” people. They often arrive early for work, wait outside the store for the doors to open, and turn in their work early.
Why do we precrastinate?
Rosenbaum, who coined the term, says evidence suggests we precrastinate to free up working memory.
“It’s so mentally onerous to carry a to-do list in our mind we’ll engage in behaviors that let us reduce that cognitive load even if it means exerting more effort,” Rosenbaum said.
Not that you have to “remember” to pick up a bucket of balls you’re going to walk past, but our brains tend to work on autopilot.
But it’s not just reducing cognitive load. The second reason we do the easy stuff first was discovered in a study by Princeton neuroscientists, who found that the nucleus accumbens — the reward center in our brain — is activated more strongly by quick wins.
Think about that for a minute. Quick wins equal a bigger brain buzz.
So when you do a bunch of little things and stroke them off your list, your brain gets a bigger buzz than it would get if you spent the same amount of time working on a big project.
It’s not a failing. It’s how you’re wired.
Meng Zhu, of the Johns Hopkins Business School says our brain gets very aroused when we focus on time oriented tasks. We stop asking why we’re doing something and just do it, because it needs to be done.
You grab the closest bucket or do the quick and easy tasks because then your brain doesn’t need to think about them anymore. Even when doing that doesn’t leave time to work on the big projects you’re putting off.
Like answering email instead of writing. Like checking social media instead of working on that art project. If your brain thinks it needs doing, and it’s quick and easy, your brain will go for the quick win.
Can you see how precrastination might fuel procrastination?
We are hard-wired to procrastinate, too!
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University says everyone procrastinates. It’s not whether you procrastinate that’s the issue. We all do. But not everyone is a chronic procrastinator.
A pioneer of research on the study of procrastination, Ferrari’s work shows that about 20% of people may be chronic procrastinators.
Procrastination is one of the struggles we can thank evolution for. It stems from our present bias, the hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.
Dr. Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management says the human brain wasn’t designed to prioritize the future over the present. In order to survive, our ancestors needed to focus on providing for themselves in the here and now.
Procrastination is an emotional problem
A lot of people think procrastination is a time management problem, or laziness, or lack of willpower, or lack of focus or some other character flaw or personal failing. It’s not any of those.
According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, psychologist and researcher at the Procrastination Research Group, “procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.”
Procrastination is how the human brain copes with negative or challenging emotions associated with a task. Like, boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment or self-doubt.
“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.” — Tim Pychyl, psychologist
We procrastinate when there are unpleasant emotions associated with the thing we’re putting off. Sometimes, literally. Like if you put off some dirty job, like cleaning the septic tank or working on a long, boring spreadsheet.
We’re even more likely to procrastinate if the task is associated with negative feelings like self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity.
Like that book you want to write, but you’re afraid it will suck or you’ll get rejected, or no one will buy it anyway. So you just put it off. And that’s not a personal failing. It’s literally the only way your brain knows how to cope with the emotions attached to the task or project you’re putting off.
In a 2013 study, Doctors Pychyl and Sirois found that procrastination can be understood as “the primacy of short-term mood repair over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.”
Stuck in a loop, like a snake eating its tail…
The real problem isn’t procrastinating, because we all do it from time to time. The real problem occurs when the negative emotions fuel more negative emotions, but the added emotions that pile on are about you.
You put off a task because of negative emotions associated by that task, but then devolve into negative self assessment. Self blame, rumination, self judgement and even self loathing.
That endless loop of negative emotion is an entire field of study, called procrastinitory cognitions. Who knew, right?
Which explains why 90% of adults want to write a book but only 3% will ever finish that book. They’re stuck in a procrastinitory cognition loop.
You know where that ends, right?
Often, it ends with seniors at the end of their life talking about their regrets. The number one regret of end of life care patients is that they didn’t chase their dreams. Didn’t do the things they wanted to. Dreams die hard.
Understanding is the way out…
When you’re procrastinating on a project, you can’t just tell yourself to stop. That’s not how the brain works.
Recognizing the hijack…
To make it worse, your brain struggles to make future-oriented decisions when you’re experiencing stress. So, when you’re faced with a task that makes you feel anxious, the amygdala — the “threat detector” part of the brain — perceives that task as a genuine threat.
Even if we know putting something off will create more stress down the road, our brains are still more concerned with avoiding stress in the present moment. Brain researchers call this “amygdala hijack.”
Berating yourself isn’t the solution. Calling yourself lazy is unfair and untrue, and time management is not the solution, either.
It starts with understanding what’s happening. There’s no point in berating yourself for your brain having a physiological response. It’s about as helpful as berating yourself for not being able to walk on a sprained ankle.
So what’s the solution?
The bigger, better offer…
Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center says our brains are always looking for rewards. If you’ve formed a habit loop around procrastinating and haven’t found a better reward, you’ll keep doing it until you give your brain a better offer.
That’s a tough call, given that your reward center lights up like a Christmas tree when you ignore the bigger and more future-oriented projects and accomplish the “little wins” that define precrastination.
So what’s the better offer?
In a 2010 study, researchers found that subjects who were instructed to forgive themselves for procrastinating ended up procrastinating less.
Studies show that self-forgiveness and self-compassion support motivation. Why? Because they decrease psychological distress, which is a primary culprit for procrastination. Self forgiveness and self-compassion boost motivation, enhance feelings of self-worth and foster positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative.
A simple self-deception that helps break the habit of procrastination
So you forgive yourself for a physiological response. And you have compassion for yourself. Then what?
Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa says you should ignore all the advice that tells you to break big tasks into smaller ones. Breaking things down doesn’t work for procrastination.
Instead, he says, you should look for the next possible action. Just one task. The one smallest task possible.
Focusing on one “next possible action” helps calm our nerves and creates what he “a layer of self-deception” that fools our brain into breaking the pattern. One small action.
Doesn’t matter if it’s doing one line in the spreadsheet, cleaning one corner of your desk or writing one sentence of that book. One small action will light up the reward center of your brain and break the pattern.
As he explains, motivation follows action.
Seldom the other way around.