Do Precrastinators Get a Bad Rap?

Having long considered myself to be a precrastinator, I’m often surprised by how few people have heard the term. More surprising is the way it’s talked about by those who do know the term.

The Precrastinatory Habits of Highly Effective People

When I first saw precrastination referenced, I viewed it as a bit of a #humblebrag. I think it was this NYTimes Op-ed by Adam Grant, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,” where he confesses to being a precrastinator and attempts to procrastinate in order to be more creative. The essay is humorous and relatable (at least to me). I too finished my senior thesis early and share in “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

More recently, I read Manoush Zomorodi’s essay “How The Pandemic Is Helping Me Kick a Bad Work Habit” and laughed my way through several relatable examples of precrastination (including one from her fifth grader who, like me, rushes to eat all the things on her plate she dislikes so she can relax and enjoy her favorites as soon as possible).

Both authors are extremely accomplished in their own right, and they make precrastination look good. Adam Grant is a best-selling author and top-rated Wharton professor who was included in Fortune’s 40 Under 40; Manoush Zomorodi is host of TED Radio Hour and Zig Zag and was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. If they precrastinate, well, many of us can aspire to be precrastinators too.

I enjoy these portrayals of precrastination and the semi-indulgent forays into “procrastination” that they describe. Grant makes plans to procrastinate, forces himself to leave sentences unfinished, and puts a draft of the essay aside for three weeks before coming back and rewriting most of it. Zomorodi takes advantage of nowhere to go during the pandemic to stare at her ceiling, listen to blowing leaves, and not book tickets for in-person events that likely won’t happen anyway.

The Dark Side of Precrastination

There’s a darker side to the precrastination writing though, and this is where I hesitate. The term was first coined by David Rosenbaum, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, based on experiments he and his team conducted in 2014 in which students were asked to complete a task of moving one of two buckets to an end point. One of the buckets was closer to the start, and the other was closer to the finish. While common sense would suggest that participants would pick up the one closer to the finish, the opposite happened: students picked up the first bucket, carrying it a much farther distance, and therefore took on considerably more work than was required.

The researchers concluded that the students initiated the work right away in order to reduce their mental load and the stress that comes from having to remember to do something in the future. In other words, it can be easier and more tempting to start something now than to store it away in our brains as a responsibility we must remember to do later.

That conclusion is reasonable enough, and several more experiments have borne out the theory. But it’s led to the framing of precrastination in a rather negative, even disparaging way, that I think sells precrastinators like Grant and Zomorodi short. Precrastination has now come to be defined (if Wiktionary is a source of truth) as: “The completion of a task too quickly or too early, when taking more time would result in a better outcome.”

We choose to define precrastination without all the negativity, simply as “The initiation or completion of things in advance, before they need to be handled.”

A More Charitable View of Precrastination

Yes, precrastinating can mean jumping the gun on things. “Haste makes waste,” and “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese,” and all that. Precrastination needs to be kept in check, and the downfalls of starting right away or finishing too soon should be recognized and managed. But we believe getting started is a good thing; being efficient is a good thing; doing your laundry before you’re out of underwear is a good thing. We choose to define precrastination without all the negativity, simply as “The initiation or completion of things in advance, before they need to be handled.” Most importantly, we strive to be preinclined, looking out for our future selves while also taking care of our present selves.

Precrastinators get a bad rap if we criticize them too much for their preinclinations. Let’s celebrate the Adam Grants and Manoush Zomorodis for their contributions to society, thank them for their hard work, and yes, encourage them to spend an hour staring at the ceiling or listening to leaves blowing. They’ve earned it!

Leave a Reply