Most of us are guilty of putting off things we don’t want to do — a tedious work project, a tax return or even just housework. It’s a common tendency that more often than not, can lead to stress or a rushed job as we try to get things done in time.
Not everyone is a procrastinator, though. For some people, the urge to complete a task is far too strong, even if waiting and taking our time would lead to a better outcome.
In 2014, David Rosenbaum, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, coined the phrase “precrastination” to describe this disposition. He defines it as the tendency to get things done as soon as one can, at the expenditure of unnecessary effort — and sometimes to the detriment of the quality of the job at hand.
“People who serially rush into tasks tend very much to be those whose strongest driver is to tick things off their to-do list,” says Heather Bingham, an in-house organisational psychologist at investment firm BOOST&Co.
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“Placing that tick or crossing off that line is deeply satisfying and a perfect day or week finishes with nothing left on the list. A completed to-do list restores order to their universe and is the way in which they experience self-validation, which is the most important validation most of us crave.
“This springs up a lot with those who have jobs where a significant portion can be done perfectly; accountants, finance managers, engineers — anyone whose chief raison d'etre is to get a spreadsheet into check or create a perfect design,” she adds.
“Anything else that cannot be completed to perfection can never give them their favourite flavour of satisfaction, so they want rid of it so that they can return to doing work that does.”
The reasons why we might precrastinate are multiple. We may rush into tasks if we have too much work to do, so we get things done as soon as possible to lessen the load. Personality traits such as conscientiousness and eagerness to please also play a big part, too.
The reasons behind it differ for each person, says Ales Zivkovic, a UKCP-registered psychotherapist. However, precrastinators may rush into tasks to gain a sense of control, in order to ease stress or anxiety.
“What I usually observe is that people who do tend to want to finish tasks quickly, will be doing so because of their need for control,” he explains. “What I mean by that is that finishing tasks quickly gives a person a false sense of control of the environment, which for them translates into control of their internal experience.”
During periods of stress, we may have more of an urge to finish things fast, Zivkovic adds. “One interesting thing to note is that precrastination and procrastination do not exclude each other out — on the contrary, they may be seen hand in hand. So, whilst an individual may want to finish some of the tasks quickly and with haste, they may actually be doing so because the tasks that they procrastinate on evoke anxiety in them.”
At face value, getting things done quickly doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. But although it might make us feel more productive, this might not be the case. Especially if the urge to move some off our to-do list is greater than the desire to do it well.
Think of it this way — someone who procrastinates may leave an essay to the last minute and do a sub-par job. But while a precrastinator might finish the essay with two weeks to spare, they may skip crucial research and leave themselves exhausted and stressed out.
“We’re so keen to remove the mental load of an un-done task, or put behind us the pain of actually doing it, that we’ll rush it without care — especially if we’re groaning under a seemingly never ending to-do list,” says Hannah Martin, psychotherapist and founder of Talented Ladies Club.
“Remember the relief you felt at school when you ‘finished’ your homework? But rather than spend time thoroughly completing each task correctly, you’d dash through it, not caring if you got each answer right or finished tasks properly. Getting your marks back from your teacher was tomorrow’s problem. All you wanted, in the moment, was to have your homework ‘done’.”
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Ultimately, precrastinating may lead us to spend even more time on a task we thought we had finished. “This short-sighted, now-focused approach means that in the long run you spend more time and effort on a task, correcting and mitigating the sloppy mistakes of your first attempt,” Martin explains. “Far better to spend a little more time and effort upfront getting it right at the first pass.”