Procrastination is a well-known and serious behavioral problem involving both practical and psychological implications. Taxpayers commonly put off submitting their annual returns until the last minute, risking mathematical errors in their frenzy to file. Lawmakers notoriously dawdle and filibuster before enacting sometimes rash and ill-advised legislation at the eleventh hour. And, students burn the midnight oil to get their term papers submitted before the impending deadline, precluding proper polishing and proofreading. For these reasons, we are cautioned not to procrastinate: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. He who hesitates is lost. Procrastination is the thief of time.
However, the opposite of procrastination can also be a serious problem — a tendency we call “pre-crastination.” Pre-crastination is the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later. People answer emails immediately rather than carefully contemplating their replies. People pay bills as soon as they arrive, thus failing to collect interest income. And, people grab items when they first enter the grocery store, carry them to the back of the store, pick up more groceries at the back, and then return to the front of the store to pay and exit, thus toting the items farther than necessary. Familiar adages also warn of the hazards of pre-crastinating: Measure twice, cut once. Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Look before you leap.
We first found striking evidence of pre-crastination in a laboratory study exploring the economics of effort. College students were asked to carry one of a pair of buckets: one on the left side of a walkway and one on the right side of the same walkway. The students were instructed to carry whichever bucket seemed easier to take to the end of the walkway. We expected students to choose the bucket closer to the end because it would have to be carried a shorter distance. Surprisingly, they preferred the bucket closer to the starting point, actually carrying it farther. When asked why they did so, most students said something like, “I wanted to get the task done as soon as possible,” even though this choice did not in fact complete the task sooner.
Nine experiments involving more than 250 students failed to reveal what might have been so compelling about picking up the nearer bucket. Although some hidden benefit may await discovery, a simple hypothesis is that getting something done, or coming closer to getting it done, is inherently rewarding. No matter how trivial the achievement, even something as inconsequential as picking up a bucket may serve as its own reward.
Is pre-crastination — exhibited by college students, bill payers, e-mailers, and shoppers — a symptom of our harried lives? The other study from our laboratories suggests it is not: that experiment was done with pigeons. The birds could earn food by pecking a touchscreen three times: first, into a square in the center of the screen; second, into the same square or into a square that randomly appeared to the left or right of it; and third, into a side square after a star appeared within it. Critically, food was given after the final peck regardless of whether the second peck struck the center square or the side square where the star would be presented. The pigeons directed their second peck to the side square, hence moving to the goal position as soon as they could even though there was no obvious or extra reward for doing so. Thus, the pigeons pre-crastinated.
Finding pre-crastination in the pigeon is particularly important because the evolutionary ancestors of pigeons and people went their separate ways 300 million years ago. Following a popular line of thinking in comparative psychology, the fact that both pigeons and people pre-crastinate suggests that this behavioral tendency may have emerged even earlier in phylogeny.
Why would our evolutionary kin have pre-crastinated, and why do we humans and our pigeon contemporaries do so now? It is possible, as suggested above, 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. Yet, we doubt this is the whole story. Lifting a bucket doesn’t tax working memory very much, and it’s not obvious why directing the second peck to the future goal location would reduce the load on the pigeons’ working memory. A simpler account is that task completion is rewarding in and of itself. Tasks that can be completed quickly woo us more than tasks that must delayed. All potential tasks, or their underlying neural circuits, compete for completion. Neural circuits for tasks that get completed may endure longer than neural circuits for tasks that don’t.
Another benefit of completing tasks as soon as possible is to provide us with as much information as possible about the costs and benefits of task-related behaviors. Trial-and-error learning is the most reliable way we discover what does and doesn’t succeed in everyday life. Such learning can even prompt practical behavioral innovations. Given these benefits, it may be better to gain experience from several trials than only a few.
Pre-crastination clearly adds to the challenge of coping with procrastination. Not only must procrastinators start sooner to begin tasks they’d rather defer, but they must also inhibit the urge to complete small, trivial tasks that bring immediate rewards just for being completed. The discovery of pre-crastination may suggest a way to counter the ills of procrastination. Break larger tasks into smaller ones. Such smaller tasks, when completed, will promote a sense of accomplishment, will bring one closer to the final goal, and, via trial-and-error learning, may support the discovery of even more adaptive or innovative ways of behaving.