It's easy for productivity gurus to judge the procrastinators (those who believe in never putting off till tomorrow what can be done even later.) But many of these efficiency experts are plagued by an affliction themselves—the problem of precrastination. Their tendency to finish tasks early can be equally dangerous, and dare I say, counter-productive.
How do you know somebody runs marathons? They tell you about it.
It's a joke with an uncomfortable ring of truth to it. Because, right now, I'd like to tell you a bit about a marathon I'm training for. This time, I'm using an actual training plan instead of just running random distances and hoping for the best on race day.
These training plans are designed by pros—smart athletes who know much more than I will ever do about endurance sports. The plans usually call for a mix of short and long runs with built-in rest periods each week.
My only objection to the training plan is the proposed timing of the long run. These longer runs (upwards of 15 miles) are typically scheduled for the weekend to give the body ample time to both run and recover. That way, regular life obligations like work, pickups, drop-offs, and other Monday-Friday chores don't interfere with the run or recovery.
A runner's dilemma
Here's my problem. Saturday is too far away in the week for me. I simply cannot spend a whole week waiting to get my long run in. It's too stressful to have it hang over my head like that. So, I've opted to get my 20-milers in earlier—on Wednesdays.
There's just one logistical glitch with that plan. I have a day job that requires me to be at work at 8.30. a.m. And pretty much stay there for the rest of the day (and hopefully be useful while I'm at it.)
But instead of being practical and running long on Saturdays as a normal person would, I prefer to set my alarm to go off at 2.30 a.m. on Wednesdays to complete my runs and be at work on time.
As I pound the pavement in my neighborhood at 3 a.m., I unintentionally also seem to set off my community's Ring security cameras with intruder alerts. The security patrol in the neighborhood sees me running loops and frankly does not know what to make of me. My attire and shoes suggest I'm a runner, but then, who, in their right mind, would be circling the neighborhood at 3 a.m. other than a mischief-maker (or the security patrol?)
The security guy tries to be discreet and drives past me a few times while I continue on the sidewalk alternating between checking my watch and staring off into the distance. Eventually, convinced that I pose no material harm or actual threat to society, he disappears.
He's surely wondering, though, if I pose a threat to myself, or if I'm demented in some way, or maybe suffering from severe insomnia. While technically none of that is true, I'll admit I have a problem. The problem of precrastination.
We've all heard of procrastination. It is a way of life for many people. Their philosophy is simple: Why do today, when something can be put off till tomorrow? Or later. Or if you're fortunate, never.
By moving tasks to this mystical land of later, procrastinators feel free to get back to things that matter. Such as binge-watching their favorite TV shows. Even that mission is now procrastination-proof thanks to a genius hack by someone who understood their ilk well (or was one themselves)—the autoplay feature.
The 5…4…3…2…1-second countdown to the next episode is a procrastinator's delight. Before they have time to debate whether to pick up the remote, the decision is made. Endless hours of couch-time ensue. What could be more enjoyable?
If you think I make procrastination sound like fun, you're not too far off the mark. It does seem like a procrastinator's life can be pretty pleasant, what with not having to worry about to-do lists all day. I'll admit it. I'm envious. That's because I have the opposite problem. Precrastination. And, while it's equally detrimental, it's nowhere as enjoyable.
Sidebar: I thought I was very clever in coining the term precrastination. Turns out someone more intelligent, knowledgeable, and frankly more qualified than me already did. (Life lesson: Every single bright idea you think you have has already occurred to someone else. The only chance you have is if they haven't acted on theirs yet. So, don't sit on yours.)
A real problem
Precrastination is a real affliction. I'm patient zero. You give me a deadline. I'll see you and raise you with an even earlier completion.
I'm happy to know I'm not alone (misery loves company.) Many of us can't bear the thought of patiently waiting it out until the deadline. In contrast to the procrastinators, our philosophy is this:
Do it now, regardless of when it needs to be completed. Due dates mean nothing. They were invented for the lazy.
This post is for the precrastinators out there. If you are one, there's hope. If you are around one, firstly, kudos to your patience. But, more importantly, know that precrastination is a treatable (somewhat) condition.
Is it really that bad?
If you think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, I assure you, I'm not. Precrastination is not just another first-world problem like your shampoo and conditioner not running out simultaneously.
Rushing to finish things ahead of time can have potentially serious repercussions. Here are a few:
1. Why I can't make croissants
To be honest, I haven't cared much for the phrase, "you cannot rush perfection." It seems to be the perfect cop-out for slowpokes and procrastinators.
That said, there is some truth to the saying.
I love croissants. I'm also aware I can never make them. Why? In addition to butter, flour, yeast, sugar, and salt, good croissants require one ingredient—plenty of patience. The kneaded dough needs to be folded, rolled, and repeatedly chilled for perfect flaky bread.
I certainly don't have the time, inclination, or patience for that. And trying to rush the process results in what could be best described as a sunk, sub-par croissant. Or, as Gordon Ramsay says, "something James Cameron can make a movie out of."
Even if you don't get there, perfection is a worthy goal. But like oil and water, precrastination and perfection cannot coexist.
2. Eureka moments
Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes was tasked with ascertaining whether the king's crown was made of pure gold. It was a difficult problem that Archimedes worked on for many days. Then, one day, when he was at a public bath, he noticed that the volume of displaced water from the bath equaled the volume of his body soaked in the water—what we now know as the buoyancy principle in physics.
Archimedes supposedly exclaimed "Eureka" and ran naked through the streets upon this epiphany. The reason for such unabashed joy was that he was able to connect the dots.
Archimedes extrapolated the buoyancy principle to solve the crown problem. He measured the volume of water displaced when the crown was soaked in water and compared it to the volume of displaced water when pure gold was soaked in water. Voila!
This isn't a physics (buoyancy) or civics (whether it's okay to run naked when you make great discoveries) lesson. The point is this: creativity is unleashed when you let your mind wander and allow time for reflection. This is why sleep on it is usually a great suggestion when you are conflicted about a decision.
It's not just anecdotal either. Science has proven that creativity is enhanced when the mind is allowed to wander. Instead of staying focused and beating up on a problem, it is beneficial to take a break, do other things and then refocus. Allowing your mind some space to reflect enhances creativity.
According to cognitive scientist Dr. Kauffman,
Daydreaming can be detrimental to the task at hand, but it can also be the greatest source of our creativity, compassion, and meaning in life.
3. Unintended consequences
Trying to finish tasks prematurely can have other unintended consequences. Here's a first-hand experience.
As someone keen on checking things off her list, I once kept charging my credit card and paying off the charges as soon as they posted to my accounts. A few weeks later, I got a stern warning letter from the card company threatening account closure if I kept cycling my credit. A practice credit companies frown upon because they think you're trying to borrow more than your allotted credit limit.
Here's the thing. I never meant to cycle my credit. I was simply trying to get stuff done. A little too early, perhaps.
The lesson: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Deadlines exist for a reason.
4. Unwelcome productivity
It is one thing to indulge in precrastination when it comes to your own efforts. It's quite another when you try to precrastinate someone else's tasks.
When someone tells you they'll get back to you in three days or finish an assignment by the end of the month, it's prudent not to chase up before that period is up. Constantly nagging others under the guise of following up can be irksome and also simply a waste of your time. Just ask my family.
Another counter-productive reason to not procrastinate is that precrastinators can spend a lot of time solving non-issues, i.e., problems that tend to disappear on their own anyway over time. Procrastinators win in this area, hands down.
5. Revs up anxiety
The most significant downfall of precrastination is the constant mental bandwidth needed to unnecessarily worry about unimportant tasks.
I guess you could say all worrying is unnecessary. I've never seen anyone say, "I'm glad at least I worried enough about that." But when the worrying is about the minutiae of life, it is that much worse. It can cloud thinking and lead to poor judgment.
While most people worry about completing before the deadline, precrastinators start to worry about the task right from the beginning, when it first surfaces. As a result, it ends up ramping up the volume of tasks you think you need to focus on at any given moment. It has been proven beyond doubt that true multitasking is a myth. When attempting multiple tasks, we're simply task-switching. Rapidly. But do that enough times, and it can get your brain cells tired and fried.
There is something to be said for being able to compartmentalize items on your schedule based on what's important vs. urgent. Precrastination has the undesirable effect of making unimportant tasks urgent.
Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton, wrote in an article,
While procrastination is a vice for productivity, I've learned — against my natural inclinations — that it's a virtue for creativity.
Precrastination can be as much a problem as procrastination. To those who feel compelled to finish things early, try to procrastinate. I'm trying. It is not easy. The benefits are many—less anxiety, enhanced creativity, and generally a less scatterbrained life.
Finally, here are the words of University of Iowa professor Ed Wasserman:
Innumerable students get bad grades, and countless authors have submissions declined because they give themselves too little time to edit and re-edit their work—not because they wait until the last minute, but because the last minute they set for themselves is too early.