Here’s a New Way to Waste Time: Pre-crastinate

Introducing a newly discovered way to waste time: “Pre-crastinating,” the inverse of procrastinating.

If procrastination is putting things off, pre-crastination is “the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible,” even if doing so will cost us more time and effort in the long run, according to an upcoming paper in Psychological Science (the researchers sent Science of Us an early copy).

And this is something most people probably do, argue the Penn State researchers who wrote the paper. They found that most of the 257 undergrads they tested showed a tendency to pre-crastinate. In one experiment, the researchers placed two buckets, each holding seven pounds of pennies, in an alley. Participants were to start at one end of the alley and do whatever seemed easier: pick up the bucket closer to them and carry it to the end; or pick up the one that was closer to the finish, and carry that one to the end. The researchers expected the subjects to choose the bucket that was closer to the end point, because it was easier — they’d be carrying the pennies a shorter distance. But most did the opposite. The theory here is that our brains don’t like to work harder than they have to. Keeping an end goal in mind taxes the brain’s working memory — even if that goal is something as dumb as carrying a bucket full of pennies across a finish line. And if there’s an immediate way to reduce that mental effort, most people will grab for it. 

I do a version of this every day when debating which of two subway routes to take home: When I leave work, I take the subway that’s right outside my office, as I’ve deemed the seven-minute walk to the other option “too far.” But my choice of subway inevitably leads to a longer ride, because I have to transfer; the other one’s a straight shot. My usual subway line isn’t a faster way of getting home, but it feels like it is, and to our minds, that’s sometimes the same thing.