Precrastination

Precrastination” is a concept I first heard about a few weeks ago. The name makes it sound like just another tedious manifestation of the cult of early, but it’s a bit more interesting than that.

As the linked article explains, precrastination is when you do things quickly for the sake of getting them done sooner, even if that means losing other benefits. Quickly replying to an email with a message that doesn’t actually move things on at all, just to get it out of your inbox. Paying a bill early so you don’t have to worry about it any more (which to me is completely rational, given that the interest you’d earn by holding on to the money is probably between zero and 1p). Ordering that textbook online right now rather than buying it from a local shop tomorrow, even though the online purchase means you’ll have to wait longer before you actually get your hands on the book.

A couple of years ago I helped a relative buy some birthday gifts for another relative, and I was surprised at her sense of urgency. She felt she had to get everything bought by the end of that day, even though the birthday was over three weeks away.  In her hurry to get the task finished, she misunderstood my suggestions and ended up getting the wrong items. And because the items were bought so very early, once the birthday rolled round and it became clear the items were wrong, it was uncomfortably close to the end of the exchange-or-return period and we had to rush to swap the items for the right ones.

Still on the subject of gifts: in my family, a person with a birthday coming up will often circulate a list of presents they would like. (It’s not done in the spirit of avariciousness, more in a spirit of “I know I’m hard to buy for, let me help you out.”) There is one family member who used to respond to these lists by immediately buying everything on it. In the pre-internet days that would involve a shopping trip the next day or maybe the next weekend; once Amazon came along, it all got done in less than an hour. Highly efficient – and incredibly annoying to all the other family members left scratching around for gift ideas. Eventually we Had Words.

It’s clear that precrastination doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. So why do we do it? Many of these actions could easily be prompted by a cult-of-early mindset. But I think there’s more to it than that. The cult of early is about thinking that your actions are intrinsically better because they’re performed early. I think precrastination is more about closing loops. So a precrastinator who pays a bill early isn’t being smug about their superior money management; they’re paying the bill early so they won’t have to give it any more brain-space. They want to be done.  They want to close that loop. I think it’s the same with all precrastination.

The concept of “open loops” comes from the time-management system GTD. An open loop is basically a piece of unfinished business, and most of us have hundreds at any given time. One of the big GTD concepts is getting those loops out of your head, where they drain energy, and into some trusted system. But many people – most people? – don’t have a trusted system. So our open loops buzz around our heads and when the chance comes to close one easily, it’s as satisfying as swatting a fly.

People who email you saying: “This isn’t urgent, but if I don’t email you now I will forget”? They are trying to close a loop in their own head by pushing it in your direction. They’re not being malicious, but now “Poss meetup discuss dept reorg June???” is on your plate. And then the temptation is to do a spot of precrastination yourself by sending a quick yet unhelpful reply that bounces it back to them.

Of course, closing a really big loop, like signing off on a major project, is scary as well as freeing. Your lizard brain is frightened. I think that’s why “perfectionist” project leaders indulge in the utterly toxic behaviour of stalling a project by reopening other people’s closed loops. They drain other people’s energy and morale so they can put off the vulnerable moment of completion and stay in the comfortable place of nearly-done for as long as possible.

That’s also why some people’s novels are “nearly finished” for such a long time – but I learnt recently that it’s surprisingly common for authors to submit early, not-quite-finished drafts of their novels to publishers just because they’re sick of writing and want to get the book off their hands. (Publishers don’t like this.)

It would be lovely to conclude that precrastination and procrastination are opposites, so if you’re guilty of one you probably won’t tend towards the other. But my hunch is that the vast majority of us have a problem with both, often at the same time.

Why? Well, think about the kind of stuff we procrastinate on. It’s the big, scary hard stuff, right? Tim Urban of Wait but Why is the author of the most insightful writing on procrastination I have ever read. In his post How to Beat Procrastination (a follow-up to Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, which you should read first) he describes a procrastinator’s planning session:

A big list of icky, daunting tasks and undertakings.

We procrastinate because we don’t really know how to start on the big icky list, and working out how to start is work, because decision-making is work, and defining your options in the first place is work, and dealing with all this open-endedness is a drain on your cognitive resource and makes you feel kind of icky. But you can get yourself a nice energy boost and a feeling of satisfaction by doing a small, do-able thing and getting it done done done.

So we pay our credit card bills quickly. We press “reply all” and write “Copying in Pam for her thoughts on this,” because it’s easier than having our own thoughts on this. We get our Christmas shopping done in November. (Actually, I have a relative who does hers in the January sales, and she’s not even one of the two relatives I’ve already mentioned in this blog post.)

Meanwhile, we drift on the big scary things where there’s no real deadline. We abandon writing that novel after the first chapter. We put off deciding whether or not to try marriage counselling. We get stalled in our PhD studies. Maybe we want to move somewhere new but we don’t put in the work of researching possible places. Maybe we’re unhappy with our job but we don’t put in the work of finding a new one.

The consensus on how to handle this is (all together, now): break up the big icky formless stuff into discrete, manageable tasks and actually schedule those tasks. We all know that; the tough bit is actually doing it. The only extra insight I have is that if you want to achieve big things in your life, you’re going to have to make your peace with open loops, because big and important things don’t tend to get done quickly and simply. Open loops keep claiming our attention and energy. But if you’ve chosen to focus your attention and energy on something, because you’ve decided it’s worth it, it will be OK.

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3 Comments on “Precrastination”

  1. Julieanne Says:

    This has been really interesting to read.You’ve made me realise I’m a precrastinator from way back. Yes, I pay bills quickly so I don’t have to think about them. I am also someone who emails people way ahead of time in case I forget it, but hadn’t thought about the impact that has of throwing it into another persons way and just so I can close the loop my end. But you are right, as this doesn’t work and people do often reply saying ‘later ok’, which means of course it isn’t a closed loop and I end up stressing over it. And make more work for myself.

    As someone who is a compulsive list maker, I shall endeavour to make a note to email someone about a particular subject much closer to the time in future, rather thank emailing them weeks in advance to get it off my plate.

    As you said, some precrastination is good and I’m still going to pay bills immediately, because that is the best use of my time and energy in that situation. But I’ll try and be aware of when this moves from quickly closing the loop to just creating loops for others.

    I’ll read up on those Tim Urban articles. It might help me understand procrastinators better!

    Great piece, very thought provoking.

    • gryphon Says:

      Thanks for this comment! I wasn’t expecting to hear from any self-declared precrastinators! Since I wrote the post I’ve carried on thinking about this topic, trying to work out when loop-closing is good and when it’s bad, wondering what the underlying rule is. I’ll probably end up doing a follow-up post next week.

      I too have been guilty of emailing people too far in advance to “get the ball rolling” but I’ve realised it never works – either they bounce it straight back to me with “Sounds great! Remind me in July!” / “Sounds great! What are your ideas?” or they just don’t reply. Either way, ultimately if I want the thing to happen I need to do more work and trying to close the loop by pushing it to someone else never works.

      GTD is the best system I’ve found for managing open loops to free up your focus without actually closing them. It includes concepts like the “tickler file” – a concertina folder labelled by month/day of the week/whatever. Someone sends you a report to take to the June meeting even though it’s still April? Fine, put it in the June folder and forget about it. Another great concept is the “waiting for” list – just a list of people/things/organisations you’re waiting for. We stress out about things we’re waiting for because we’re afraid we’ll forget – well, the “waiting for” list allows you to just record, and you can also add details like when you last chased them. That way when Colleague A says “I’ll do it on Tuesday,” you don’t start chasing him again on Monday just because the open loop is bugging you and you’re afraid you’ll forget before the end of the day.

      I don’t stick to the GTD principles anywhere near as much as the real converts, but even my half-arsed adoption of it has helped this naturally disorganised person a lot.


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