July 29, 2014 by Kay Grossman

So THAT’s what I’m doing when I clear emails and complete simple, relatively trivial tasks throughout the day rather than tackle substantial, clearly more important tasks. I’m precrastinating!

That’s according to research published in the May journal of Psychological Science and described in journalist Matt Richtel’s recent article, “Sometimes Early Birds Are Too Early,” in the New York Times (July 20, 2014).

Whereas procrastination is putting off until later something that needs to get done now, precrastination is defined as “an irrational choice” to finish something sooner than necessary.


One of the explanations for precrastination is that by answering emails and paying bills early, people limit the burden on their “working memory,” the RAM memory that allows us to briefly hold and manipulate multiple items in our minds. Rather than load our working memory with what needs to be done later, we take care of it “now,” freeing up working memory capacity for other things.

I propose that our urge to free up working memory space is not the only force fueling precrastination. Another is our brain’s natural attempt to conserve energy.

In its default mode, our brain will take us to whatever is more enjoyable and less effortful than the task at hand. It takes far less glucose to respond to an incoming email than it does to write a proposal or fill out an expense report. Only with an intentional override of our brain’s natural desire to do something less taxing can many of us focus on something that requires more brain power.

The downside of getting things done early, as Richtel’s article mentions, is that completing many small tasks “might collectively consume significant resources.” Those resources could otherwise be used for accomplishing more significant work. That is why many productivity gurus suggest we do the more demanding task of prioritizing our day before answering emails.

Oh well. When all is said and done, I’m fairly certain that my precrastination activities serve as my procrastination techniques. I’ve got a presentation to work on this afternoon. I think I’ll go clear my email.

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