For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing about pro–crastination,1,2 “willingly deferring something though you expect the delay to make you worse off.”3 Pre–crastination is intentionally completing tasks quickly just to get them done sooner, or to get them done so that you no longer have to remember to get them done. Edward Wasserman calls this the “fierce urgency of now.”4
Author and writer for The Guardian Oliver Burkeman puts this same concept this way: Precrastinators “do things sooner than they really need to be done, even if it costs us more time and energy that way, simply for the feeling of having them over with.”5 For me, it also supports my long-standing habit to do it now if I can do it now! And, it supports even more our tendency to procrastinate even though we’ve been schooled not to by phrases such as: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. He who hesitates is lost. Procrastination is the thief of time.6
So, I might say it this way: “Precrastination is what you do when you are procrastinating.” Let me give you an example: My big scheduled tasks for this day have been to do the research for and the first draft of this essay and to prepare for an evening meeting focusing on some strategic issues facing an organization I’m affiliated with. These are the sorts of tasks that require clear and careful thinking. So even with those tasks before me, I’ve pro-crastinated by pre-crastinating, addressing short tasks where I knew what to do.
For example, as I scrolled past the screen that displays my open inbox, I was naturally drawn to several unanswered messages and I responded to those that sought a response to an issue where I knew the answer. Great! Got that done! I saw the mailman arrive and leave mail in my mailbox.
I resisted the tug of mail in the mailbox for a few moments but soon paused, further procrastinating on what I was doing, walked out to the street, got the mail I’d seen the mailman leave and proceed to open it, all the while fully expecting that nothing of significance would be there. (And, there wasn’t.)
I could go on and on. But, I won’t. Most likely, your day has not been all that different from mine. I’ve precrastinated because there were easy, most often unscheduled, and not that critical, tasks that needed to be done. And, when I completed a task, I could pat myself on the back and say, “Good job!!” much the same as I would say to my two-year-old great-granddaughter after she picked up the toys scattered around the room. And, this self-congratulation really does feel good.
If we want to successfully get our precrastination and procrastination under better control, we need to address four issues:
- Better control the interruption of the tasks we planned to work on to do the task that “floated” into our attention – e.g., the unanswered email we spotted on our screen.
- Make sure those tasks that “floated” into our attention that we do not do immediately don’t get lost – e.g., the reminder that you need to check in with a friend to see how he or she is doing, the email you need to send to your team about the project timeline, etc.
- Address the need for more frequent opportunities to say to ourselves, “Good job!” – e.g., we really do need opportunities to remind ourselves that the work we are doing is important and good.
- And, we need to keep our focus on the work that we planned to do instead of either procrastinating or precrastinating.
I believe that we already have tools at hand that will help us address all four of these needs:
- We need to have a well thought out plan for the day. I’ve talked about that in previous Tuesday Readings, see for example Your Calendar and Your Daily Calendar. We each need to have a daily habit of developing a truly comprehensive plan for the day, including all the tasks you intend to do that day. Leave time for the unexpected.
- The plan/schedule for your day needs to list, with time requirements, all of the tasks and other commitments, both large and small, that you plan to allocate time to during your work day. Since your schedule, to be effective, should also make time allocations, there are two warnings that we need to take seriously: First, we all have a tendency to put more tasks into our day than we will possibly be able to do. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. And, second, we’ll allocate less time to each task than we will actually need to complete that task. This is a time when you have to be brutally honest with your estimates. And, finally, make sure that you include time for yourself. Have several short periods when you can just do nothing. Get away from your desk, go for a short walk outside, be by yourself and let your mind drift. It’s good for both your physical and mental health.
- In planning the day, divide those large, longer tasks, into a set of smaller ones each having meaningful intermediate results that will give you cause for celebration. As I noted in last week’s Tuesday Reading, Reducing My Habitual Procrastination, English author from the Victorian era, Anthony Trollope, who published 47 novels plus plays, short-stories and works of non-fiction, always wrote with a target of 250 words every 15 minutes. This allowed him to enjoy feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction every 15 minutes while continuing with the larger task of writing a book. If he could do this, we should be able to do something similar that serves the same goal. And, this would be very beneficial to our work.
So, we’ve now discussed both precrastination and procrastination and given each of us some important tools to address both situations. The question is whether we’ll make the effort and develop the self-discipline required to consistently change the way we work. I’m going to have a go at it in the coming weeks. I hope that you will as well.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
- Jim Bruce, “Procrastinators Anonymous: Yes, both I and you are most likely members of this club,” Tuesday Reading, April 9, 2019.
- Jim Bruce, “Reducing My Habitual Procrastination,” Tuesday Reading, April 16, 2019.
- Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair and Professor of Organizational Behavior and Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business as quoted by James Surowiecki in “Later: What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?,” The New Yorker, October 2010.
- Edward A. Wasserman, “Precrastination: The fierce urgency of now,” Learning & Behavior, March, 2019.
- Oliver Burkeman, “This Column Will Change Your Life: Precrastination,” The Guardian, July 2014.
- David A. Rosenbaum and Edward A. Wasserman, “Pre-Crastination: The Opposite of Procrastination,” Scientific American, June, 2015.