How often do you put off important tasks? We all know the dangers of procrastination; doing something, or nothing, to put off doing an important task. But potentially even more dangerous than procrastination is precrastination. I first heard this term reading the book Start Now, Get Perfect Later by Rob Moore. Moore describes precrastination as the “illusion of busyness we create by ‘getting things ready’ before we start.” After doing a deeper dive into precrastination, I read that the term was coined by psychology professor David Rosenbaum as “a tendency to work on tasks at the earliest opportunity—even if it means more work or comes with extra costs.”

In the lean manufacturing world, we define work as being either value added or non-value added. Value added work meets these three criteria: work that the customer is willing to pay for, work that physically transforms the product, document, information, or service to meet the needs of the customer, and work that is done right the first time (it doesn’t need to be done again or fixed later). Anything else is non-value added work; those process steps in a value stream that take time, resources or space, but do not transform or shape the product or service to meet the needs of the customer. While procrastinating means completely putting off important tasks, precrastinating means keeping yourself busy and using valuable time, energy, and brainpower completing lower value tasks and, therefore, taking those resources away from higher value tasks.

The main issue with precrastination is that you believe you are being productive, while in reality you are putting off more important tasks by completing less important tasks first. Jessica Stillman writes for that “We can make ourselves less productive by rushing to do tasks, just as much as by putting them off.” Instead of tackling the most important tasks first, we start checking off less important tasks on our to-do lists. Rather than than making the important phone call, we answer every email in our inbox regardless of importance. Rather than starting on the huge order at work, we complete many smaller, less important orders first. Maddy Savage and Ginerva Boni write: “As opposed to a procrastinator, who might leave an inbox full of emails untouched until the next day, a precrastinator would read and respond to each of them first thing in the morning. Even if they know most of the emails are unimportant, they would choose to clear them off as soon as possible. In some cases, this can mean depleting the precious energy they might need for a more urgent task later on.” Instead of focusing on the highest value tasks first, we focus on lower or non-value tasks.

Rosenbaum and fellow psychologist Edward Wasserman say “… that pre-crastination amounts to grabbing low-hanging fruit.” Nick Wignall writes that “Just like in procrastination, precrastination involves making a decision based on what feels good in the moment rather than what’s in our long-term best interest.” Checking things off of our to-do list feels really good. “It’s inherently satisfying to check things off. Princeton neuroscientists found that the reward center in your brain, called the nucleus accumbens, is activated more strongly when you complete a less-effortful task,” writes Erik Winkowsk. Winkowsk continues: “But all those ticked boxes can, paradoxically, hamper your productivity. When faced with a long to-do list or a complex goal, most people are drawn to the tasks or subgoals with a short completion window and more immediate payoff.” This is a major problem. People, teams, and businesses can believe they had a productive day, but in reality only completed low or non-value added tasks. Enough days like this and the person, team, or business will fail.

It is pretty clear why people procrastinate. Usually this means doing nothing or doing something fun rather than working. The short term pay off of doing something fun rather than working is obvious, even though it hurts us in the long run. But why we precrastinate can be much more complicated.

There are a few theories about why we precrastinate. From an evolutionary perspective, going for the quick, easy payoff could have been the difference between survival and starvation for our hunter gatherer ancestors. The old adage ‘one in the hand is better than two in the bush’ comes to play here. Our ancient ancestors were often looking for enough food to survive, so using the least amount of energy and going for the fastest payoff had an immediate reward. One food item that was guaranteed now was better than multiple food items not guaranteed later. The calories would hit our system and the brain would reward us with a sense of accomplishment. Getting multiple, quick rewards lead to looking for more quick rewards and the cycle was perpetuated. Our modern world and work is much more complicated than the eat or do not eat problem, but our brains have not yet evolved to account for this and we still seek the quick reward. Being aware of this is the first step to seeing it within your processes.

Another reason people precrastinate is “to get the thought of the undone task out of their heads and quiet their minds,” writes Jessica Stillman. Managing a to-do list takes its own amount of time and energy, so by quickly ticking items off of that list we reduce the amount of brainpower and energy need to maintain the list. However, what ends up happening is we use our limited time and energy completing our low value tasks in order to free up our brains for the high value tasks, but end up using all of the energy needed for the high value tasks completing the low value tasks. It is a catch-22; we think we are freeing our minds for the bigger tasks but end up tiring ourselves out before we can even get to those tasks.

Davis Rosenbaum did an experiment in 2014 where he asked students to carry a bucket across a finish line. A student started on one side; one bucket was placed half way between the student and the finish line, a second bucket was placed close to the finish line. Most of the study participants would pick up the bucket closest to them, but farthest away from the finish line, and then carry it the distance to the finish line. This surprised Rosenbaum. The subjects could have easily picked up the bucket closest to the finish line, but farther away from themselves, and moved it just a fraction of the distance to save a lot of effort and energy. “In doing so, the college students prioritized getting started on a task earlier, even if it meant expending more energy in the longer term. In short, they chose to work hard, rather than work smart,” writes Rajvi Desai. People believe that getting started earlier is better, even if waiting means less work in the long run. This reminds me of the famous saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: if I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening my axe. Careful planning and preparation may mean the starting time of the task is pushed off until later, but once the task is started it is completed faster and with less effort.

So, how do you overcome precrastination and focus on the highest value added work first? Highly decorated (retired) Navy SEAL commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explain their four combat principals in their book Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win, and one is a perfect solution to precrastination: Prioritize and Execute. Willink and Babin write:

“To implement Prioritize and Execute in any business, team, or organization, a leader must:

  • lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team.
  • develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders and from the team where possible.
  • direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task.
  • move on to the next highest priority task. Repeat.
  • when priorities shift within the team, pass situational awareness both up and down the chain.
  • don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed.”

If people, teams, leaders, and businesses focus effort and resources towards accomplishing the highest priority tasks, while at the same time constantly reassessing what those priorities are and being flexible as they change, energy will be directed towards the most valuable tasks first.

Other ways to avoid precrastination are:

Reduce the size of your to-do list. “We’re more likely to precrastinate the busier we are, so taking time to clear out your to-do list by delegating tasks, streamlining processes, or simple getting better at saying no can help you feel less of a need to rush,” writes Jessica Stillman.

Get better at scheduling and planning. Plan your day and schedule your time so that the most valuable and highest return tasks are completed first, or when you will have the most energy to focus on them. Jeff Bezos plans all of his most important meetings and tasks for between 10:00am and noon when he will have the most brain power. Don’t leave high brain power tasks for later in the day when you are more tired and likely to make worse decisions.

Redefine what progress means to you. Prioritize quality over quantity. Accomplishing just a few high value tasks can make you more productive than checking off many lower value tasks. Instead of progress meaning busyness, progress should mean taking care of the important things first. Processes that provide the highest return on investment of time, energy, and effort should at the top of your list.

Understand the needs of your customer, spouse, or co-worker. If you truly understand what your customer is looking for and create a value stream that focuses on value added tasks that benefit the customer, then you are always putting the customer’s needs first. If you do not understand exactly what your customer, friend, spouse, or co-worker need from you, you cannot effectively prioritize your to-do list to provide the most value to them and will waste your limited time and energy on unimportant tasks.

Use logic instead of emotion. Rather than focusing on what feels good in the moment, focus on those tasks that will have the biggest impact on your long term goals, values, and ideals.

Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks. One of the reasons we put off larger and harder tasks is because we know they will take a lot of effort and energy. Because we know it will be hard, we instead choose to do smaller, easier, and faster tasks first. To reduce or eliminate putting off tasks because you are intimidated or overwhelmed by them, start by breaking your large tasks into smaller more manageable tasks that you can then prioritize and begin. Not only will you now have easier individual tasks to accomplish, but they will actually be building towards you completing a high value task.

I hope that by understanding how both procrastination and precrastination affect your productivity, you will better improve your schedule to get more important things done first and gain more value from the limited amount of time you have. Rajvi Desai explains it well: “Both procrastination and precrastination come from people trying to find shortcuts in how to be efficient and productive — for some, the pressure of last-minute deadlines provides a boost, for others, the instant gratification of early progress is the clincher. But at the end of the day, the only practice that can actually help someone better organize their tasks and lives is careful, strategic planning.” In conclusion, if you are going to put something off until later, make sure you are putting off the lower value tasks in favor if your higher value tasks.

-Tyson Simmons



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