Procrastination and pre-crastination can be seen as the opposite extremes of the “delivering tasks on deadline” axis. Yet, while procrastination has been studied thoroughly in the past 30 years, pre-crastination has been discovered only recently (the term was first coined in 2014), thanks to the experiments of David A. Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong, and Cory Adam Potts. This article aims to take a closer scientific look at these behaviors and their correlates.
“While everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator”
Why do we talk so much about procrastination these days? Is it that new or is it more prevalent than in the past? Is it our worst enemy against productivity or could it have a positive effect too? Is it genetic, or is it something that develops over time? Let’s find out.
Probably the most famous quote about procrastination nowadays belongs to Dr. Joseph Ferrari, one of the leading researchers in the field. He states that “while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator”. This suggests that while everybody may postpone an action from time to time as a means to gather more information and reduce uncertainty, not everyone procrastinates as a lifestyle: being late at every meeting, missing all deadlines, postponing everything until the last minute, in every aspect of their lives. Research has unveiled that 20% of adults (Harriott and Ferrari, 1996, cited by Rozental and Carlbring, 2014) and 50% of the student population (Day, Mensink, and O’Sullivan, 2000, cited by Rozental and Carlbring, 2014 ) may be chronic procrastinators, which is more common than depression or any other phobia, according to Dr. Ferrari (Ward, 2020). And because there are very deep psychological causes behind chronic procrastination, the author recommends cognitive behavioral therapy instead of time management techniques. This explains why so many chronic procrastinators still struggle even after reading tones of self-help books on productivity. They seem to be efficient only for the other 80% (Ward, 2020), since, for them, procrastination might be more tied to task characteristics, than personality traits.
Building on the Latin origin of the term (pro, meaning “forward, forth, or in favor of” and crastinus, meaning “of tomorrow”) and other previous studies in the field, Dr. Piers Steel (2007, 66) suggests that:
To procrastinate is to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.PIERS STEEL
Citations of procrastination have appeared ever since 800 BC, when Hesiod, the Greek poet, was warning “to not put work off till tomorrow and the day after” (Works and Days, l413, cited by Steel, 2007) and later in 400 BC (Thucydides) and 44 BC (Cicero) (Steel, 2007). Although it seems to have been present since ancient times, Milgram (1992, cited by Steel, 2007) states that procrastination is the product of technically advanced societies, functioning on numerous deadlines and commitments. However, Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown offer a more nuanced perspective suggesting that the industrial revolution is only responsible for the negative connotations of procrastination, not its creation (1995, cited by Steel, 2007). Which seems plausible given that the act of postponing becomes more visible when referenced to a deadline and more probable when multiple competing deadlines are at stake. Given that it is not a new behavior, the next question that arises is what makes it possible? Why are we procrastinating and when are we most likely to do it?
In his book – Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman describes how the two main parts of our brain – the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex – influence our thought processes and how they interact. The limbic system is our most ancient and dominant part of the brain and is in control of our most basic drives (hunger, thirst, and sex drive), moods and emotions (fear, excitement, pleasure). Its processes are automatic – thus the fast thinking – and our fight or flight responses reside in here (in the amygdala, to be more precise). The newest part of our brain, which sets us apart from other animals, is the prefrontal cortex, responsible with working memory, executive function (organizing knowledge, making a decision, and acting on it), postponing gratification, long term planning, regulating emotions and controlling impulses (Sapolsky, 2018, 60). Its processes are slower – thus the slow thinking – and, as neuroendocrinology researcher and author Robert M. Sapolsky defines it, “it makes us do the most difficult thing when it is the right thing to do” (2018, 60). Hence, every time we refrain from eating junk food when we are hungry and prepare a healthy salad instead, it is a proof of our prefrontal cortex in action.
According to the study of academic procrastination in college students performed by Laura Rabin and other colleagues, procrastination may arise due to problems in one or each of the following executive functions of the prefrontal cortex: inhibition, self-monitoring, planning and organization, activity shifting, task initiation, task monitoring, emotional control, working memory, and general orderliness.
Our ability to inhibit our impulses is what makes us choose the most difficult, but right, thing to do from a moral or socially acceptable point of view. Problems with the inhibition function make us fall prey to our impulses and binge watch TV instead of working on those urgent tasks.
If we combine failing to inhibit our impulses with a deficit in the self-monitoring function – not being able to understand the effect that our behavior has on us and others – we have a recipe for successful procrastination. Because we fail to see the domino effect that delaying one task has on the overall project timeline, we will continue to postpone that task. Which would not be such a bad thing if we were the only ones involved in those projects.
The planning and organizing function is “our ability to manage present and future task demands” (King, 2018). When in deficit we are unable to set realistic goals and plan our projects (meaning to divide them into more manageable components). This leaves a lot of room for procrastination since we might be too focused on planning instead of actually starting to work on the projects.
Activity shifting refers to how easily we switch from one task or state to another. Therefore, our procrastinating behavior might be linked to our inability to move from the inactive mode to working mode. This is also correlated with task initiation, since most procrastinators have problems with committing themselves to actually start a task.
Task monitoring is our ability to evaluate the progress we made on our projects. When impaired we have trouble prioritizing tasks and accurately assess the amount of effort they require to be completed. Once again, it will be much easier to do something else than working on a task we thought would be a lot easier than it actually is.
Emotional control is our ability to regulate our emotions. Remember that emotions are tied up to our limbic system and they are changing very fast. So our inability to control our reactions to them will make us act on the spur of the moment. We might easily give in to the pleasure of scrolling through social media or eating a box of ice-cream instead of postponing these instant gratifications until our work is done.
Working memory “is the capacity that allows us to retain and manipulate for brief periods of time small amounts of information no longer available in the environment” (Baddeley, 1998, 2003, cited by Fernandez et al, 2021). Has it ever happened to you to go to a different room in search of something and once you got there you forgot why you left in the first place? That is a working memory problem. Therefore, we might easily get distracted by whatever we find in the room.
General orderliness, is the one that helps us create a system for organizing everything so that they can be accessed later on. If this function is impaired, we might not have such a system in place therefore making it harder to find what we need in order to work on our projects. We may not be able to find that important email, or the folder we saved the photo inspiration to and so on. And of course we will procrastinate again.
Therefore, from a neuropsychological point of view, procrastination is a self-regulatory failure. This findings are consistent also with previous studies on the correlates between procrastination and the five-factor personality model. According to Dr. Piers Steel, procrastination seems to be representative for low conscientiousness and high impulsiveness (2007). By combining the huge body of research on procrastination from multiple fields (psychology, sociology, political science, and economics) with TMT (temporal motivation theory), the author has coined the Procrastination Equation.
He states that procrastination is higher when motivation is lower and it all depends on our expectations of succeeding at a task (expectancy), the importance or pleasure we attribute to the task (value), our ability to control our impulses and not act upon them immediately (impulsiveness), and the interval of time between the completion of the task and the reward for it (delay). The higher expectancy and value are, the more motivated we become. In contrast, when impulsiveness and delay are higher, procrastination is too (Steel, 2012). This explains why most of us procrastinate on starting that workout routine we know would be great for us on the long run. It is physically painful on the short term and the results are not quick to notice. Low value and high delay.
I personally like the procrastination equation because it takes into account task characteristics, personality, as well as the time factor. And it helps us to better understand why everyone may procrastinate and in which situations we are more likely to do it (in other words, when self-regulation is lower). It also gives us an indication about which factors we can manipulate in order to be more productive:
- By waiting 10 minutes before acting on our impulses might help us “surf the urge”, instead of drowning in it – also know as the 10 minute rule (Eyal, 2019)
- Small rewards after each progress made on a project instead of a single one at the end will lower the delay factor
- Finding the pleasant aspects in every task and delegating the others to someone else (who might actually enjoy them) will increase the perceived value of the task
- And expecting to grow and learn along the journey instead of failing or succeeding will certainly increase the motivation to work on our tasks
The expectancy variable of Piers Steel might be correlated with the findings of Joseph Ferrari regarding the triggers behind procrastination. According to professor Ferrari’s research, the main concern of a chronic procrastinator is social esteem protection. Therefore procrastination can be triggered by the fear of failure, the fear of success, or the fear of being blamed (Ward, 2020). He argues that “the chronic procrastinator would rather have other people think that they lack effort than lacking ability”. Ability is something more constant and more tied to our personality, while effort can be linked to external elements, such as time or technology (I didn’t have enough time to do a great job).
Fear of failure might be the most common reason for procrastinating and it has been associated with perfectionism. But perfectionism per se does not cause or predict procrastination (Ward, 2020). According to Dr. Ferrari “the procrastinator is perfectionistic for a desire to get along, while the non-procrastinator is perfectionistic to get ahead” (Ward, 2020). Once again it becomes an issue of social esteem protection: I want you to like me vs. I want to do a good job.
The fear of success might be associated with a mix of guilt and responsibility. When chronic procrastinators really put effort into something and obtain very good results, they feel guilty for all the times they underperformed and responsible for delivering the same good results in the future. Which is still uncomfortable (King, 2018).
Lastly, procrastination might be triggered by the fear of being blamed for a bad outcome following a decision. This type of procrastination is more tied to decision making and appears as indecisiveness (we procrastinate on making the decision, instead of implementing it). The more options on the table, the harder to make a decision. Very often people who procrastinate to make decisions prefer that other people do it on their behalf. That way, they cannot be blamed if something goes wrong (Ward, 2020).
PREcrastination: a different kind of self-regulatory failure
Although the body of literature about procrastination has increased considerably since the 1980s, pre-crastination has been discovered only recently. The term first appeared in an article published in 2014 by David Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong and Cory Adam Potts. While conducting nine experiments on walking and reaching the researchers discovered that there is a “human tendency of hastening the completion of a subgoal, even at the expense of extra effort” (2014). They named this phenomenon pre-crastination.
Precrastination – the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra physical effort.
I would add that while everybody may pre-crastinate, not everyone is a pre-crastinator. We all have tasks that we may finish very early before the deadline, especially if they are motivating for us. However, like in the case of a chronic procrastinator, a chronic pre-crastinator does it as a lifestyle. And it is as detrimental as chronic procrastination. Why? Because a pre-crastinator has this constant urge to finish right away every task that appears. Interrupting others out of the fear of losing ones idea, responding to emails as soon as they enter the inbox, or grabbing the first item on the shelf when shopping even if it means carrying it longer.
Hence, if procrastinators have issues with committing themselves to working on the tasks at hand in a timely manner, pre-crastinators have issues NOT committing themselves right away to anything that needs their attention. Procrastinators waste time by postponing, pre-crastinators waste effort by not prioritizing.
According to David Rosenbaum, pre-crastination might be tied to our evolution as a human species. Hunter-gatherers had to seize all opportunities that nature presented them at every moment. Grab that fruit now, because there is no certainty about tomorrow. So, it is so wired in our limbic system that is hard to resist. Which means that, as with procrastination, pre-crastination is also a self-regulatory failure. But it might be more correlated with high conscientiousness than impulsiveness. The urge to do a good job when others depend on us makes us want to start right away so that we have enough time.
Another reason for pre-crastinating, says professor Rosenbaum, might be related to our working memory. By getting rid of the small, easy tasks quickly, the load of the working memory is reduced, thus making room for more difficult tasks. However, states the author, this might not be the entire story. A more simpler explanation would be that task completion is rewarding in and of itself (2015).
When it comes to emotional triggers, the emotion that a pre-crastinator is looking to alleviate is the anxiety about future uncertainty (Rosenbaum et al, 2014). And in this quest to control the future, precrastintors might really struggle to pause and relax.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Procrastination affects both the individual and the people around. Although it manifests as an escape from unpleasant emotions, because the action that is postponed was something planned and intended, procrastination is always followed by guilt. In addition, by missing deadlines, especially when working in a team, it creates a domino effect that will negatively impact the entire team. We live in a world of deadlines and if one piece in the chain does not do its part, the entire chain suffers.
Yet, when it comes to chronic pre-crastination it is not that obvious why it can be harmful. After all, pre-crastinators do a lot of things, and way before the deadline. The hard truth is that pre-crastination is harmful to oneself in a more subversive way than procrastination. Since, as long as there are things that need to be done, pausing and relaxing are not options. Work never seems to end, no matter how trivial tasks might be. The result is energy depletion and very often burnout. So while it is highly beneficial for the team to have someone always willing to start project work early (it leaves a lot of room for trial and error), it is actually more harmful than it seems for the individual.
The interesting part is that procrastination and pre-crastination are each one a cure for the other.
Benefits of procrastination
First of all, by postponing a task, there is a high chance it might not be needed anymore.
Second, by not addressing a task or a project the instant it made it on the to-do list, we might benefit from more clarity once more information is made available. By waiting a little longer before starting a task pre-crastintors might avoid the risk of rework, thus making better use of their effort.
Third, procrastination might be our intuition that prevents us from making a bad decision (King, 2018). When our mind and our emotions are not aligned about something, we tend to postpone the decision in order to make sure it is the right one for us. Pausing to reflect will help pre-crastinators making sure they work on those tasks that bring value and don’t waste effort on the trivial ones.
Benefits of pre-crastination
When we look at how pre-crastination can help chronic procrastinators, the main benefit is the use of the planning phase. Starting early to work on a task does not mean implementing it right away. In every project there is a considerable amount of planning that happens at the beginning to inform the execution phase. By taking the time to plan and divide the work that needs to be done in smaller pieces, procrastinators might realize that the task was not as scary as they thought. Planning brings clarity regarding the goal, as well as a direction on how to approach it little by little. The fear of failure dissipates when we know exactly what we have to do.
In addition, by starting early there is more time for experimenting and improvements.
As it turns out, there are some benefits to procrastinating and pre-crastinating from time to time. We just have to be honest with ourselves and act upon them when they bring us and the people around more harm than good. In this case it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a quick fix and overcoming either of these habits is not something we should expect doing over night. There is a tiny war going on in our brain and in order to train our prefrontal cortex to control our impulses better takes time. As Nir Eyal states “time management is pain management” (2019) and to overcome unpleasant emotions is more often easier said than done. However, that does not make it impossible. You can read about my personal journey on dealing with these behaviors (there are no books yet on how to overcome pre-crastination), browse the books referenced in this article, or reach out to a therapist if that feels right. No matter your choice of action, please remember to be kind and patient with yourself in the process. Studies have shown that practicing self-compassion is beneficial for overcoming procrastination.
- Eyal, N. (2019). Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Fernandez, A., Pinal, D., Diaz, F., Zurron, M. (2021). Working memory load modulates oscillatory activity and the distribution of fast frequencies across frontal theta phase during working memory maintenance. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 183, 107476.
- Ferrari, J. (2010). Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide To Getting It Done. Wiley
- Sirois, F.M. (2014) Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13:2, 128-145, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2013.763404
- Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- King, P. (2018). The Science of Overcoming Procrastination: How to Be Disciplined, Break Inertia, Manage Your Time, and Be Productive. Get Off Your Butt and Get Things Done! [Kindle edition] Big Mind LLC.
- Rabin, L.A, Fogel, J., and Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2010). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 33(3):344-57, DOI: 10.1080/13803395.2010.518597
- Rosenbaum, D.A., Wasserman, E.A. (2015). Pre-Crastination: The Opposite of Procrastination. Scientific American, available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pre-crastination-the-opposite-of-procrastination/
- Rosenbaum, D.A., Gong, L., Potts, C.A. (2014). Pre-Crastination: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort. Psychological Science 25(7), available at (PDF) Pre-Crastination (researchgate.net)
- Rozental, A. & Carlbring, P. (2014). Understanding and Treating Procrastination: A Review of a Common Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychology, 5, 1488-1502. doi: 10.4236/psych.2014.513160.
- Sapolsky, R.M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Publica
- Steel, P. (2012). The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. Harper Perennial.
- Steel, P. (2007). The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 133, No. 1, 65–94, available at (PDF) The nature of procrastination | Piers Steel – Academia.edu
- Ward, A. (Host). (2020, February). Volitional Psychology (PROCRASTINATION) with Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari [Audio podcast episode]. In Ologies with Alie Ward. https://open.spotify.com/episode/5VlxM1jx9QcpDG8ljer0GX