Jun 02, 2014
Some like the whooshing sounds of deadlines as they fly by; some never have to face deadlines because they are often early. Putting off tasks until later or procrastination is a common phenomenon — but new research suggests that “pre-crastination,” or hurrying to complete a task as soon as possible, may also be common.
In fact, the urge to complete a task as soon as possible in precrastinators is so strong that they don’t mind putting up extra physical effort or risk to do so.
According to a research published in the journal Psychological Science, people often choose to begin a chore as soon as possible to get it off their desk, even if they have to do more physical effort to do so.
Psychological scientist and study author David Rosenbaum of Pennsylvania State University says, “Most of us feel stressed about all the things we need to do — we have to-do lists, not just on slips of paper we carry with us or on our iPhones, but also in our heads,”
“Our findings suggest that the desire to relieve the stress of maintaining that information in working memory can cause us to over-exert ourselves physically or take extra risks,” Rosenbaum adds.
During the study, the researchers explored the trade-off between the weight of a load and how far people would carry it. College students who participated in the study were made to stand at one end of an alley along which two plastic beach buckets were stationed.
The students were instructed to walk down the alley without stopping and to pick up one of the two buckets and drop it off at the endpoint. An overwhelming tendency was seen in the participants; they chose whichever bucket had the shorter approach distance, even though that meant they would have to carry it further.
The researchers were intrigued by their unreasonable findings, and decided to enquire further. Researchers conducted nine experiments with the participants with exactly the same general setup. The positions of the two buckets were relatively varied to the starting point and the students were asked to do whatever seemed easier- pick up and carry the left bucket with the left hand or pick up and carry the right bucket with the right hand.
During the first three experiments, participants chose whichever bucket had the shorter approach distance, which meant carrying them for a longer distance. The subsequent experiments helped researchers to rule out various potential explanations like problems with hand-foot coordination and differences in attention.
Then, the students were asked to explain their choices. Most of them said that they “wanted to get the task done as soon as they could.” “Our findings indicate that while our participants did care about physical effort, they also cared a lot about mental effort,” says Rosenbaum. “They wanted to complete one of the subordinate tasks they had to do, picking up the bucket, in order to finish the entire task of getting the bucket to the drop-off site.”
By picking up the near bucket, they could check that task off their mental to-do lists more quickly than if they picked up the far bucket,” he explains. “Their desire to lighten their mental load was so strong that they were willing to expend quite a bit of extra physical effort to do so.”
This task of picking the buckets may be trivial but it gives researchers an insight into the participants’ mental to-do lists. These findings also raise questions such as, ‘What’s the relationship between procrastination and pre-crastination,’ which Rosenbaum and his colleagues hope to investigate.
“Almost all the people we tested pre-crastinated,” Rosenbaum points out, “so procrastinating and pre-crastinating may turn out to be two different things.”
The researchers also aim to investigate if physical ability limitations play a role in this effect. “If it’s a big deal for someone to carry a load a long distance, then he or she may be more judicious in their decision-making,” Rosenbaum explains. “Elderly or frail people may therefore have better memory management abilities than more able-bodied individuals.”
Journal of Psychological Science belongs to the Association for Psychological Science and this study was supported in part by a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship to D.A. Rosenbaum and an Oak Ridge Institue for Science and Education Fellowship to L. Gong.
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