This morning started innocently enough. I purred awake in a cocoon of toasty sheets and rubbed the sleep from my eyes to find my wife sitting up in bed next to me, fully alert. When she gets excited about something, she can barely contain her enthusiasm. Having stalked her prey for maximum vulnerability, she unleashed a torrent of words at a speed that rendered me incapable of linear thought.
Wife: I found a terrific new app called Do It Later! It lets me schedule emails and texts in advance of when I want to send them so I don’t forget anything! Just consider the possibilities… Birthday and anniversary wishes set a year in advance! Texts to friends that don’t wake them up when I think of ideas in the middle of the night! Emails to demanding clients that I can answer in real time to get my reply out but deliberately delay to counter their unrealistic expectations that I’ll be available 24/7!
My wife had discovered the concept of precrastination, defined in a 2015 Scientific American article as the tendency to complete a task quickly for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later. It enables that subset of humans who compulsively add to their smartphone to do lists or have desks full of post-it notes alleviate what can be considerable anticipatory anxiety.
Technically this is more than just an extension of the automation of drudgery that technology has been aiding and abetting for years. After all, we have our utility bills set to pay automatically from online checking, but while this ensures the bills get paid it does not excuse us from reviewing them on a monthly basis. Precrastination is not about thoughtful advance planning. This is not a college student completing a term paper over a few weeks or a business inquiry being fielded by a customer relations specialist in a comprehensive manner. It is the fulfillment of an urge to complete small, trivial tasks for the pleasure of the quick and easy reward.
There has also been automation of what was previously error-prone manual data entry. For example, we no longer manually enter our work calendars onto our phones and online calendars, since these automatically integrate with our scheduling program. When we swap shifts with colleagues in the ED, those trades update automatically as well. Eliminating the potential for human error would also not be considered precrastination. It has more to do with fulfilling a compulsion: better to do it right this second and get the task off my list than to leave it for later (even if it may make more sense to do so) and face the prospect of a greater workload.
There is clearly some physiologic reward to feeling something has been accomplished immediately, even if the choice defies logic or sacrifices quality in some way. The personal finance example would be the debt snowball, where one pays off smaller debts at lower rates of interest before addressing larger debts at higher rates of interest in order to experience the psychological satisfaction of eliminating a debt. Although the order of debt repayment is not the mathematically correct thing to do, it creates psychological momentum enabling a significant number of people to pay down debt they might not otherwise address.
There are risks in relying too heavily on quick and easy automation for the cheap thrill of checking off one more box on a never ending to do list. You don’t want to be the first to pre-program an anniversary text only to find that the couple separated months ago.
How do we co-opt this desire for the immediate high of checking the box or completing the task? One suggestion is to break a big task into smaller sub-tasks, so that the series of small highs that comes from task completion might satisfy our compulsions. For a personal finance geek, a comprehensive to do list with discrete tasks might offer a way to make a daunting task appear like a less intimidating series of small, achievable quick and dirty steps.