There’s a fairly common maxim that “He who hesitates is lost.” It’s a curious proverb, not only because its origins are murky, but also because it might just be really bad advice for productivity. Recent research suggests that rushing to complete projects might actually harm our productivity, a phenomenon that’s been called “pre-crastination”—choosing a more difficult way to complete a task just to be able to mark the task complete
This finding is the result of nine studies published together in Psychological Science by a team of Penn State University researchers led by David Rosenbaum. In each of the studies the researchers gave participants (Penn State undergraduate students) a simple choice: pick one of two buckets and carry it down an alleyway. While making the choice between the two buckets, participants were specifically told to pick whichever seemed easier for completing the task. The nine experiments varied the weight of the buckets’ contents (from zero to seven pounds) and where the buckets were placed relative to the participants’ starting point. (It’s worth noting that the researchers also varied the experiments to control for left- and right-handedness.) In most trials, one of the two buckets was significantly closer to the end point than the other. The researchers assumed that participants would prefer to pick up the bucket that was closer to the end point, but as the researchers were surprised to find, most chose the bucket closer to the starting point. In other words, in most cases, participants chose the task that took more physical effort, even though they were instructed to pick whichever task seemed easier. When researchers asked students in every variation of the study to explain their choice, the students’ most common response was that they “wanted to get the task done sooner.”
It might seem like a stretch to generalize bucket-carrying undergrads to the larger population, but the researchers’ explanation for what they observed resonates with an aspect of how many of us behave: we’re constantly trying to check off tasks to free up our working memory—the information we remember in the short-term. The researchers theorize that we desire the mental relief of getting a task done so much that we expend extra effort to get it. In an interview with APS, David Rosenbaum explains, “While our participants did care about physical effort, they also cared a lot about mental effort. 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.” Rosenbaum and his colleagues theorize that participants were eager to remove the first step in the larger assignment from their working memory—so eager that they chose a harder series of tasks.
When it comes to structuring our work, many of us pre-crastinate in a lot of ways. How often have you rushed to complete a task ahead of time, only to find that you need to go back and fix common errors you should have known not to make? Have you ever spent the first few minutes of your workday constructing a plan for how to best use the next eight hours? When you look at your to-do list, do you tackle the easy stuff first, or do you focus on the most meaningful assignment on the list and dedicate your peak hours to completing that task? Have you ever spent a whole day responding to emails and simple tasks, only to find at five o’clock that you haven’t made any progress on the work that really brings value to you and the organization? While these tactics might feel productive in the short term and produce some small wins that keep us motivated, Rosenbaum and his team’s researchers suggest that rushing to completion too often only yields time wasted by having to go back to revise and refine the work done in haste. Instead of being eager to get things done quickly, perhaps we need to focus on getting things done more slowly but with better quality and less revisions down the road.
While it might be tempting to believe the old maxim that “He who hesitates is lost,” the research suggests that a little bit of “lost” time hesitating could turn into “found” productivity later on as projects get completed faster and better.