Each of us, at times, can be a procrastinator, putting off something that is hard to do or that we don’t want to do. But three researchers at Pennsylvania State University think we humans may also be precrastinators—hurrying to get something done so we can cross it off our mental to-do list, even if the rush ends up being wasteful. The researchers also claim to have coined the term “precrastination.”

Psychology professor David Rosenbaum and his two collaborators reached their conclusion after asking 257 students to complete a bucket challenge. Not the one in which you dump ice water on your head. Instead, they brought each student to a narrow alley in town. They placed two buckets in the alley—one on the left side and one on the right side—and told each individual to pick up one of the two buckets without stopping, in whatever way was easiest, and carry it to the other end. In most cases one bucket was closer to the end than the other bucket was.

Almost all of the students chose the bucket that was closer to them—meaning, farther from the end of the alley, requiring more physical work to complete the task.

Rosenbaum actually designed the experiment to investigate aspects of walking and reaching; he is an expert in human perception and motor control. But Rosenbaum found the results peculiar. When the researchers talked with participants afterward it became clear that the task involved two subgoals: approaching a bucket and picking it up, then carrying the bucket to the end of the alley. “It seemed like they wanted to get the first subgoal out of the way, so they chose the bucket closer to them,” says Cory Potts, the graduate student of the research group.

Rosenbaum interpreted the comments as a sign that the participants wanted to offload working memory—the function of the brain that keeps information and instructions at the ready for immediate thinking or action. He says our urge to relieve working memory can be so strong that we are willing to expend extra physical energy to achieve it.

The catch is that hastily finishing a task just to relieve working memory can be inefficient or even dangerous. For example, Rosenbaum says, hurrying to complete an assignment at work could cause you to make errors that you then have to spend extra time fixing. Carrying a large armload of grocery bags from the car just to get them all in the house could cause injury.

Or that might just be laziness—a perception that one big trip would be easier than two trips. Rosenbaum admits that his theory is still being formulated. For example, spending an hour answering emails at work, to ease the burden on working memory, might be the same as procrastination—focusing on email as a way to put off a more difficult project.

Indeed, psychologist and procrastination expert Timothy Pychyl at Carlton University thinks any tendency to precrastinate, if it exists at all, would be limited to trivial tasks. When faced with a choice of simple and more challenging tasks—like answering email instead of starting a project—people who choose email do so out of procrastination, not precrastination.

Rosenbaum says he needs further experiments to confirm his hypotheses. He and Potts would like to conduct a more complex bucket challenge. Participants would be told to choose a bucket and carry it to the other end of the alley, but before they took their first step, Rosenbaum would tell them that he also wanted them to memorize a list of 10 words and recite them at the far end of the alley. In this circumstance working memory would be taxed to a much greater degree, and the temptation to precrastinate should be stronger. Rosenbaum is not sure whether that would manifest itself, but he’d like to find out.

Photo courtesy of Jon Pallbo on Wikimedia Commons