How The Pandemic is Helping Me Kick a Bad Work Habit

Why I’m becoming a procrastinator after a lifetime of getting things done as efficiently as possible.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

In 2014, I felt relief when a scientific paper confirmed that precrastination is, indeed, a thing. The meta irony that I’d already coined the term myself did not escape me.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself (as usual): Procrastinators put off cleaning the toilet, working out, and responding to email. They wait until the last minute. But there’s a segment of the population who, like me, will clean the toilet as soon as necessary, prefer to workout early in the day, and reply to an email even before having the information they need to write a thorough response. We precrastinators have a “tendency to rush to get things done as quickly as possible, even at the expense of extra effort,” writes the man who officially coined the term, David A. Rosenbaum. We don’t put off tasks… we try to get them done — now now now!

Like most academic studies, the lab experiment on which that first paper is based seems ridiculous — but hey, some of the greatest minds come up with the best ideas simply by observing undergrads perform tasks for beer money:

University students were asked to walk down an alley and pick up either of two empty buckets. Specifically, participants were told to choose the bucket that seemed easiest to carry to the end of the alley. The researchers expected the participants to pick up the bucket close to the end, since they’d have to carry it a shorter distance. But surprisingly, most of the participants chose the bucket closest to the starting point. When interviewed after the experiment, the students said they chose the near bucket to get the task done as quickly as possible. This made no sense; the time it would take to reach the end of the alley would be the same no matter which bucket they picked up.

On the basis of this and other experiments, researchers described this haste to complete a task, even though it’s irrational and requires more effort, as a tendency to pre-crastinate. Let’s extrapolate this ivory tower example to a real-life scenario: I was scheduled to attend a big annual event in March but, because of the coronavirus, the organizers postponed the conference until late July. In April, when the situation was clearly still in flux and much of the nation was locked down, an event producer emailed me, writing, “Let’s get your flight booked for July!” Whoa, I thought. Bad idea. And also, jumping the gun on booking a flight is exactly what I would do! I responded that it looked incredibly unlikely that the conference would take place in July, and wouldn’t she rather not waste time booking, and inevitably cancelling, a flight? Because I knew exactly what was going on in her mind: This lovely woman wanted to check me and my travel arrangements off her mental To-Do list! She wanted to reduce her cognitive load NOW… even though the task would be added right back a month later, giving her, in the end, even more work to do. As researchers put it in a recent study:

Trying to get things done as soon as one can may reflect optimal foraging, but another less obvious factor may also contribute — reducing cognitive demands associated with having to remember what to do when. Individual differences may also play a role. Understanding precrastination will have important implications for explaining why hurrying happens as often as it does and may help reduce the chance that haste makes waste.

Lest you think this malady only affects Type-A adults who are stressed at the headlines and simply want to keep busy at a job they’re grateful to still have, I’ve been observing signs of precrastination in my fifth grader, too. Some kids eat everything on their dinner plate and leave a lonely pile of peas for last. Not my kid. She eats the stuff she likes least, first, so she can relax and enjoy the rest of her meal. Same with homework. She wants to tackle it the MINUTE Zoom school is over. It’s like she’s screaming inside, “Reduce my cognitive load! Reduce my cognitive load!” Clearly, she gets the gene from me. Going with the flow is really hard for us precrastinators. But why? What motivates her, me, and others to power through, even though our speedy responses may end up biting us in the ass when we’re too full to eat the food we really like, or the teacher decides to cancel the homework for the holiday weekend? ?

Scientists say that charging forward is a way of dealing with anxiety, getting things off your plate. It’s also great for making sure you get scarce resources, which explains why pigeons are precrastinators. I also have a theory: that technology has exacerbated this tendency (OK, maybe not for the pigeons). But, for the last decade, we humans have been trained to be responsive, rather than truly productive. We get pings, DMs, and Reply-Alls, giving each one our precious attention — whether it’s bad news from your mom, or a text from your phone carrier. There’s been a flattening effect in how information and news are delivered. Compound that with the exponential amount of it — we’re so tightly wound that we can knock out three Twitter posts in under 60 seconds, but we’ve lost the muscle to sit our butts down and think about what’s best in the long run. (This is different from what academics call The Urgency Effect, which explains why some strive for Inbox Zero but never quite find the time to write the novel they’ve been thinking about for decades.)

There’s another, more analog reason I think some of us precrastinate. It’s simple. We just want to frickin’ RELAX, already. It sounds like laziness, but I think the impulse is more existential than that. In a world where the list of things to do feels like it could crush us, precrastinators look for ways to shake off that guilty feeling, the one that haunts you and mumbles, don’t I have something I should be doing right now? My daughter wants to get her homework done so she can just lie on her bed and look at her fish. If I could, I would brush my teeth for three days straight instead of twice a day for the rest of my life. No need to remember to buy toothpaste or pack my toothbrush ever again! What would I do with that extra time and brain space? I don’t know… read a book. Finally REST. If you’re thinking, well, that kinda sounds like… death, you’d be right. Which brings me to what I’ve found to be a morbidly positive side effect of the pandemic.

As a precrastinator, I’ve found that the Covid era has given me a taste of Zen. Right now, I’d normally be trying to make spring break plans for the kids, researching summer camps. (Yes it’s early but, as a New Yorker, you know you have to move fast, or poof! Someone else got the camp slot, hotel room, airline tickets you wanted.) But now, there’s nothing I can do but wait. Will a vaccine be distributed by then? Maybe. Maybe not. Should I block my calendar for the conferences I usually go to? Possibly, but probably not. So many tasks and decisions can be deferred now, guilt-free.

But the other reason I think I feel more peaceful is less mundane. In a culture that avoids talking about death, we’re finally having a collective existential moment. And for those of us who have the privilege to stop and think, we’re realizing that, if we’d like to pause the ride for a bit, the time is now. Go ahead and procrastinate. It might be your only chance. Not just because the pandemic will eventually end but because, this winter especially, the possibility of becoming gravely ill hangs in the air. The virus doesn’t give a sh*t that your third quarter was off the charts, or that you’d hoped to have your book proposal done by now. Tell your colleagues you’re having a the telemedicine appointment for your acne, then sit and listen to the wind collecting leaves outside your window. And little girl, if you’d rather lounge on your bed and daydream as your crimson fish flutters her translucent fins nearby, go for it. Staying still feels good. If you’re lucky and healthy enough to do so, stay home and making it through this wonderful day.

We all know the person who responds within minutes to our emails but neglects to answer the most important question so you end up exchanging six emails that day instead of just the one; or the guy who shows up in the advanced workout class right after New Year’s Day and is on the couch with an injured back by mid-January. Sometimes we need to slow our roll; build up to things; put in the time up front, get the rewards later. Why don’t some of us take a page out of the procrastinator’s book and bide our time, deal with the peas at the end, or simply respond to someone, “I don’t know! Let’s wait and see how things progress.”

Let’s get through December. And then take January as it comes. And then February. Time continues to move forward, at a pace we can’t control. And to my fellow precrastinators: I know you’ve always lived by the motto: “Don’t put off what you can do today.” But maybe you’ll try out my new mantra: “Don’t do now what you could do later.”

I‘m writing here every week. Please follow me and tell me things. To hang out even more, find me on Twitter, sign up for my newsletter, and listen to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish. ManoushZ.com/newsletter

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