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PreCrastination: what is it and what’s the problem?

It’s the weekend and I’m taking the day off work to relax. It’s not easy! From force of habit, I click onto my inbox and spot a message from a course participant. This is nothing that couldn’t wait until Monday but my resolve melts away and I decide that I may as well answer now. If I wait, I'm afraid it will niggle in the back of my mind, so I choose to get it out of the way. The same thing happens again later. The result? No day off.

This is an example of precrastination. Procrastination is when we leave it too late to get on with a task. Precrastination means doing something before it is necessary.

Answering a few emails might not seem like a big deal. But it is the same as being ‘on call’, which is not the same as time off. Allowing work or other practical tasks to dominate has a cumulative effect. Like carrying a weight that one never puts down. And only when you do finally stop for a while do you recognise the burden you have been carrying.

For our physical and mental health, downtime is a necessity, not a luxury. Time to let go of responsibilities that we can put down for a while. To enjoy friends and family, potter and rest, be in nature or take a quiet time with a novel. For basic health needs, our nervous systems need a break from getting-things-done mode. We need to drop into rest-and-digest mode, prioritising enjoyment, relaxation and calm. And research tells us that we are more efficient when we take breaks from work. Yet, it can be hard to switch off.

Here’s another example. You receive a message that is not what you wanted to hear so you type an irritable reply. A little voice in your head tells you to wait, give yourself time to calm down and get some perspective. But you don’t listen and click send – which you later regret. Acting too soon can get you into trouble.

Or you launch into a DIY task without doing the preparation. Guess what? It doesn’t go well. Precrastination can result in wasting time.

But what drives it?

Impatience. In a world where so much is at the click of a button, we have come to expect immediacy.

Anxiety. I mentioned the fear that a task would niggle in the back of my mind. Yet taking time off can reduce anxiety.

And there is a deeper issue of identity and meaning. Am I justifying my existence through being productive? Is that what life is for? One Buddhist teacher has described compulsive busyness as ‘spiritual laziness’. It does not leave time for deeper reflection. And you may have heard the wise words of Jesus: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, they spin not…” Precrastination can be indicative of a lack of perspective. We have lost sight of the richness of life.

Do you recognise the tendency? Here are some suggestions for what to do about it:

  • Write down your tasks so you do not need to have them niggling in the back of your mind. Note down when you will deal with them.

  • Make a positive decision to focus on something else.

  • Reflect on the benefits to waiting for a better time to do certain tasks.

  • Notice how the habit of prioritising the ‘to-do’ list can reduce enjoyment. Remind yourself that there is more to life than getting things done.

  • Take a mindful pause between tasks: feel your feet on the floor or the flow of your breath.

Recently I spent a week on a meditation retreat. The hours of quiet time helped me become aware of a drive to be achieving something. A compulsion to push ahead and push through. I noticed how that pushiness reflected tension in my body: a furrowed brow, a clenched jaw. And how I became preoccupied with the future, rather than enjoying the present moment. My belief that I’ll feel better when I’ve achieved the next thing on the list. And the next! Even though I am all too aware that this often does not happen.

Work-life balance is part of a happy, healthy life. Many of the things that give life value have nothing to do with achievement or productivity. Such as our capacity for joy and connection with others. I’m now watching out for how precrastination squeezes the potential for a spacious life.

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1 Comment

Yes to this! I've not heard the term 'pre-crastination' before but it definitely resonates with me. I think that sometimes acting quickly isn't driven by anxiety but by being able to, for example, having the time in that moment to reply to the message or what have you. It's making me think though, just because I can, doesn't mean I should, as the result is the same - no downtime!

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