The biggest productivity mistake you've never heard of—and why so many people are guilty of it every day

(Photo: Twenty20 | Korneeva Maha)

Our phones ping every few minutes, alerting us of new texts, tweets and headlines. We spend more than five hours each day checking our inboxes. We get constant anxiety over the unspoken expectation to reply to our colleagues' urgent Slack messages.

As someone who writes, studies and speaks about productivity for a living, I always tell people how dangerous it is to adopt this hustle mentality — because it causes us to precrastinate.

That's not a typo: Originally coined by David Rosenbaum, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, "precrastination" is a little-known productivity trap in which we rush too quickly into tasks.

Now more than ever, we've become increasingly tempted to value short-term gratification. And during such stressful and uncertain times, it makes sense to prefer instant pleasure. The result, however, to the detriment of long-term gain, is an expenditure of unnecessary effort that could have been avoided with a bit of planning.

Haste makes waste

We typically think of productivity as cranking out as many things in as little time possible. But it's actually about accomplishing what you intend to do. It means channeling your attention and focus into your most important work — and completing it with thoroughness.

Similar to how procrastination can harm productivity, precrastination can be just as bad. Take one example: You and your team are gearing up for a complex project, and they've sent a number of emails asking for clarification on certain points. Rather than taking the time to write back in a thoughtful and deliberate manner or schedule a call to discuss, you send back a series of half-baked replies.

Task complete, right? 

Not quite. While you may have temporarily dealt with a few items on your to-do list, your lack of clarity generates further questions. As a result, more effort is needed to get everyone back on track.

Why do we precrastinate?

The research into precrastination is inconclusive. Some speculate it's connected to the "mere-urgency effect," which nudges us to choose short-deadline tasks that we perceive as more urgent over those with distant deadlines that may actually hold the greatest importance (and are thereby most deserving of our time, energy and focus). 

Recent studies have shown that we may also precrastinate as a way to remove things from our cognitive plates. Our mental capacity is finite. We're generally able to hold around four unique pieces of information in our short-term memory, meaning our attentional scratchpad can easily become cluttered with unimportant tasks and distractions.

In other words, we sometimes need to run through mindless tasks so we can stop thinking about them: Shoot off a few messages to schedule weekend meet-ups with friends, watch the news clip your partner sent, take stock of what's in your fridge in preparation for a grocery run.

But precrastination tendencies have no place when it comes to getting down to our most meaningful work. 

How to avoid precrastination

Curbing precrastination starts with awareness and intent. Here are a few tactics to identify when zipping through tasks could be useful — and when you should opt to give them more time and mental space:

  1. Ask yourself, Would this task benefit from added time? Precrastination happens when we're working on autopilot. Though it may seem counterintuitive on busy days, stop and consider all the tasks on your plate. Those that require creativity, thoughtfulness or emotion will benefit from a slower response. 
  2. Know which tasks you can rush through. If a task takes just a few minutes to complete, it can be helpful to get it done quickly in favor of clearing your attentional space. 
  3. Keep a calendar and to-do list. This might not seem revelatory, but externalizing what's cluttering your mind is a wonderful thing. Tracking appointments, tasks, distractions and ideas using a notepad or smartphone app allows you to step back and organize. In addition to freeing up mental space, these tools can help you decide where to channel future energy.

Think back to your last most productive day. You were probably not precrastinating in a frenzied and frantic fashion. Try slowing down and working with greater intention. What you lose in speed you will make up for in productivity, relaxation and happiness. 

Chris Bailey is the best-selling author of "Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction" and "The Productivity Project," both of which have been published in 20 languages. He also teaches organizations about how to become more productive, without hating the process. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Bailey.

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