Thomas Z. Ramsøy

Pre-crastination, cognitive demand, and decisions

We’ve all heard about procrastination — the act of delaying or postponing an action.

Procrastination happens when you say “I’ll do it tomorrow” when something is possible to do already today, whether it’s exercising more, starting to eat more healthy, or completing a new skill.

But have you ever heard about pre-crastination? I guess not. Just as you might have guessed, pre-crastination is about choosing to act on something sooner rather than later. For example, if you have to do some chores during the day, some people tend to choose to do them right away to get them over and done with. Others procrastinate.

The concept of pre-crastination is based on studies in psychology by David Rosenbaum and his colleagues. In a series of studies, they have shown that pre-crastination is a reliable and robust phenomenon that affects our thinking, choice and actions. In a recent review article, Rosenbaum and colleagues went over the past years of studies of pre-crastination. Their example of a pre-crastination choice frames the discussion well:

You have just driven home from the market with several bags of groceries. You could carry one bag at a time in several trips or you could carry several bags at once in fewer trips. Which would you do? To get the job done quickly, you could carry many bags simultaneously, but you might drop a bag or overtax yourself physically. Alternatively, you could carry one bag at a time, but that would take longer. In such circumstances, you might rush, but why would you do so?

Many of our choices are about behaviors that may be more costly up front (carrying all bags at once) or taking it in turns (less of a burden, but takes more time).

Delay as costly cognition

As it turns out, deciding to do something later or slower can have its own burden. You will have to drag the process out over a longer time. Even more so, you will have to think about it for a longer time — you will have to keep your mind tuned to the action for a longer time.

This is indeed a critical component of why pre-crastination occurs. In a series of experiments, Rosenbaum and colleagues have found that when the cost of keeping your mind on an issue is high, people will tend to decide to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible. As it turns out, holding on to yourself to remember to complete something is seen as costly!

The brain’s energy budget

Why does delayed work seem costly to us, making us pre-crastinate? Here, the solution should probably be found in the way that our brains consume energy.

It has been well established that the brain, despite it’s meager 2% of the total body mass, consumes about 25% of the body’s energy budget. This suggests that whatever the brain does, it is an energy hog!

This could be seen in one of my earlier fMRI studies. Here, we compared just when people made a simple task of detecting a stimulus that was shown briefly. By comparing the instances where they saw the stimulus to when they saw nothing, we saw a hefty spread of activation across the entire brain! Being conscious is cognitively demanding — it requires energy. Brain regions that are more active when we are conscious of something, compared to when the same stimulus is shown but not consciously seen.

More than this, cognitive effort is related to an increase in energy consumption in the brain. The more we think hard, the more energy we use (see for example this model). And if there is one thing that keeping tasks in mind is, it’s that it is cognitively demanding. It might not be overloading your system, but it might definitely tax your energy budget.

So we can see a biological mechanism for making a shortcut in this cognitive demand by resolving the task right away.

Where pre-crastination manifests

We can think of numerous areas where pre-crastination comes into play. In consumer behavior this can show itself when people purchase more products than they need to save themselves from having to remind themselves to buy it later. It can be when we place orders for something right away even though there might come a discount later, just to avoid reminding ourselves throughout the day(s). In stores, we often grab products in the beginning of our store visit, carrying around the products, just to save ourselves from not reminding ourselves to pick the items up later.

At work, we see pre-crastination at play several places. We can answer e-mails as they come in, often at the cost of deliberating before we respond and at the cost of other tasks (which is known to disturb deep thought, creativity and problem-solving).

Among the big challenges with pre-crastination is that it can disrupt an otherwise well-planned day (because you deal with tasks as they come instead of planned tasks) and even possibly lead to stress (because you feel an urge to deal with the things as they come). Pre-crastination can therefore lead to “many small stones solutions” at the cost of “one big stone solutions” — in other words, pre-crastination can be a good remedy for its evil counterpart, procrastination, but it can similarly lead us away from working hard for a sustained period on problems that need focus, divergent thinking and convergent solutions.

Having our minds focused on pre-crastination, we can now pinpoint where and when it happens, and hopefully gain more control over it, and use it as a strength. Knowing your brain is like having your hands on the toolbox of your mind.