Study finds some people finish difficult tasks first

June 16, 2014 by Vicki Fong, Pennsylvania State University
Study finds some people finish difficult tasks first
Credit: Association for Psychological Science

(Medical Xpress)—Putting off tasks until later, or procrastination, is a common phenomenon—but Penn State researchers suggest that "pre-crastination," hurrying to complete a task as soon as possible, may also be common.

The research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that people often opt to begin a task as soon as possible just to get it off their plate, even if they have to expend more physical effort to do so.

"Most of us feel stressed about all the things we need to do—we have to-do lists, not just on slips of paper we carry with us or on our iPhones, but also in our heads," says study author David Rosenbaum, distinguished professor of psychology.

"Our findings suggest that the desire to relieve the stress of maintaining that information in working memory can cause us to over-exert ourselves physically or take extra risks."

Rosenbaum and co-authors Lanyung Gong, graduate student in psychology, and Cory Adam Potts, then-undergraduate in psychology, were conducting research to explore the trade-off between the weight of a load and how far people would carry it. In testing their experimental setup, the researchers stumbled on a surprising finding: Participants often chose the action that took more physical effort, choosing the near bucket even though that meant they would have to carry it further.

Intrigued by the counterintuitive finding, they decided to investigate the phenomenon further.

The researchers conducted a total of nine experiments, each of which had the same general setup: College student participants stood at one end of an alley, along which two plastic beach buckets were stationed. The students were instructed to walk down the alley without stopping and to pick up one of the two buckets and drop it off at the endpoint.

The researchers varied the positions of the two buckets relative to the starting point and the students were asked to do whatever seemed easier: Pick up and carry the left bucket with the left hand or pick up and carry the right bucket with the right hand.

In the first three experiments, participants showed an overwhelming tendency to choose whichever bucket had the shorter approach distance, which translated to the longer carrying distance in these experiments.

The researchers were able to rule out various potential explanations, including problems with hand-foot coordination and differences in attention, in subsequent experiments.

When the students were asked to explain why they chose the bucket they did, they often said that they "wanted to get the task done as soon as they could."

"Our findings indicate that while our participants did care about physical effort, they also cared a lot about mental effort," said Rosenbaum. "They wanted to complete one of the subordinate tasks they had to do, picking up the bucket, in order to finish the entire task of getting the bucket to the drop-off site."

Picking up a bucket may seem like a trivial task, but Rosenbaum speculates that it still stood out on participants' mental to-do lists:

"By picking up the near bucket, they could check that task off their mental to-do lists more quickly than if they picked up the far bucket," he explained. "Their desire to lighten their mental load was so strong that they were willing to expend quite a bit of extra physical effort to do so."

The findings raise several additional questions that Rosenbaum and colleagues hope to investigate, such as: What's the relationship between and pre-crastination?

"Almost all the people we tested pre-crastinated," Rosenbaum pointed out, "so procrastinating and pre-crastinating may turn out to be two different things."

The researchers also want to examine whether physical ability limitations might play a role in the effect:

"If it's a big deal for someone to carry a load a long distance, then he or she may be more judicious in their decision-making," Rosenbaum explained. "Elderly or frail people may therefore have better memory management abilities than more able-bodied individuals."

Explore further: Get it over with: People choose more difficult tasks to get jobs done more quickly

More information: David A. Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong, and Cory Adam Potts. "Pre-Crastination: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort." Psychological Science. 0956797614532657, first published on May 8, 2014. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614532657

Related Stories

Get it over with: People choose more difficult tasks to get jobs done more quickly

May 13, 2014
Putting off tasks until later, or procrastination, is a common phenomenon – but new research suggests that "pre-crastination," hurrying to complete a task as soon as possible, may also be common.

Aggressive behavior observed after alcohol-related priming

May 22, 2014
Researchers from California State University, Long Beach, the University of Kent and the University of Missouri collaborated on a study to test whether briefly exposing participants to alcohol-related terms increases aggressive ...

Smarter kids can choke under pressure, according to study

June 6, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it's initiated by their parents, friends or themselves, students often feel pressure to perform well in tests.

Self-inflicted pain eases guilt

May 3, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Physical discomfort can ease feelings of guilt, according to a study conducted by The University of Queensland (UQ).

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

verkle
Jun 16, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
tadchem
not rated yet Jun 16, 2014
This result only counters the intuition of procrastinators, which possible comprised the majority of the investigators. Those of us with experience at repetitive physical tasks learned very early that the most challenging tasks are best accomplished when one is fresh, and the less challenging ones are a 'relief' in comparison when undertaken after one has done something much harder.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jun 16, 2014
For our exams, we were taught to be 'canny'. First, evaluate *all* the problems, and assess the time each may take. Tackling the hardest task first could easily 'run over' and eat into the time to do the easier stuff. Better to tackle a 'no-brainer' or two to settle the nerves. Then switch between task difficulties to keep a steady throughput. Plan a margin at the end for checking and/or over-runs...

For DIY stuff, 'Murphy's Law' and its cruel corollaries mean there's no easy or hard task, except in hind-sight...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.