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That ‘To-Do’ List May Lead to Stress and Risk

That 'To-Do' List May Lead to Stress and RiskNew research suggests that “pre-crastination,” hurrying to complete a task as soon as possible, may be nearly as common as the better-known procrastination. Further, people often opt to begin a task as soon as possible just to get it off their plate, even if it takes more physical effort.

“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,” said psychological scientist and study author Dr. David Rosenbaum.

“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 colleagues 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, counter-intuitive 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.

The University of Pennsylvania 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,” says 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 explains. “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 procrastination and pre-crastination?

“Almost all the people we tested pre-crastinated,” Rosenbaum points out, “so procrastinating and pre-crastinating may be 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 explains.

“Elderly or frail people may therefore have better memory management abilities than more able-bodied individuals.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

That ‘To-Do’ List May Lead to Stress and Risk

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). That ‘To-Do’ List May Lead to Stress and Risk. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 20, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2014/05/15/that-to-do-list-may-lead-to-stress-and-risk/69865.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.