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May 23, 2014 02:18 AM EDT

People Opt For Difficult Task First Just to Strike it Off Their to-do List, Study

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Mental health in the workplace - by the numbers

Postponing a difficult task - "procrastination" - might be a common phenomenon, but a latest Pennsylvania State University study has found that hurrying to finish an assignment - "pre-crastination" - might also be increasingly prevalent in humans.

Researchers said that people often pick up a job immediately just to erase them off from their list, even if it requires extra 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 or on our iPhones but also in our heads," said David Rosenbaum, psychological scientist and study author, in a press release. "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."

For the study, researchers conducted several experiments involving participants carrying a bucket to a specified distance. Here, the researchers wanted to determine the relationship between the weight of a chore and how far participants will be willing to carry them.

During the experiments, the buckets were positioned at different points along an alley and the participants were asked to walk down the alley, select a bucket and then take it to the end-point. In each experiment, the position of the buckets in the alley varied.

The researchers found that participants were more likely to select a bucket closest to them, even if they were required to carry it to a farther distance down the alley. When the researchers asked participants the reason behind choosing the closest bucket, they replied saying that they wanted to get done with the task as quickly as possible.

"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."

Researchers said that the bucket assignment might seem like a simple business, but it may have been a "must-do task" on the participant's mental to-do list.

"By picking up the nearer bucket, they could check that task off their mental to-do list more quickly than if they picked up the far bucket," said Rosenbaum. "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 finding is published in Psychological Science.

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