Here’s an Anti-Procrastination Hack Inspired by Harry Potter

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Photo: Warner Bros.

Simply starting a task is one of the hardest, most obvious obstacles toward getting it done. But if you can overcome that hurdle, our own Melissa Dahl noted a few months ago, a helpful thing called the Zeigarnik effect takes hold: As she wrote, “Once we’ve started something, we have an instinctive drive to finish it.”

But just knowing that starting a task is important doesn’t mean you’ll actually do it — life is full of stuff we should do but don’t. How can we actually improve the odds we’ll get going? A new paper (PDF) in the Journal of Consumer Research offers an interesting suggestion — and it’s got a nice Harry Potter tie-in.

Harry, authors Yanping Tu of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management explain, “felt a greater sense of urgency in preparing for the Triwizard Tournament right after Christmas” (note: as a non-Potter fan I do not know what that means). To which the obvious reply is “Well, duh — Christmas signaled to him that the tournament was fast-approaching.”

But the researchers believe a bit more is going on here: They think that people “use a variety of cues to categorize future points in time (events) into either events that are like the present event or those that are unlike the present event,” and that when we view the the date of a deadline as being “like the present,” we’re more likely to actually get to work. Once Christmas passes, in other words, in Harry’s brain the Triwizard Tournament shifts from an unlike-the-present event to a like-the-present one, and his preparations (the details of which I could not possibly summarize) begin.

Tu and Soman sum up the potential behavioral implications thusly:

[C]onsider a consumer on a Monday making a decision about a task that is due next Monday. If we highlight the fact that the task is due next week rather than this week, we expect the task to be categorized as unlike the present. However if we highlight that all the Mondays share similarity, we expect the task to be categorized as like the present.

To test this, the duo ran a series of experiments on two continents dealing both with real-world behavior and participants’ stated willingness to begin preparing for hypothetical tasks, and they found a lot of support for this notion. In perhaps the clearest example, two groups of Indian farmers were given six months to open up savings accounts and accumulate a certain amount of money (if they did so, they’d get a financial reward). One group was approached in June and given a December deadline; the other was approached in July and given a January deadline.

The researchers figured the latter group would see the January deadline as an unlike-the-present event and therefore do a poorer job saving (“Eh, that’s next year — I don’t need to worry about it yet”), and sure enough that was the case — they were only a quarter as likely to open an account immediately, and only about a sixth as likely to accomplish the goal. These are pretty sizable differences given the groups had the same amount of time to complete the tasks.

How, then, can the rest of us take advantage of this finding? As with any paper, there’s no guarantee that the results presented here will translate seamlessly into real-world strategies, but there are certainly some common-sense hints. For one thing, it would appear that if you’re giving yourself three months to, say, lose a certain amount of weight or complete a long piece of writing, then all things being equal it makes more sense to start in September rather than October, so as to avoid crossing over into a new year.

And whatever you can do to emphasize the fact that the deadline you’re facing is similar to the present moment (same day, same season, same semester, same whatever) will likely help you chip away at your procrastinatory tendencies — especially if you’re facing the steep challenge of winning the entire Triwizard Tournament.