While it’s possible to file your taxes months in advance, it’s commonplace to procrastinate and not get to the task until the last minute—increasing the chances of making mistakes and overpaying while you’re at it. According to surveys, tax procrastinators have been known to overpay by hundreds due to mistakes that came as a result of rushing the process and making last minute changes, and they fork over roughly double the amount that early filers pay just to get their taxes done. Understandably, procrastinators are also much less comfortable with their often-frantic filing methods they’re forced to employ as the clock is ticking. So why is it that so many of us stall so much when it comes to filling out 1040s?
There are many benefits to filing early, starting with that it would shorten our misery and just get the whole thing over with. Also, many people expect to get a refund, and whether it’s $5 or $5,000, that’s money you’d have sooner in your pocket rather than in the government’s coffers.
Making matters worse, procrastination actually increases the odds of paying more—in tax payments and tax preparation alike. According to a survey conducted by H&R Block, the average tax procrastinator overpaid by about $400 due to mistakes that came as a result of rushing the process and making last minute changes. In another data roundup by TechBargains, on average early filers (January and February) paid $87 to do their taxes, compared to $163 for procrastinators who file in April or later. And while 89% of early filers feel positive about their method of filing taxes, only 62% of procrastinators can say the same.
So why do so many people procrastinate on taxes? Actually, 20% of the adult population engages in chronic procrastination on all sorts of everyday tasks, and while taxes may be accompanied by a special level of stalling, it’s not all that different from procrastination in general. To get to the heart of why people put off completing their taxes, we need to understand what causes the more generic, run-of-the-mill procrastination. There are seven basic reasons why we procrastinate:
1. No obvious penalties. Many people procrastinate for the simple reason that they’ve gotten away with it in the past. The government doesn’t care whether you file early or not, so if you get your return in just before the deadline there’s no harm, no foul. Not officially anyway. But doing your taxes at the last minute is likely to lead to mistakes, and mistakes can lead to an ugly audit, which includes the possibility of very real penalties.
Generally speaking, it’s often hard to see how procrastination can do damage to one’s career and relationships. Family, teachers, and bosses may get a little agitated if you chronically put things off until the last minute, but the people around you may be too nice to confront you every single time a deadline nears and the job’s not done. Such politeness is a backhanded way of rewarding procrastination. Unless you actually lose a job or fail a class because of habitually missing deadlines, there’s little incentive to change behavior. Yet if and when such a severe consequence occurs, the last bit of procrastination may seem like an isolated incident, rather than the straw that broke the camel’s back that it truly is. Some procrastinators must realize that, even if they’re not immediately apparent, harm can and probably is being done by putting things off.
2. Excuses, excuses, excuses. You can always justify procrastination by blaming the circumstances. Excuses tend to be of the self-serving variety, and if other people engaged in the same procrastination as you, you’d be skeptical if not downright convinced that they were fudging the truth. Things are different when it’s you who is making the excuses. Self-serving biases fall into the general category that psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” Through this process we’re blinded to our own flaws and forgive ourselves for all sorts of mistakes and imperfections, including tardiness, with any number of excuses conveniently helping the cause.
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3. Perfectionism. Though seeking perfection may seem like a desirable quality, it can actually leave people incapable of moving forward on high-stakes tasks, such as doing their taxes. For perfectionists, the fear of making a huge goof—paying too much, or screwing up so badly you’ll wind up in serious legal trouble—can be paralyzing. People with a strong need to have everything just so may have all the work on their taxes done months ahead of the deadline, but put off filing because they want to make sure they haven’t made any errors. They may also wait in hopes that they’ll find a new angle that will save them money. In the meantime, the tax process is torturing them, and the government is holding onto a refund that could already be in the perfectionist’s bank account.
4. Waiting = excitement. Originally developed by DePaul psychologist Joseph Ferrari, the concept of “arousal procrastination” was originally met with skepticism. However, a 2011 study of college students (procrastinators par excellence) revealed that for certain individuals, procrastination produces the “kickstart” needed to put them in high gear. Researchers found that undergraduates high on the quality of extraversion (outgoingness) were more likely to fit into this pattern of procrastination. Extroverts, by definition, seek stimulation from outside of themselves. Waiting until the last possible moment to tend to an important task can actually give these people a powerful emotional high.
5. Grace under pressure? Hardly. Plenty of people operate under the misconception left over from their school days: a totally irrational and unfounded theory that they do their very best work when a deadline is rapidly approaching. The majority of people are actually less effective and more prone to making mistakes if they wait until the last minute, but myths learned in the past are hard to correct. Our faulty memories of the past lead us to remember the times we came through in glory racing through the finish line. We tend to gloss over the times when we embarrassingly tripped or failed to finish the race, though.
6. Laziness, disorganization, lack of discipline. Psychologists avoid terms like “laziness” to describe our fellow humans, so instead we use more neutral phrases such as “failure to self-regulate.” People who procrastinate not only have trouble self-regulating, but are also convinced that they aren’t up to the challenge and just can’t ever get organized. So they often don’t even try. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, in which a person has trouble completing tasks partially because he believes he’s unable to get the job done, and done well, on time. Such a frame of mind leads to throwing up one’s hands and giving up before ever really giving the task at hand their best effort.
7. Shoot-in-the-foot syndrome. There’s an assumption that everyone wants to perform well. However, due to a conscious or unconscious fear of success, some especially neurotic individuals want exactly the opposite. By irritating other people, turning in lackluster work, missing deadlines, and procrastinating at every turn, they seem determined to put themselves on the road to failure. When it comes to tasks such as tax filing, many procrastinators are well aware that their last-minute filing greatly increases the chances they’ll do something wrong. In the worst case scenario, they’ll get audited and penalized as a result of sloppy errors that could have easily been corrected. But some people can’t help themselves.
If you’re feeling guilty as charged, you can’t do anything now to reverse the clock. By understanding why you procrastinate, however, there’s a chance that at this time next year, you’ll be cashing that refund check.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is The Search for Fulfillment, and she writes the Fulfillment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.