Still Haven't Filed Your Taxes? Psychologists Might Know Why You're Procrastinating

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Fact checked by Nick Blackmer

Key Takeaways

  • When faced with a task, you "weigh" the positive and negative information associated with the task to determine whether you want to complete the task early or delay it.

  • Psychologists say procrastination is not a sign of laziness but a learned and reinforced behavior.

  • Pausing to think about the pros and cons of delaying a task or breaking unpleasant tasks into manageable pieces might help shift your mindset.

April 15 is the deadline for filing taxes, but only a third of Americans have filed so far, according to the latest report by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

When faced with a task such as filing taxes, you subconsciously ask yourself this question: “Do I want to do this now?” In response, your brain evaluates the positive and negative signals associated with that task. This might determine the extent of your procrastination, a new study suggests.

“What our research shows is that people whose negative attitudes generalize more strongly delay their tasks to a greater extent,” said Javier Granados Samayoa, PhD, an author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

People often gauge situations or make decisions with “valence weighting bias”—the tendency to assign different levels of importance or “weight” to positive and negative information.

For example, if you have a valence weighting bias toward positive signals, you might focus on the reward of crossing taxes off your to-do list and getting a refund. But if you think taxes are tedious, complicated, or time-consuming, you might put the task off longer.

“Procrastination is the result of people prioritizing not wanting to feel that aversive sensation,” Granados Samayoa said.

Related: I Tried Following a Regular Sleep Routine. It Changed My Mornings

Procrastination Is Not Laziness

Procrastinators aren’t lazy or bad at managing their time. They just “work very hard at doing other things,” said Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who has studied procrastination for decades.

Ferrari estimates that 20% of adult men and women around the world are chronic procrastinators, which means they intentionally delay tasks as a self-sabotaging strategy. He said that procrastination is learned in part from living in a culture that doesn’t incentivize people to complete tedious tasks, like filing taxes early.

“If I owe money, it doesn’t make sense that I should file much before April 15. Why should I pay in February or March if I owe money? The government has it backwards. We don’t give the early bird the worm,” Ferrari said.

He said chronic procrastinators can unlearn this strategy through cognitive behavioral therapy. A small study conducted by Ferrari in 2013 showed that group therapy helped university students reduce procrastination by identifying irrational thoughts and cognitive distortions associated with procrastination tendencies.

“If you take a chronic procrastinator, or somebody who does it very frequently, and you send them to a time management course, that’s not going to work. You can’t manage time, you can only manage yourself,” he said.

Related: Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

How Can You Procrastinate Less?

Some people procrastinate because a cognitive bias tells them it will be easier to do the task in the future, or their negative weighting bias wins out. However, pausing to think about the pros and cons instead of acting on impulse can help you quit procrastinating.

“If people could just stop and think and deliberate more, they can override those initial appraisals that have been formed by their valence weighting tendencies,” Russell H. Fazio, PhD, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and senior author of the new study, told Verywell.

If your initial gut reaction is to put off taxes, pause and consider what’s coming up in the next few weeks and decide if you actually have time to devote to taxes later, Fazio said.

“That kind of more careful analysis could lead somebody to override the task delay that’s implied by their valence weighting tendencies,” he added.

A study published last year also found that mindfulness training helped students self-regulate and reduce procrastination.

It can take time to train yourself to stop delaying tasks, but breaking unpleasant tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces is one way to start, Granados Samayoa said.

“If you want to correct your behavior, you have to be aware of when a given process is going to affect you,” he added. “You have to have the motivation to want to do something about it, and you have to be able to do something about it.”

What This Means For You

If you procrastinate, that doesn’t mean you're lazy. You might have more negative associations with the task and want to avoid feeling the aversive sensation. Mindfulness practice, cognitive behavioral therapy, and breaking down tasks into manageable steps might help shift your mindset.

Read the original article on Verywell Health.