Procrastination experts weigh in on motivation and emotion management

March 27, 2019 : Lisa Patterson

The 2019 tax deadline is under a month away, and millions of Americans have yet to file their taxes. In fact, one in three taxpayers who file before the deadline wait until April to file.

What causes people to procrastinate has long been examined, but when it comes to taxes, the stakes are higher: the tax refund can be the single largest financial transaction a taxpayer has all year.

Many of us tend to think of procrastination incorrectly, according to Tim Pychyl, professor at Carleton University, author of ‘Solving the Procrastination Puzzle,’ and an expert in the causes underlying procrastination.

“When we face a task that is aversive to us, whether it is boring or frustrating or causes us to be resentful or anxious, those are emotions we don’t want to have,” Pychyl said. “And so although many of us think of procrastination as a time management problem, it’s not—it’s an emotion regulation problem.”

But for other individuals, procrastination may be a motivating factor and even contribute to a person’s success in meeting deadlines.

“There are task-driven people, and those are people who for example with their taxes, they always do things ahead of time,” Mary Lamia, psychologist and author of ‘What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions and Success,’ said. “And then there are deadline-driven people, I call them deadline-driven procrastinators, and they are activated by deadlines rather than the tasks themselves.”

As April 15 draws ever-closer, people across the country are being driven more and more by that impending deadline.

Jeff Keirsey is an H&R Block client who has a growing family, which is also increasing his tax considerations.  Keirsey said getting his taxes started is related to his wellbeing.

“I don’t think I can sleep until I have it dealt with in some way,” Keirsey said. “It’s figuring out, ‘okay I don’t have A or B or whatever information, so how am I going to be at ease so I can go to sleep?’”

Tax help for each kind of procrastinator

Fortunately for the nation’s procrastinators, tools exist to help answer the questions surrounding preparations for filing, so sleep can come easier.

Andy Phillips, director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block, said taxpayers may be taking a little extra time this year to file their return because of all the tax reform changes. He pointed out the importance of understanding your individual tax situation in preparing to file, particularly for those procrastinating because they are trying to avoid or delay negative emotions like anxiety or stress.

“To help alleviate the stress associated with filing your tax return, get all your tax documents together. Use a customized checklist to ensure you don’t miss any necessary documents.” Phillips said. “You can create a checklist designed just for your situation by going to You’ll answer some questions to understand your tax situation and then it’s going to tell you what you need to collect. Taking this extra step will help you to file a complete and accurate tax return and help avoid missing any valuable tax benefits.”

For those who use procrastination as motivation, it’s important not to shame yourself for something you have yet to do, but rather to use that as a catalyst for positive change.

“One has to look at their motivational style, understand it, not shame themselves for it, but optimize it—become better at what they do in the first place,” Lamia said.

The important distinction to keep in mind, according to Lamia, is that if a taxpayer misses the tax deadline, they’re not procrastinating: they’re failing.

“Nothing is going to improve by not filing: the penalty for failing to file a tax return by the deadline is 10 times greater than the penalty for not paying by the deadline,” said Phillips. “As long as you file something by April 15, either your tax return or an extension to file, and make a payment for what you’ll owe, you can procrastinate guilt free.”

Whether or not you expect a refund, procrastination experts see value in making the leap into getting your taxes won.

“So it’s that next step that you take that makes all the difference,” Pychyl said. “Just getting started fuels our wellbeing and our motivation, and we look at ourselves and say ‘I’m doing my taxes.’ That’s a game changer.”

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Lisa Patterson

Lisa Patterson

Contributor and Producer

Lisa Patterson has been a member of the H&R Block newsroom since 2012. She supports efforts to educate consumers and members of the media about taxes and company happenings. Before helping tax professionals talk taxes with the media, Patterson was a consultant for small companies running social media efforts, blogs, events and product marketing. She spent more than 10 years in local government managing communications for city operations, fire and the city manager. Patterson holds two degrees from University of Kansas: a Bachelor's in Business with an emphasis in marketing and a Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications.

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