Tax Season and the Misguided Tendency to Stigmatize Procrastinators

Missing a deadline defines lateness, and true deadline-driven procrastinators never miss deadlines.

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As the tax filing date draws near, the stigma surrounding procrastination becomes apparent. Since I am not a procrastinator, I have no stake in vindicating those who delay. However, in recognizing their motivational style as valid, I feel obliged to explain their behavior and mitigate any perceived disgrace about tax procrastination. 

During this time of year, accusatory interpretations are rampant regarding the issue of tax filing procrastination. Unfortunately, many procrastinators have learned to accuse themselves for the same pathological traits that others have attributed to them. After all, it’s likely they have been shamed, punished, reprimanded, or berated for their delay ever since they were in grammar school. 

Hence, they are falsely accused of having poor self-discipline, inadequate time management skills, or low conscientiousness when it comes to filing taxes. Missing a deadline defines lateness. True deadline-driven procrastinators never miss deadlines, according to my investigation into what motivates getting things done.

Many people put off filing until the deadline is upon them, while others seem compelled to complete their taxes as soon as they receive the necessary documentation. Does procrastination interfere with completing tax filing before the deadline? Definitely not. Those who wait until the deadline is imminent to file their taxes, or to get anything done, are just as likely to successfully complete the task as those who are early birds. 

The formal definition of procrastination, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” This definition does not necessarily imply that tasks are not completed successfully and on time. Indeed, purposely delaying an intended course of action is not synonymous with insufficient action or a failure to act. Nevertheless, procrastination is erroneously linked with failure, just as early action is mistakenly tied to success.

However, there are some people who just don’t get things done, including filing their taxes on time, and they allege that their tendency to procrastinate is to blame. Failure is very different than delay. Since the emotion of shame motivates humans to save face, what better way is there to excuse oneself than to blame one’s failure on procrastinating? Such excuses simply obscure what is really in the way of taking action. Point is, procrastination is not failure. Missing the deadline constitutes failure.

Emotions motivate everything we do, including what we avoid doing. However, we are not solely motivated by positive emotions. We are also motivated, and even driven to achieve, by negative emotions—a primary, powerful, and often misunderstood source of motivation. Labeling emotions as positive or negative has little to do with their value, but instead involves how they motivate us through the ways they make us feel. 

Negative emotions like distress, fear, anger, disgust, and shame motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them, or they urge us to behave in ways that will relieve their effects. For example, whether or not we procrastinate, we may file our taxes because we want relief from anxiety, we may want to avoid any fear about monetary penalties, we may want to diminish our distress in imagining the IRS will contact us, or we want to steer clear of any shame we will experience in not filing them.

The different timing people have in their motivation to complete tasks, including tax filing, is based on when their emotions are activated and what activates them. Procrastinators are primarily motivated to complete tasks when their emotions are activated by an imminent deadline. They are deadline driven. In contrast to procrastinators, task-driven people faced with uncompleted tasks are compelled to take action right away. The task itself activates their emotions, rather than a deadline as it is with procrastinators. 

Unlike successful deadline-driven procrastinators, people who fail are not motivated by their emotional responses when a deadline is looming. Instead, their emotional responses may further disable them. When the deadline passes, as noted above, they blame their failure on procrastinating rather than explore what’s really going on.

You may wonder, then, why procrastinators would invite all the stress they seem to feel at a deadline. You might also believe it’s bad for their health, aside from being annoying to task-driven people who live or work with them. Actually, current research suggests that how one responds to stress determines whether or not it is harmful, according to Abiola Keller and her colleagues at Marquette University. Your body is preparing you for action, so the tension you feel serves you best if it is directed towards action that will alleviate the stress. 

For procrastinators, stress is a highly intense, but time limited, experience. Conversely, task-driven people maintain a continuous level of stress because their attention is constantly directed to uncompleted tasks until each task has been completed. Therefore, is it actually more stressful to experience a time limited intense burst of anxiety/stress or a continuous level? Perhaps neither is better nor worse than the other. People simply have differences in how emotions motivate them.

Nevertheless, rarely do we question why some people are compelled to complete their tax filing immediately. However, if you live or work with someone who cannot put tasks aside until later you may have wondered if their behavior reflects a pathological condition (even though it likely does not). 

Disregarding the accuracy of their work some task-driven people might hurriedly attend to their tax filing just to get it behind them, possibly ignoring the need for further consideration. Task-driven non-procrastinators are often those who contact their accountant or tax preparer with last-minute corrections or become upset because they did not include something when they filed.

Deadline-driven procrastinators, however, are highly skilled at pulling everything together at the midnight hour when there is significant emotional tension in terms of time. Predictably, as the deadline draws closer, they may imagine relieving their anxiety by requesting an extension, although they are usually deterred from doing so since such a request can activate shame. 

Further, the relief experienced from an extension would be short-lived, since they realize, come October, they will be in the same situation. In a frenzy of activity, much to the chagrin of their non-procrastinating partners, they simply get it done. 

Procrastinators are deadline efficient. I wish I could be one, but it’s too late. Motivational styles are determined early in life. 

(For more information, please see my book, "What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.")

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