April 15, 2013 at 9:18 AM ET
Are you reading this post instead of doing your damn taxes already? You are, aren't you?
This means I can make a few educated guesses about you: You are perhaps a) not very conscientious -- procrastinators are less likely to be organized, dutiful or self-disciplined. Or maybe you're b) impulsive or easily distracted. It could also easily be that you're c) a perfectionist and have put off your taxes because it seems so very complicated and you're afraid you'll do it all wrong. Or maybe you owe money on taxes this year, in which case, no one blames you for putting them off.
Meanwhile, your smug friend informs you (smugly) that she finished hers in February. Why do some of us suck it up and file our taxes promptly, and others put it off?
An estimated 20 to 25 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of the 2010 book "Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done." (Procrastinators who intended to use Turbo Tax got a surprise last night when the site went through intermittent service outages.)
The number one reason we procrastinate is obvious: we put off things we consider "aversive," which is the academic's way of saying we put off things that sound boring or complicated or generally unpleasant. Things like taxes.
"Nobody likes them! They're complicated, they require you to dig up things and you can't remember where they are, you fear you're not doing it correctly. Or you may be paying money! I think it's pretty normal for someone not to go get right down on their taxes," assures Tim Pychyl, a psychologist who studies procrastination. Pychyl writes the procrastination blog Don't Delay for Psychology Today, and is the author of the 2010 book "The Procrastinator's Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle."
Smug Friend, he says, may even have done her taxes early because she was putting off something else, a behavior psychologists refer to as structural procrastination. (As students, these kind of procrastinators might have organized a desk drawer instead of writing their term paper.) Maybe she had some truly terrible things on her to-do list in February, "so she did her taxes instead," suggests Pychyl. "It may not be the virtue (you) imagine it to be."
An early filer might also be what's called a defensive pessimist -- someone who imagines the worst possible situation and prepares as if it's bound to happen. A defensive pessimist envisions the last minute deadline panic and uses that anxiety to motivate himself or herself to do everything to avoid it.
It's also possible that Smug Early Filing Friend is rightfully smug. "Some people are just wise enough to know that they're not going to feel more like doing it tomorrow. They recognize it for what it is, and they just get started," Pychyl says. One way to embrace this mindset next year, or for other projects you're likely to procrastinate on, is to just ask yourself, "What's the first thing I need to do?" Just a little bit of progress on step one will make you feel accomplished, which can be enough to fuel the next steps, says Pychyl.
"Just getting started is quite magical in its own way," he says. "Once we get started on an avoided task, we often scratch our heads and say, 'Why did I put this off?'"
One last insight: We are really quite awful to our "future selves," according to a report Pychyl and a colleague just published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Our weird minds create a disconnect between our "current self" and our "future self" -- it's like we imagine the latter to be a separate person, unrelated to our actual, current self. (There's actually a great example of this on the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" where Ted and Marshall put off a complicated conversation by deciding they don't need to do it now; it's Future Ted and Future Marshall's problem. "Let's let those guys handle that," current Marshall says.)
Pychyl says we could cut down on procrastination "if we could just start to imagine 'future self' as 'self.'"
"If I can start to think of 'future self' a little bit more kindly, I can start getting more things done," he says.