Taxes 2015: The Science of Procrastination Explains Why We Delay

Why couldn't you just have done your taxes in February?

ByABC News
April 14, 2015, 2:15 PM

— -- As the clock winds down on filing 2014 taxes before the April 15 deadline, you know there are people out there wondering why they couldn't have just done it in February.

It turns out, there's a reason a third of Americans hadn't filed their taxes with a week to go before the deadline, psychology experts say. Those who procrastinate do it because they've learned this behavior over time as a coping mechanism, they said. In many cases, it dates back to childhood.

"People usually procrastinate or put off doing something like a complicated task or so on because it makes them feel uncomfortable or brings up negative or unwanted emotions," said Rebecca Greif, a psychologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. "Taxes can certainly be stressful for a lot of different reasons for whole host of different people. [Procrastinating] takes away that uncomfortable feeling. That's why people often engage in that."

But, of course, the relief is short-lived because eventually, you have to file your taxes, buy the Christmas presents, pick up the laundry. And the longer you wait, the more anxiety you're causing yourself overall, said Jeff Janata, chief of psychology at U.H. Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

"So in other words we are operating on a short-term basis," Janata said. "We act to relieve our stress in the short term but fail to recognize that in the long haul, we're actually increasing levels of stress associated with the unpleasant task."

Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University who authored "Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done," said there are also chronic procrastinators who are different than people who only procrastinate occasionally. He said studies around the world have shown that 20 or 25 percent of people are actually chronic procrastinators.

"This is their lifestyle," he said, adding that there are more procrastinators than people with depression.

Since society doesn't reward people for completing tasks early, it reinforces the behavior, Ferrari said. For instance, Christmas shoppers get better deals on Christmas Eve than Black Friday, he said.

But there's good news. Ferrari said being a procrastinator isn't chemical or genetic. It's often picked up in childhood as a way to cope with strict parents, he said.

"It's learned behavior," he said. "If you learn it, you can unlearn it."