The One Habit That Helped Me Stop Procrastinating on My Taxes — and Everything Else

published Mar 8, 2023
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In my twenties, I realized procrastinating wasn’t working for my life. It was stressing me out and preventing me from propelling forward. I decided to make wholesale changes and identify what fueled my procrastination: It was my fear of failure and perfectionism that drove my behavior to keep putting things off. I kept telling myself, “If I don’t start, then I will avoid failure.” 

This saying worked to my detriment because there were tasks I simply had to start ahead of time. One of the tasks that fell into that category was filing my taxes. Every year the tax date is the same, so I didn’t have any excuses about an unanticipated deadline. The one thing that helps me file my taxes on time (and some years, even early) to date is employing the five steps called the Ivy Lee Method that James Clear outlines in his book, “Atomic Habits.” 

You can apply the five-step method to tax prep or for any task you’ve been delaying for weeks. Here’s how I make each step work for me. 

Write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. 

I typically make my to-do list at night and brainstorm what I need to do for the next day. Writing to-dos down the evening before helps me be mindful of what I’m putting on my list and stay realistic about what I can and cannot accomplish. 

As I make my list, I note an estimated time to complete each task in the margin (I tend to overestimate). It pushes me to be honest about my time constraints and encourages me to balance a few time-consuming tasks with quicker to-dos.

For my taxes, one of the first steps I tackle is gathering all the documentation I may potentially need to fill out the forms in one sitting. Some of this documentation is on my computer, while other relevant information is in a folder because it was delivered via mail. Gathering documents sometimes feels like the longest step, but it also means I’ve started the process. 

Prioritize these tasks based on true importance.

Because I make my to-do list at night, I am able to reflect on what tasks are truly important, instead of haphazardly taking a look in the morning. I know exactly what tasks need my attention, so I don’t spend too much deciding which to work on first. Tasks that are based on an external deadline may be things that I put down my list first, while other less timely items may occupy later slots. 

With my taxes, the most important task is to first gather documents and then move on to the other steps, which means making certain I’ve accounted for my income and deductions. It also doesn’t make sense to sit down with partial information. If it takes me a week or more to gather documentation, I don’t hesitate to put that on consecutive to-do lists. The most important element is that I am working toward the end goal (completing my taxes) and every single day I am doing something small to get there. 

Concentrate only on the first task. Work until it’s finished before moving on to the second.

Sometimes I’m tempted to move past the first two tasks and concentrate on less timely tasks or to-dos that seem easier to accomplish — but that’s still procrastinating, just within the confines of a to-do list. The reason I’ve organized the list in numerical order is because the top three items are must-dos and are likely contingent on some deadline. So for me, it is crucial to tackle those items first. I’ve found that I am more productive when I take on each task in order. Once I finish harder tasks, as I near the end of my list, it takes less time to do the to-dos in slot five or six. 

Following a step-by-step list when doing taxes can make it easier to get to the finish line. Gathering documentation has to come first, filling out the tax forms will likely come second, and then making a determination of whether you are entitled to a refund will come at the end. Whether you’re filling out taxes yourself, using an online program, or hiring a CPA, clearly listing each step will make it easier no matter the approach. 

At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

There have been several times that I’ve shifted unfinished items to the list to the next day. Some days unexpected emergencies come up, like a flat tire, a work deadline, or a sick child, and I know I won’t get to certain things on my list. 

The idea of shifting these items to the next day gives me some breathing room and a structure to tackle those to-dos I didn’t complete. Because I work within this framework, I avoid overwhelm and unnecessary frustration. 

Practice this process every day. 

With any new approach, practice is key. Trying this system out may be hard initially, but making certain you’re consistent will help with procrastination, meeting goals, and pushing out that panicked feeling when you’ve waited too long to start on a project, small or large. Plus, it should help you file those taxes in plenty of time.