Haven’t Finished Your Taxes? Planning Prompts Help Turn Intention into Action

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Photo: Lord Jim

With Tax day less than two weeks away, my guess is that you fall into one of two camps. In the first camp, are those who have already filed their taxes or have an appointment to do so—their W-2s, 1099s, and other documents collected neatly in a folder by the door. The second camp, myself included, possess a strong, though vague, sense that by April 18th our taxes will be done. We’re not entirely sure how it’s going to happen, but we’re confident it will.

But will it?

As of March 25th, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reported it had received around 90 million individual income tax returns. The IRS projects that a total of nearly 150 million individual tax returns should be filed this year. That means there’s about 60 million of us who need to file in the final month.

Or, we could delay the inevitable. This year, the IRS estimates it will receive over 11 million copies of Form 4868—a request for an extension.

While most individuals pay their income taxes on time, about 23 percent fail to do so equating to around $25 billion in unpaid taxes. This is despite the fact that over 70 percent of taxpayers receive a refund. Most of us, simply have to fill out our forms on time and we get money back, money that we earned no less, yet we don’t do it. Sure, filing your taxes can be difficult, and research shows the greater the difficulty the more inertia we must overcome to take action. But the tax code isn’t radically different than last year’s or the year before. We knew it would be difficult, and yet here we are two weeks away, the deadline looming.  

Sure, filing your taxes can be difficult, but the tax code isn’t radically different than last year’s or the year before. We knew it would be difficult, and yet here we are two weeks away, the deadline looming.  

The same story could be told for voting—those who know when and where they’re going to vote during the primaries or this November, and those who are pretty sure they’ll figure it out. Same for flu shots, breast exams, and colonoscopies. Again, the cost of inaction is high—potentially life or death.

What might solve this problem of good intentions but poor follow-through? How about a simple plan?

In the most recent issue of Behavioral Science and Policy, Todd Rogers, Katherine Milkman, Leslie John, and Michael Norton review the latest research on how individuals, organizations, and policymakers, in particular, might use planning prompts to help people achieve their goals. 

What Rogers and his colleagues suggest is not rocket science, but it’s not exactly common sense either. Otherwise all of our taxes would be filed, flu shots received, and colonoscopies endured. Yet, here we are—unfiled, unvaccinated, unprobed.

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In fact, Rogers and his coauthors write that people are more likely than not to fail to follow through on their intentions. In other words, the majority of our good intentions—eat healthier, exercise more, save for retirement, update our wills—stay just that, intentions.

Rogers and colleagues point out that the current practices for how organizations and policymakers attempt to align their stakeholders intentions with actions revolves around carrots and sticks—bonuses and penalties for following through or not. These might be effective, if lack of motivation was the only reason we fail to follow through on our goals. Motivation certainly plays a role, but we also tend to be forgetful, we often procrastinate, and we’re overly optimistic about how long it will take us to do whatever it is we hope to do. For these reasons, Rogers and colleagues offer planning prompts as a simple, low-cost, minimally intrusive tool that policymakers and organizations can use to help people align their actions with their intentions.

In one study, Rogers, alongside David Nickerson, analyzed how planning prompts influenced voting behavior in Pennsylvania’s 2008 Democratic Primary. Rogers and Nickerson randomly assigned 287,000 people to one of three groups, two received phone calls about the election, while the third group acted as a control and wasn’t contacted. Of the two groups that received calls, one was “reminded of the upcoming election, encouraged to vote, and asked if they intended to vote.” The calls to the other group followed the same script, except for an additional three planning questions that asked them “When would they vote, where would they be coming from, and how would they get to their polling place.”  

Compared to those who weren’t contacted, those in the first group were two percentage points more likely to vote. Those in the planning group were over 4 percentage points more likely to vote than the control group. This means that adding these three simple planning questions to the standard voting call doubled its effectiveness. Rogers and Nickerson point out these additional votes would have been enough to swing the results in Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Missouri in the 2008 presidential general election.

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Other studies have documented similar results in favor of planning prompts when trying to get people to sign up for free flu shots offered by their employers and head to the doctor for routine colonoscopies. In both cases, simply making a plan, even one only you knew about, increased your chances of following through on your healthful intentions.

Why do planning prompts work?

Because we’re often forgetful, succumb to procrastination, and not that great at estimating how long something might take, prompts which help us form concrete plans allow us to minimize the chance these tendencies foil our intentions. It’s also the case that creating a plan and then failing to follow through can create discomfort, meaning once a plan is in place there is a psychological cost associated with failing to complete it.  

Two things are certain in life, death and taxes. But it won’t kill you to pay your taxes.

Creating a plan of action can help us overcome these things. Yet, it as Rogers and colleagues point out, “Although making a plan helps people accomplish their intentions, when left to their own devices, people often fail to generate concrete plans.” Policymakers and organizations, then, can help their stakeholders follow through simply by prompting them to plan, rather to tempt them with a carrot or threaten them them with a stick.

Planning prompts aren’t panaceas, however. It’s not the case that prompting people to make a plan means everyone does so or that they complete it. Some people might find prompts redundant, as they’re good planners already. Meanwhile, prompts might not do much to help people complete complex, ongoing tasks like writing a will. Simply saying you’ll write it at a certain date and time, doesn’t take into account the trips to the lawyer or the work documenting your assets. Planning prompts might help you achieve sub-goals within an overarching goal, but simply prompting people to plan to complete a large, complex task might not be very effective.

To get the most out of planning prompts, Rogers and colleagues suggest that “Policymakers should focus on administering planning prompts for single, specific intentions that can only be executed in specific time windows.”

How about you completing your taxes before April 18th?

Two things in life, death and taxes. Ideally, we’d like to put death off as long as we can, and we’d like to pay our taxes on time. Yet, our behavior tells the opposite story. We neglect our health bringing death a little bit closer, and we put off our taxes decreasing the chance we’ll pay on time and increasing the likelihood of financial penalties.

But it won’t kill you to pay your taxes. Most people pay them and pay them on time. Planning prompts offer a way to align your intentions with your actions. If you haven’t filed your taxes yet, use the form below to plan when and how you’ll complete them. You’ll receive an email of the plan. Do you know someone who needs a nudge toward completing their taxes? Social pressure helps people follow through, so do them a favor and share the story:

Evan Nesterak is Co-founder of The Psych Report and a member of the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Featured Research: Rogers, T., Milkman, K. L., John, L. K., & Norton, M. I. (2015). Beyond good intentions: Prompting people to make plans improves follow through on important tasks. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(2), 33-41.

Disclosure: Michael Norton is a member of The Psych Report Advisory Board

 

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