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Good Question: Why Do We Procrastinate?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When the U.S. House voted to approve a bill ending the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that took effect on Jan. 1 — the so-called fiscal cliff — they did it with less than 40 hours left in their terms.

It’s becoming an annual tradition, in Washington — the freak-out over the deadline that they set.

Why does Congress wait until the last minute? Why do we procrastinate?

“Unfortunately, it’s a fair observation,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, hours before the bill w as called to a vote. “Here we are, it’s the 11th hour. Actually past the 11th hour.”

Ellison admitted it’s not the best way to govern.

“We are concerned when you get to the very last minute, a deal is foisted upon you,” Ellison said, rather than being able to make amendments and changes.

The rise in the use of short-term tax policy is one reason why today’s Congress is always facing deadlines. Instead of raising or cutting taxes as permanent policy, they’ve been passing short-term tax policies that expire.

“We do have a breakdown because we’re supposed to compromise and then vote,” said Ellison, noting that isn’t what’s happening.

Psychologists say we procrastinate because it works: avoiding work gives a short-term burst of pleasure.

“The path of least resistance for the way we’re wired is far easier,” said John Tauer, a social psychology professor with University of St. Thomas. “It alleviates anxiety, at least in the short term. People who like the quick-fix, procrastination is a good strategy to be happy and willfully ignorant.”

For many of us, having a deadline can be good.

“They’re the kick in the butt that most of us need,” said Tauer. “If you’re intrinsically motivated, you don’t need it. But for things that are less pleasant or things that we’re afraid to fail at, a deadline can help.”

For Congress, though, deadlines seem to lead to more deadlines.

“Yeah, it’s bad,” Ellison said.

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