Death and taxes; two of life's unwelcome certainties. Even though it is the same procedure every year, tax time can bring up lots of unwelcome emotions: financial worries, the fear of getting something wrong and being punished, feeling helpless in the face of government, realizing that we earned less income than we'd hoped, hating paperwork -- you name it.
But help is on the way. Whenever facing a stressful task, breaking it down into chunks and focusing on each practical step separately can be immensely beneficial. That's why I recommend using the "planning backwards method" when approaching tax season. I've implemented this tactic successfully for more than a decade.
Instead of starting at the beginning, backwards planning reverses the process and begins at the end -- April 30 if you file in Canada or April 18 this year for people in the United States. However, since life has a tendency to meander, I advise making April 23 (Canada) or April 11 (U.S.) the target date. That will give you a buffer of a week to juggle unexpected delays.
How it works:
1. What is the step immediately before filing your taxes with the government? That might be seeing your tax preparer or filling out the tax forms yourself. If you're working with a tax professional, make an appointment today if you haven't already done so.
If you are preparing your own taxes, estimate how long it will take you to finalize the paperwork. Think back to the last time you did this to come up with a realistic time frame. Tip: If you have been late in the past you might want to double your estimate. All too often we miscalculate how long a big task will take.
2. Once you have an idea of how many hours you will need to complete the forms, schedule them on your daily planner. Can you do it in one day, one weekend or do you need to use hourly increments over a longer period? Tip: If you get easily overwhelmed by this work, you might want to break up the whole process into hourly modules. Assign these elements to your high-energy periods when you are mentally and emotionally at your best.
3. Before you can fill out the forms, you need all sorts of data: your personal information and that of others in the family, income numbers from all sources, vehicle and home details, health insurance and retirement contributions. All need to be available to complete the forms. How long will that take you? Again, block the appropriate time slots on your calendar prior to filling out those tax forms.
4. At the end of this backwards-planning process, you will arrive at the date and time you need to start working on your taxes. Have you passed that point already? Then you had better start rescheduling the various steps right now.
5. Feeling guilty or panicked? Relax as much as you can and concentrate only on the next task and finish it. Intense emotions like anxiety and guilt tend to slow you down when you need to be focused and steady. What works best to get you out of the grip of doom? Use it now and move on.
Scheduling necessary tax tasks ahead of time with the backwards planning method can prevent major headaches, or at least give you a buffer to deal with them on time.
In the end, filing taxes is mainly a bureaucratic exercise for most. And if some unexpected twist throws you off, look on the bright side: Whatever issue you might stumble upon this year can teach you how to be better prepared for the next tax season.
Carpe "tax" diem!
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