Akratic Accounting

Akratic Accounting or Procrastination

Introduction

We have all been there, put off something until tomorrow and tomorrow, as we know never comes, so those little tasks like reconciling some control accounts don’t get done until absolutely necessary and at the eleventh hour leading to short cut and short term solutions and frustrations at our own sub optimal decision making and criticism of our performance. But do we have ourselves to blame,

In this Article I explore some of the nuances of procrastination, it is not all negative by any means and this habit like any other trait of a decision maker has some upside

Rational thinking- why delay?

Some Accountants are habitual procrastinators by choice because putting yourself under pressure with a ticking deadline is thought a good way of maintaining peak performance. Recent research has shown that this habit impinges on your wellbeing as it inevitably lead to short cuts and inadequate work.

However such delay does not constitute procrastination unless it is deliberately irrational. If an Accountant is faced with making an estimate rather than waiting for the actual figure then this patience is rational. Similarly, Academics may have a default position when asked a question and they respond by saying they need to do more research, again a rational reason for delay.

Procrastination in its irrational sense is about perception. In the judgement of the Accountant, delaying may elicit better information unfortunately the pressure of producing monthly accounts means that at some point the trade-off between accuracy and timeliness dictates that information has to be produced sooner than later. Producing it later may not be an. No sooner have we closed the ledger for one month when the next month’s transactions are mounting up. Sometimes this means acting against one’s better judgement because the deadline is looming. The Greeks called this Akrasia. When a CEO asks for information before it is ‘ready’ (in the accountants mind) then failure to provide it brings out perceptions of procrastination or just plain unhelpfulness. The reason for the delay is simply a rational wish to seek out better quality information.

Putting it bluntly , you may decide not to commit to anything and leave the door open for that golden opportunity that is bound to come along so you don’t want to over commit. When the opportunity doesn’t arise, you decide to take the original course of action. This is rational.

It may be simply that in the event of such requests and in the knowledge that information or output may be subjective and open to misinterpretation then procrastination is more about prudence (or lack of) rather than deliberate neglect.

Discounting procrastination

Accountants will recognise the discounting principles in valuing immediate worth (information) with future worth (which may be more reliable information) , the implicit time value of decision making is therefore a cause and a pause for thought. The difference between the net present values of information from a CEOs perspective to that of an FD may well give, again, impressions of unhelpfulness. It is this lack of planning that gets confused with procrastination, If there is a strict timetable for producing figures then bringing forward dates for delivery will just further exacerbate the impression of ill preparedness and procrastination. The antidote to this is merely changing timeframes and thinking.

However, there are personal differences on reward issues and waiting for results. The Marshmallow test proves this that there can be advantages for delay, but even when you know this you might trade off an instant reward because you have discounted severely the impact of waiting for an extra marshmallow. This then adds an impulsive layer onto the notion of procrastination because procrastination becomes something to avoid if it leads to immediate pleasure, so we are into pain v pleasure territory. The thinking behind procrastination then moves into more definite issues such as, if not now, then when. You can put matters off until tomorrow provided you actually do it within 24 hours and not repeatedly put things off until the next tomorrow. That is why we work to deadlines.

What happens occasionally is that Accountants draw up some credible excuse as to why figures can’t be produced or put that many caveats to them that they become meaningless, this is another form of procrastination and paying lip service to deadlines. However this is also about task and priority management, some things will have to wait until tomorrow because there are only so many hours in a day, so task management is also key and disposing of distractions is also a pre requisite to eliminating indecision. Procrastination therefore may be simply a function of discounting future reward to be worth more than immediate action.

There is a school of thought that people would prefer small gains now rather than wait for the larger gains because of the effort involved especially when we talk about the avoidance of compulsive consumption i.e quitting smoking , or starting that diet tomorrow, again,   In Economic jargon this is discounting future benefits to their present utility. The problem with this excursion into utility theory is that people’s utility differ and that forms the basis of a perception of procrastination.

Effort and weakness

When exploring these concepts and linking them to procrastination, inevitably the question of motivation and willingness crops up. Procrastination is not necessarily indecision, more of a rational process of selection of alternatives, therefore it is not necessarily a weakness of thought but maybe something more corporeal and to do with sheer effort (of will). When we talk of task management and allotting time to key pieces of work, invariably the tasks that are hardest or require an effort of learning may not get the priority they deserve, because there is a need for ‘quick wins’ or to ‘pick low hanging fruit’ Procrastination in it’s purest sense is not doing anything, obviously taking no effort or thinking time, however sifting through alternatives and discounting them into some form of order or priority requires effort, so in this respect, any action e.g. continue smoking is a conscious effort, despite medical evidence that says it is harmful. The benefit of having one last cigarette before you actually quit far outweighs the long term benefit of actually quitting.. and so on…. Procrastination in a broader sense is therefore linked closely with time and thinking of when to do something rather than not thinking at all. However, if it is decided that a certain act should be done better tomorrow for a variety of reasons and come the allotted time it is not, then that could be construed as a weakness of decision follow up. It also calls into existence whether other tasks have become more of a priority over you existing intention, so again we are into discounting future benefits based on new information. The problem then becomes if this keeps on recurring that the original task never gets done and over time becomes unnecessary, so the question then is asked why it was necessary in the first place if we could have foreseen all these eventualities. This forms the basis of many ideas associated with Risk Management and the likelihood of occurrence. Quite often failure to implement the original plan is rationalised by post planning events which render the original idea useless, usually sometimes called benign neglect, i.e it would have been better to have decided to do nothing and let the passage of time solve the issue for you. This means that procrastination then is deliberately failing to do something within a distinct time frame. It is therefore not irrational

 

Deliberate Procrastination

Accountants will recognise these two examples of this.

Firstly I have been involved in negotiations for sales of businesses where there is an asymmetric relationship between two parties either through size or information. It is not uncommon when there are protracted negotiations that one side pauses and adopts a wait and see attitude, especially when they are at the latter stages of negotiating and possibly haggling about the price of goodwill which may be dependent on current performance. They may also take the view that the longer negotiations endure then the distraction that causes is sufficient to affect the performance of the company and decrease value. I

Secondly where changes are not well received, or are not agreed with then a toxicity occurs when people deliberately slow down the pace of change or information exchange through lack of cooperation (although outwardly they may appear different). This is almost passive aggression, but fundamentally it is a deliberate ploy to resist the change and wear the process down by attrition.

These two examples reinforce the notion that there is a deliberation to procrastination and moves away from the idea of indecision.

However it does not answer the question of when you actually stop delaying and progress to action, or indeed if the passage of time merely makes that decision for you because the act of doing something is now immaterial and pointless, or circumstances change that mean your previously rational preference for doing something has simply changed due to other interventions or your options have changed .

True procrastination then is delaying an action for no good reason

Procrastination-Vice or virtue?

If we look at the emotional side of decision making we can perhaps shed some light on this behaviour. Some Psychologists may say that we don’t have control over procrastination because our emotions get the better of us and that the habit of procrastination is deeply ingrained and it becomes the norm . From an Accounting point of view that means the cost of eliminating procrastination is simply too great to contemplate and that there is no value in changing.

However false beliefs (or information) means that morality enters the fray.

We cannot entertain the notion that false beliefs that encourage ‘poor habits’ i.e last minute compilation of accounts are merely a rational way of working, something deeper is happening here, especially when you factor in stress of late reporting and compromising standards.

There may be some deeper moral voice that is saying that my output is irrelevant anyway so who cares?   On the other hand the strive for complete accuracy and perfectionism is to be applauded ad that ingrained habit may be construed as procrastination.

There also has to be a compliance angle on this as we have laws and regulatory reporting that forces behaviour and not only do you legally have to report results within a timeframe, you also have to have them legally audited, so to some extent society recognises the importance of checks and balances that can reduce or eliminate procrastination.

 

Beating procrastination.

If we get back onto the premise that there is a certain rationality to procrastination then a reasonable conclusion is that it can be avoided by planning your time or prioritising task management. So is this fundamentally about goal setting and coping with interventions (some of which are emotional) In which case we are talking about self-control and self-discipline. The issue here is how good are you at it and do you trust yourself to make the ‘correct’ decision based on the facts you have, so ‘weakness of will’ becomes a prime assumption to the causes of procrastination.

If we can be more resolute, show all the signs of ‘leadership’ and make a decision then surely procrastination will disappear. This also includes having conversations with other people who may actually be able to make your mind up for you or strengthen your resolve. In which case we are into internal conflict resolution and the weighing up of variables and acceptable outputs. Perhaps psychologically bundling easy and difficult tasks or decisions together may be a way to beat procrastination.

The conclusion to all this is having a rational discourse with yourself about rational choices and communicating to others about why you don’t want to do something right now. Also, it is ok to delay or change your mind in the light of new evidence.

Earlier in this piece I talked about the passage of time, perhaps this is a situation in that if you don’t make the decision, ultimately it will be made for you (you may end up losing your job) . So, it is ok to procrastinate provided you can give a rational explanation to yourself and others why you do it.