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Psychology of Deadlines

As the tax season closes, accountants’ dust themselves down from the familiar rush of deadlines and client demands. It is a time of year marked by long hours and intense focus, but it also brings to light the significant physical and emotional challenges faced by professionals in this field.  

This is nothing new and perhaps we should have worked out a better way by now.  

I am a survivor of a tax season or twenty and my record for sleep (lack of) in a week is 4 hours. Not something I am proud of, but I got the job done – just and survived to tell the tale but the impact it had on me and ultimately my family was longer term. Why did I do this to myself? Am I a failure or a fool? What could I have done differently? Perhaps we are just wired this way. 

Let’s investigate ‘tax season’, offering insights and strategies to manage the pressures effectively, not only for your well-being but also for the benefit of you, your team, your family and clients. 

Understanding the Impact of Deadlines 

Deadlines are a constant in the world of accounting, especially during tax season. While they serve as essential motivators and help prioritise tasks, they also bring a considerable amount of stress. The pressure to meet these deadlines can lead to a tunnel-vision focus, often at the expense of personal health and work-life balance. It’s crucial to understand the psychological and physical responses to this pressure – from the adrenaline rush of a last-minute push to the dopamine release upon completion.  

Who said accounting and tax weren’t high-octane? Fast and Furious eat your heart out. Meeting deadlines at the last minute in accounting is about as Rock ‘n’ Roll as it gets. 

Chemical Rewards and Task Completion 

Endorphins and Dopamine 

Endorphins: Often released during stress or pain, providing a sense of relief or ‘high’. While not directly linked to task completion, they can contribute to a general feeling of wellbeing. 

Dopamine: This is the key player. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is often released in anticipation of a reward. It’s linked to pleasure and motivation. Completing tasks, especially challenging ones like meeting a tight deadline, triggers dopamine release, giving a sense of satisfaction or achievement. 

The Role of Dopamine in Procrastination and Deadline Achievement 

Procrastination Reward Cycle: When we procrastinate, we often engage in more pleasurable activities (like browsing the internet or socialising), which also release dopamine. This creates a short-term reward cycle that can make starting a less enjoyable task (like accounting work) more challenging. 

Deadline-Driven Dopamine Rush: As the deadline approaches, the urgency to complete the task increases. The brain anticipates the ‘reward’ of completing the task, leading to a surge in dopamine. This rush can be motivating and exhilarating, reinforcing the behaviour of working up against a deadline. 

Psychology of Deadlines: Procrastination and Stress 

Procrastination is a common human tendency, often worsened in high-stress professions like accounting. The ‘Pleasure Principle’ in psychology suggests we naturally avoid tasks causing discomfort, like complex tax work. 

Under stress, performance can follow the Yerkes-Dodson Law: up to a point, stress improves performance, but beyond that, it’s detrimental. Deadlines create a ‘tunnel vision’ focus, which can enhance efficiency but may impair creative problem-solving or thoroughness. 

The adrenaline rush from an impending deadline can increase focus and energy, but this often leads to longer hours, which might affect the quality of work due to fatigue. 

Why We Don’t Complete Tasks Ahead of Deadlines 

Without the pressure of an imminent deadline, the dopamine reward is less intense or immediate. This can reduce the motivation to complete the task early. 

Delay discounting is a cognitive bias where people tend to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. With a distant deadline, the reward of completion feels less significant compared to immediate pleasures. 

Balancing the Chemical Rewards 

Creating shorter, self-imposed deadlines for portions of a task can help stimulate regular dopamine release, keeping motivation without the stress of a looming final deadline.  

Setting up personal rewards for completing tasks ahead of schedule can manipulate this dopamine-driven system to your advantage, encouraging earlier completion. 

This is easier said than done of course when those deadlines aren’t just yours but those of your clients as well. What other deadlines do they have that are more pressing. Perhaps they leave their tax return to the last minute for that much needed dopamine hit. 

The Toll on Health: More Than Just Numbers 

Prolonged periods of stress, typical in tax season, can have profound effects on both your physical and mental health. Chronic stress is linked to various health issues, including anxiety, depression, and even physical conditions like heart disease. Additionally, the intensity of the work can lead to burnout, characterised by emotional exhaustion and a decrease in job satisfaction.  

The complex nature of accounting work, coupled with the significant responsibility of handling financial matters, adds to the stress. Many accountants have perfectionist tendencies, striving for error-free work. This can create internal pressure, heightening stress and the risk of depression when facing relentless deadlines. 

The burnout, lack of job satisfaction and ultimately depression are what led to me selling my practice. Once the adrenaline and dopamine hits no longer touch the sides the writing is on the wall. 

Strategies for Mitigating Stress and Improving Well-Being 

Set Realistic Goals and Break Down Tasks: Instead of viewing the entire tax season as one overwhelming project, break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks with their own mini-deadlines. This approach not only makes the workload feel more manageable but also supplies frequent dopamine boosts as you complete each task. 

SMART Goals: Set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals. This framework makes tasks less daunting and more attainable. 

Embrace Technology: Utilise accounting software and other technological tools to streamline processes, reducing the manual workload and freeing up time for more complex tasks. Use online checklists, Practice Management software, client portals, document management solutions and anything else you can. Make it visual with dashboards and see the efforts of your labour. 

Using accounting software to automate routine tasks saves time and reduces the cognitive load. 

Foster Open Communication: Encourage a culture where team members can openly discuss their workload and stress levels. This can lead to more collaborative approaches to managing workload and deadlines. 

Prioritise Work-Life Balance: Implement and respect boundaries between work and personal life. Encourage taking regular breaks and using allotted vacation time, especially during less busy periods. Don’t stop doing the things you enjoy during a period of stress as it just heightens the stress. 

The Ripple Effect: Impact on Team and Clients 

Leaving tasks until the last minute can have a ripple effect on both your team and clients. For the team, it can lead to increased stress and reduced morale, as everyone scrambles to meet the looming deadlines. For clients, it can result in less thorough work, potentially affecting their financial well-being. It’s vital to recognise that effective deadline management is not just about individual productivity but also about maintaining trust and delivering quality service. 

While you are tunnel visioned on tax returns you are neglecting other jobs and services clients are paying for, growing your practice and looking after yourself.  

Preventing the Eleventh-Hour Rush: A Collective Effort 

Educate Clients: Regularly communicate with clients about the importance of providing information early. Consider implementing incentives for early submission or penalties for late information to encourage prompt cooperation.  

Disengage Clients: A bit more drastic but you know the serial offenders in your practice are creating stress for yourself and your team not allowing you to do your best work. I know this is easier said than done but the disadvantage of losing a personal tax fee versus the benefits it will bring you and your team are chalk and cheese. The reluctance to disengage clients is brought about by valuing our practices on GRF. You are not just losing a client you are devaluing your business but putting that to one side, what could you do to increase the value of your practice if you didn’t have PITA clients? 

Remove Tax Season: Once a client’s statutory accounts or management information is completed that covers the tax year end that is the time to strike. You are in contact with clients so why not utilise that time to focus on the business and personal tax situation at the same time? Make the personal tax return part of the year-end process spreading the load across the year. Make tax season and deadlines redundant. 

Promote a Proactive Culture: Cultivate a work environment that values planning and meeting deadlines comfortably, rather than relying on last-minute efforts. 

Regular Check-Ins: Implement regular check-ins during tax season to check progress and redistribute workload if necessary. 

Time Management Training: Foster skills in managing workload effectively over time, rather than relying on deadline pressure: 

  1. Pomodoro Technique: Use this method to work in focused intervals (typically 25 minutes) followed by short breaks. It helps maintain concentration and prevents burnout. 
  1. Eisenhower Matrix: Prioritise tasks based on urgency and importance. It assists in focusing on what truly needs to be done first, reducing the overwhelming feeling of having too much to do. 

Flexible Work Arrangements: To reduce stress and increase productivity, especially during peak seasons. 

Mindfulness Practices: Engage in activities like meditation or yoga to reduce stress and improve focus. 

Regular Exercise: Physical activity is a proven stress reliever and can help clear your mind, improving overall productivity. 

Recognise Personal Procrastination Patterns: Understanding your own triggers for procrastination can help in developing personalised strategies to combat it. 

Reward System: Create a system of rewards for meeting smaller deadlines or completing tasks, reinforcing positive behaviour. 

Post-Deadline Reviews: After each major deadline, review what went well and what could be improved. This reflection can inform future strategies for managing deadlines better. 

Conclusion: Finding Balance Amid Chaos 

Tax season will always be a demanding time for accountants, but it doesn’t have to take a toll on your health or the quality of your work. By understanding the emotional and physical nuances of this period, employing effective stress-management techniques, and fostering a proactive work culture, you can navigate through this challenging time more smoothly. 

Remember, the key is not just surviving tax season but thriving through it. 

The dopamine-driven reward system in our brains plays a significant role in how we respond to deadlines. Deadlines can be both a positive and negative influence on task achievement and productivity. They are effective tools for motivation, focus, and time management, but can also lead to stress, quality compromise, and unhealthy work habits. The key is finding a balance: using deadlines as motivators and focus enhancers while mitigating their negative impacts through stress management, realistic scheduling, and fostering a culture that values both efficiency and well-being. 

It’s like running a marathon: pacing is crucial. Start too fast, and you burn out; start too slow, and you might not finish in time. Deadlines are similar; they’re necessary to keep us on track, but it’s how we manage the run-up to them that truly dictates their effectiveness, wouldn’t you agree?