Did you know that it can take more than 20 minutes to get back on task after an interruption? That’s what Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California at Irvine found in her research. During busy season, tax pros and accountants are constantly interrupted, which adds to the stress from the crushing workload. As an extreme example, one of my friends told me she was typically interrupted more than 20 times per hour! That she got any tax returns out the door was a miracle.
Just showing up at the office and hoping to put a dent in your mountain of work isn’t always enough. That’s when you need a strategic approach to get your work done. Here are some ideas to help you get more productive time out of your busy days.
- Go paperless and put everything in one place. When my firm went paperless in 2008, one of the surprising benefits was the time I saved when all the files were at my fingertips. When a client called, I could pull up their tax return and the workpapers on my computer and answer their questions immediately.
- Block out time for specific tasks and put everything on your calendar. Schedule time for everything, including administrative tasks. Be realistic about the amount of time it will take to complete a task. One of my CPA friends puts every one of his tasks on his shared calendar. For example, “Review Smith 2018 1040, 1-2 pm on Wednesday.” Planning in such granular detail helps him plan his capacity and gives his team transparency into the status of projects. It also helps him set realistic expectations with his clients. That level of detail might be too much. But, you might consider blocking out certain chunks of your days for client work, and reserve other chunks for meetings and administrative tasks. Plan your days and weeks relentlessly.
- Set priorities for the week and for each day. Besides the gratification of checking off a task on your to-do list, setting weekly and daily priorities helps to make sure nothing important slips through the cracks in the chaos of busy season. This can also provide focus for your work day so that you actually accomplish what you need to.
- Control your phone and email. There’s a fine line between being responsive to your clients, and allowing email and constant phone calls to rule your life. Consider establishing certain times of the day when you’ll respond to emails and return phone calls. There really aren’t many accounting emergencies. Most issues can wait at least half an hour or an hour for your response. Some people completely shut off their email while they’re working; others simply turn off the notifications. Turning off the majority of notifications on your cell phone and keeping it face down or out of sight will also help.
- Leverage technology and automate as much as possible. If you’re a regular visitor to the Firm of the Future, then you’re already using technology like QuickBooks® Online to get your client work done. Adding a scheduling app that lets clients, prospects, and colleagues self-schedule appointments can save a huge amount of time by ending those endless email chains trying to find a mutually acceptable time. Video conferencing services such as Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts can also help you make the most of your time by eliminating travel time. By using the screen share feature, you can both look at the same document at the same time.
- Plan your hardest work for your most productive part of the day. Some people work best in the mornings, while others are night owls. Figure out what kind of person you are, and schedule the tasks that take the most cognitive energy for those times. The key to making the most of those ultra-productive parts of your day is minimizing interruptions. That may mean coming in the office early or staying late. Or perhaps you’ll work from home on certain days. At the very least, close your office door (if you have one) and silence your phone.
- Schedule down time. All work and no play is a recipe for burnout and exhaustion. Taking regular breaks and taking care of your body by exercising and getting enough sleep will help keep your brain in tip-top condition.
As a knowledge worker, you provide the most value by being effective with your time, not simply by being more efficient. So try out some of these ideas and get a boost to your effectiveness!