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Productivity hacks: Getting more out of your valuable time

Busy season has barely begun and I can’t tell you how many CPAs have told me they expect it to be one of the most frenetic and stressful tax seasons ever.

As mentioned in my book "The Personal CFO," most professionals are living in a constant state of information overload and decision fatigue. Clients are increasingly demanding and there are more choices than ever to weigh.

As I wrote last year in Don’t Succumb to Decision Fatigue, we now have vast stores of information and options at our fingertips. But, having too many choices can work against you when it prevents you from making decisions—or when it makes you second-guess the decisions you’ve just made.

In response, it’s easy to fall back on K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid), but it’s not as easy as you think to keep things simple without making mistakes that could come back to bite you. That’s why I’m sharing my favorite free and low-cost tools and techniques that will help you minimize distractions and help you get the most out of your time and energy through busy season and beyond. (Neither the author nor SourceMedia has commercial interests in any of the products, tools or services mentioned within this article. The brand names mentioned herein are for illustrative purposes only and do not imply an endorsement of any kind.)

I’ve found there are four key areas in which CPAs let their time and energy slip away:

1. Phone;

2. Email;

3. Scheduling/time management;

4. Professional learning.

1. Manage your phone

One of the biggest game changers for me is an app called Moment that tells me how much time I’m spending (often wasting) on my mobile device. With apps like Moment, you can specify the maximum amount of time you want to spend on your phone and you’ll get an alert that lets you know when you’re about to exceed your allotted daily phone time. When I first starting using Moment, I thought it would tell me I was spending 30 to 40 minutes per day on my phone. Not even close….I was spending several hours on my phone most days and that’s way too much. Now I have a hard cap of 60 minutes per day. After that, no more phone calls for the rest of the day!

Note: Apple, with its iPhone, is also putting a lot of resources into developing its own time-tracking system to help you monitor how much time you’re spending on the device.

2. Manage your email

We use Slack to manage internal emails at our firm. Slack helped us reduce the amount of email we were sending each other internally by at least 50 percent.

You can create category-specific threads within Slack such as “New Client Coming into Office” or “Technology Issues.” If you’re still using email to communicate with people within your firm, stop! For instance, we all know what happens when you’re trying to organize an internal management meeting and you have to copy five people and then someone has a question. Next thing you know, you have 13 emails all saying the same thing. Email should be reserved for your clients only and tools like Slack can help you eliminate all the redundant and unnecessary internal emails. Imagine how much faster and smarter you can respond to clients when all the trash in your inbox has been eliminated.

We also use Sanebox to manage outside email. Unsubscribe from as many distribution lists as possible—opt out of everything you don’t truly need. Then start “foldering” your external emails.

I have one folder called “Later,” one called “News” and one called “Client.” Anytime I receive an email from a recognizable client, it goes right into my “Client” folder. Everything else goes to Junk. I subscribe to a few newsfeeds that I really like and those go straight to my News folder. The “Later” folder is for those “tweener” messages—worthwhile and important, but not urgent. They’re not from clients, but they’re also not junk. So, I read them later, generally off hours, when I can concentrate and an action or response from me is not expected.

By filtering out all the noise in your inbox, you can respond incredibly quickly to those all-important emails from your clients.

To summarize email management:

Step 1: Unsubscribe from anything email lists you don’t truly need.

Step 2: Route all internal messages into Slack.

Step 3: Use Sanebox or similar tools to segment your outside emails into distinct folders (such as News, Clients and Later).

3. Take control of your time

First let’s talk about time management. Productivity Planner is a simple, but powerful tool that makes you think every day about: (a) The most important thing I have to get done today, and (b) how long it will take me to get it done.

At the end of the day, review your activity. See if you got your most important stuff done and how long it took. Did it take longer (or less time) than you planned? The key to getting the most out of tools like Productivity Planner is to use them in conjunction with time management exercises. I like the Pomodoro Technique—25-minute blocks of intense concentration followed by five-minute breaks. Instead of hours and minutes, start thinking about your time in terms of “Pomodoros”: i.e., how many Pomodoros will it take me to get a complex return done? At the end of each day or week, see whether you are on track or off track and make adjustments. When you do this at the beginning of every day, you have to go into your calendar and block that time out in your calendar.

Scheduling: Now let’s talk about your schedule. Even when it’s not Busy Season, it’s easy to feel like your calendar is bossing you around. Using a scheduling app like Calendly can be a game changer for you and your firm. Calendly allows people from inside and outside your firm to book their own appointments with you directly in your calendar. You don’t have to give people access to your entire calendar. Just give them access to the open blocks of time that you’ve allocated each day and week for meetings and appointments. Once you get the hang of Calendly, you (and your administrative staff) will stop wasting time going back and forth trying to schedule (or reschedule) a client meeting or a phone call.

Now let’s talk about meetings, the often-maligned scourge of office life. If held carelessly, meetings can be colossal time-wasters. But, if you’re running meetings the right way, they’re an excellent way to leverage your valuable time, resources and energy.

First, if someone wants to schedule a meeting with me I want to make sure they have thought through the problem and fill out an Impact Filter. I’m not requesting this exercise to be difficult. The Impact Filter forces you to think about:

  • What you want to accomplish
  • What’s the biggest difference it will make?
  • What will the completed project/solution look like?
  • What are the criteria you’ll use to measure success?

The other thing I like about Impact Filters is that more often than not, the process of filling them out helps people solve their own problems. That alone will cut down your need for internal meetings by at least 50 percent. Finally, it goes without saying—never hold a meeting without an agenda. Here’s a great primer about How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting, courtesy of Harvard Business Review.

4. Learning

As a CPA, how many articles, webinar invitations and conference brochures do you receive each day telling you about all the things you need to learn in order to fulfill your CPE requirements? It can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are a number of very good, inexpensive solutions available to free up your time significantly and streamline your learning efforts.

Keeping up with relevant industry news: We’re all bombarded with news 24/7. Using a newsreader such as Feedly can aggregate all the relevant sources you like and store them in a single convenient location. With a feed manager, you can peruse all the aggregated articles at your leisure and avoid wasting time hunting down articles that hit your inbox earlier in the week—the important, but not urgent, articles you meant to read over the weekend.

Books: Sure, they’ve been around forever, but good old-fashioned books remain one of the most powerful learning devices you can get your hands on, no pun intended. Granted, books do require an investment of your valuable time. Before I commit to reading any tome, I’ll read two summaries of it and decide whether or not I’ll commit to that topic and author. Blinkist and Get Abstract are great tools for getting reliable summaries of books in 10 to 20 minutes. I also like James Clear’s Book Summaries, which contains very tidy three-sentence summaries of over 50 great business books. Using these news feeds and books summaries is not being lazy; it’s being smart. Your time is valuable. These tools will make your learning far more effective.

Your phone, email, schedule and learning plan are tools to make you a better professional. You own them, they don’t own you. No matter how crazy busy season gets this year, remember there are plenty of excellent tools out there to help you remain the boss of your time, your energy and your sanity.