“Time is money,” goes the old saying. If that were literally true, accountants would master all the best time management tools and make sure they'd always have enough time to spare.
The reality, however, is that the fast-paced, always-on state of modern finance means many CPAs struggle to stay on schedule. Unfortunately, that often means working late on weeknights and even during the weekend when you should be enjoying time for your own pursuits.
This problem persists across the field, affecting new accounting graduates as much as senior directors. So if you feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day, you’re not alone. Here are five time management tools to help you get more out of your working hours and stay on top of your calendar and to-do list:
1. Use tech hacks
When used properly, technology can be a huge time saver. Learn some shortcuts for Google, Excel and your operating system, and you could minimize keystrokes and searches and shave several seconds from oft-repeated tasks — which can add up tremendously over time. For example, Google easily converts currencies right in its search bar (e.g., search “$100 in yen”), and [Ctrl] + [f] lets you quickly search for specific text within documents and web pages.
Getting some extra screen real estate can grant a major productivity boost as well. Apps that turn your tablet or smartphone into a second monitor save you from having to constantly switch between windows when using multiple programs or documents.
Also, collaborating in the cloud prevents you from having to email documents back and forth. If your version of Excel isn’t connected to the cloud, it’s more difficult to securely share documents with coworkers and work together in real time.
2. Triage your tasks
Prioritization is key to good time management. One way to triage your workload is with a four-folder system on your physical and/or virtual desktop. Label the four folders:
- Urgent tasks: immediate action required
- Semi-urgent tasks: for completion within the week
- Non-urgent tasks: for completion within the month or quarter
- Non-action items: to keep for reference
Anything else goes in the trash. Add tasks to the relevant folders as they arrive. Work through the urgent folder until it’s cleared out each day, then go on to the next folder. Move assignments from one to the other as deadlines approach, and carve out time weekly to stay on top of non-urgent but important items, such as reporting deadlines. To make this system work, avoid the temptation to focus on the fun but non-pressing projects.
3. Delegate deftly
Many managers struggle to let go of certain assignments, either because they enjoy them or feel it’s easier in the long run to just do it themselves. But if you’re constantly overstretched, you should be handing off tasks to others on your team instead of devoting more of your valuable time to them. When you delegate, give your employees plenty of autonomy, but at the same time let them know you’re always available to answer questions and give feedback. Now you can focus more of your attention on higher-level matters, such as client relations and business growth.
4. Blitz your way back
Sometimes your to-do list can get so out of control there’s no choice but to pull an all-nighter or all-weekender. If you go this route, attack the work with a solid plan. Decide what must get done during the additional hours, and block out everything else so you can focus.
Caution: Working nights and weekends should be the exception, not the rule. Lack of sleep is a major workplace epidemic, costing U.S. businesses $63 billion per year in lost productivity, according to a study by Robert Half. So don’t get into the bad habit of catching up on work when you should be resting, relaxing and spending time with your family and friends. Work late only in emergencies.
5. Practice workload realism
If you’ve tried everything and still can’t stay on top of your to-do list, you likely need a helping hand. If you own or manage an accounting firm, too much work means the business is growing — and it’s time to hire more employees.
For peak periods, such as tax season or year-end close, it may be enough to bring in project specialists. If you’re a staff-level accountant, talk to your supervisor and make the case for bringing in additional finance professionals.
You may be magic with finance figures, but you can’t really conjure an extra day of the week or more hours in a day. But by mastering the use of time management tools and knowing when to bring in extra hands, you can enjoy the best of both worlds: a rewarding CPA career and a satisfying personal life.