Be in Control: Strategies for Effective Time Management
About the Author: Katie Thomas, CPA, is a content creator, 2021 & 2022 40 under 40 CPA Practice Advisor recipient, Top 50 Women in Accounting recipient, and the owner of Leaders Online, where they help accounting professionals increase their impact, influence, and income through thought leadership and digital marketing. Feel free to visit Leaders Online or connect with her on LinkedIn to get in touch with Katie.
As accountants, we love being organized. However, even when you have a schedule and to-do list, it can still feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.
Mastering time management can help you get more done. In fact, planning for just ten minutes each day can save up to two hours of wasted time. But where do you start?
Time management is something I have worked on improving through my years as an accountant, CPA, and business owner. I’ve tried a lot of things, some of which have been very successful, while others not so much. Today, I’m going to share my most effective time management strategies that you and your team can use to improve productivity and feel less overwhelmed by your day.
Keep a Pulse on Your Schedule
To better manage your time, you need to understand where it must be spent. In other words, you need to keep a pulse on your schedule.
How can you do that?
- Conduct weekly reviews of the coming week so that you know what you’re up against.
- Every night, create a prioritized to-do list for the next day.
Having a big-picture view of the week ahead will make it much easier to break tasks down into daily to-do lists. It also ensures that you tackle the most important tasks early on and distribute your workload evenly throughout the week (or as close to even as possible). As part of this process, make sure you put blank spaces on your calendar. This time will be important, because, as we all know, things never go as planned, and you want to leave time for the unexpected.
It’s important to remember that everyone is different, and this is just a general recommendation. You may have to look ahead for several weeks or months to better plan out your schedule, and that’s fine. The goal is to keep on top of your schedule so that you can better manage your workload without getting overwhelmed or burnt out.
I like to think of planning my schedule similar to planning a vacation. When you plan your vacation, if you schedule too many things to do each day, you end up being stressed out and not getting to everything. However, if you don’t put anything on your itinerary, you often spend your vacation jumping randomly from one activity to the next. It is important instead to focus on one or two things (at most) for the day to accomplish. This gives you an anchor and focus, while also providing enough flexibility to explore. The same can go for work schedules.
Plan Out Your Day
It should go without saying that you must plan out your day. But how you go about planning your day matters.
When you’re creating your to-do list for the next day, take a closer look at each task and ask:
- Does this need to get done right now?
- Does this task need to be done by me?
- Does this need to be done at all?
With your answers in mind, you can prioritize your work-related tasks in the following way:
- For tasks that are important and urgent: Add them to the top of your to-do list
- For essential items that aren’t urgent: Plan to complete them in the future (set a date)
- For tasks that must get done but not necessarily by you: Delegate
- Anything that isn’t important, get rid of it
While all the points above are important, I want you to really think about the last point. Are you doing things that can be eliminated? While working in audit, my manager had me send a recurring budget report to him on Monday. A few months had gone by, and I noticed he was no longer replying to my Monday email. I ended up asking him if he still wanted me to continue sending the report. His response was that the same report I’d spend time putting together weekly was now available automatically to him on a dashboard.
That being said, he likely should have told me that he no longer needed this report put together and sent his way, but it goes without saying, you too might be doing things that are no longer necessary.
Once you have a prioritized list of things you must do, you can block and schedule your day. Here are some tips:
- Focus on grouping like-tasks together. Jumping from one task to a totally different task can cause a lot of wasted time and (even worse) wasted brain power.
- When creating your schedule, allocate time to complete the tasks on your list. Parkinson’s Law is the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion, and that’s absolutely true when it comes to the work we do as accountants.
- Consider the hours when you are most productive and maximize that time. For example, if you’re most productive in the morning, can you prioritize doing your hardest, most challenging work then?
- Take breaks throughout the day. No one is meant to work 8 hours straight. Your brain (and body) will thank you for it. Get up and take a quick walk every hour or two. Even five to ten minutes can do wonders!
Following these tips to prioritize tasks and create a realistic schedule can help you stay on top of your workload while working more efficiently in the process.
Every workday, workers spend 51% of their time on low or no-value tasks. You might need to check these items off of your list, but that doesn’t mean you need to be the one performing them. As we talked about previously, when planning your day, you want to consider what you can delegate to others.
In addition to delegating daily tasks, I encourage you to take it a step further. At a minimum, you should be asking yourself every few weeks, “What can I delegate next?” This doesn’t mean what can you delegate now, but what’s on the roadmap for you to delegate in the future? Start looking at what you do day-over-day, week-over-week, and month-over-month that you can offload in the near future.
Over time, you want to be able to focus your time on higher-level tasks. Of course, delegating will take time, and you need to ensure that you have the right training and SOPs in place to make this process a success.
Streamline Tasks With the Right Tools and Software
Everyone can benefit from the right tools and software. Technology can:
- Save time
- Reduce errors
- Increase productivity
- Promote collaboration
- Support effective decision-making
- Allow you to focus attention on higher-value work
- And so much more
When it comes to software, you want to consider both existing software and new software. For existing software, ask yourself if there are ways you could better utilize your current tech stack. On the flip side, consider what software you may be able to eliminate given updated processes or new technology.
As far as new software goes, you want to keep tabs on what’s available, and what you could implement in the workplace to further streamline your tasks and workflow. In fact, this is a great blog on choosing new technology for your accounting department.
Software like FloQast can help accounting departments streamline tasks, reduce errors and automate mundane parts of their workflow. For example, streamlining the audit process and making it easier to close out each month is just one of the ways that the right tech can be used to help you and your team master time management.
Put the Brakes on Time Wasters
Time wasters are all around us. Software can help eliminate some of this lost time, but many items on the list below require a habit change. Be honest with yourself and your team to find out if time management is being derailed by:
- Multitasking and task hopping
- Spending too much time on social media
- Getting distracted by team chats or too many emails
- Scheduling or attending long, unnecessary meetings
- Procrastinating by putting off things we don’t want to do
Regardless of the strategies we use to plan out our day or the tools and tech we have in place, great time management cannot be achieved if we haven’t put the brakes on major time wasters. Perhaps social media channels can be checked once per day, or emails can be checked a few times throughout the day rather than every hour. When it comes to meetings, set a strict time schedule and always have an agenda.
Eliminating time wasters will empower teams to be more productive and finish tasks faster, so they have more time to focus on what they truly care about – both in and out of the office.
Reflect, Improve, and Repeat
Time management takes time and patience. Unfortunately, your original plan may wind up going differently than you imagined. However, you can and should:
- Reflect on every week. What went well? What didn’t go well? What can be improved?
- Try new things. Alternative solutions may work better than what you’re doing now.
- Create a feedback loop that allows you and your team to let you know what’s working and not panning out as planned.
Don’t get discouraged if your plans for being a time management master didn’t work out this week. Instead, reflect, improve, and repeat until you create a productive work environment.
You’ve done a lot to reach this point. Don’t forget to reward yourself and your team for all of the efforts they’ve put in to get control of their time management. You can recognize your team’s achievements, give out gift cards, or spring for lunch as a way to encourage everyone to stay on track.
Time is money, and as an accountant, you know how important it is to be efficient. Applying the time management tips above can help you and your team be more productive, waste less time, and meet deadlines with greater ease.
Recently, Katie and a panel of women in accounting for a live webinar in celebration of Women’s History Month as they discuss variety of sectors to discuss the most pressing topics facing women in accounting today, as well as recognize the contributions women continue to make within the industry.