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Jan 1990

Time management. (Management of an Accounting Practice)

by Marsh, Winston

    Abstract- Time management is essential to a successful accounting practice. However, often it is hard for individuals to be realistic and objective concerning their use of time. Accountants should set their goals, write them down, and use the goals to map out their day. Accountants also should schedule activities for that time of the day when they are at their peak of performance. Goals should be broken down into a series of small tasks that will lead gradually to the completion of the plan. A diary of achievements is recommended as a basis for making periodic reviews of progress.

Whenever I've talked with accountants, I've been left with the impression that they have two major problems. The first one is that they simply don't have enough time. The second is that they find it hard to get good staff.

Maybe the two problems are related. It is possible, just possible, that if accountants managed their time better they wouldn't need the extra staff. On the other hand, if they used the services of staff properly then perhaps they would find they had more time.

It's amazing how often I find high level people doing jobs that experienced but lower level staff could do if they were delegated the job and given the chance and the challenge to perform. Typically, in many practices I'll catch a partner of the firm working on a simple tax return that almost anybody in the practice could do if they were trained and left to it. When I asked why it is that a partner is spending his expensive time doing these things the answer is inevitably along the lines of "I just don't have the time to train anybody."

Of course there's not enough time to train anybody if you continue to insist that you must do everything yourself. Sometimes it's much better to take a step back and invest some time in getting the right people to do certain jobs rather than doing them yourself and perpetuating the problem.

However, when you're locked on the treadmill of insufficient time it's hard to be realistic and objective. My sincere hope, if you've read this far, is that you will read on and take a cold and objective view of what you can really do with your time.

1. Set your goals and write them down. Many people are poor time managers because they have no real idea of what they want to achieve. If you don't know what you want to achieve it's easy to tackle any task that comes along regardless of its importance to your ultimate objectives.

So, find some time soon to just sit down and focus on your objectives in business and in your personal life. Determine what's important to you and where you are now in respect of those important things. Then decide where you want to be and what you have to do to get there. These then become your goals, and once you know them, the rest is easy.

Don't make the mistake of keeping the goals in your head where they can be changed as often as you change your mind; rather, find the time to write them down. Writing your goals down helps you to commit yourself to them, and makes it more difficult for you to change them when the going gets tough.

Also, don' endeavor to set too many goals. If you do, you'll spend all of your time figuring out where you are with each of them and no time achieving them. Initially, it's better to start with only four or five goals that you can really concentrate on to maximize your results.

Many people are like the man who almost became the dart champion of the world. His technique was to throw the darts first and draw the circles afterwards. He never became the champion because he could never throw a bullseye. Many people have a go first and then decide how they have done after they know the result. Make sure you don't.

2. Map out your day. Some people get out of bed every day, go to the office and ask themselves, "What am I going to do today?" and whatever the answer, they can do it because they didn't have anything planned. If they have nothing planned, no goals to achieve, then the first disturbance or interruption to their day will probably prevent them from achieving anything. They'll drift along doing some things and failing to do others. Generally, the things that they complete will be unimportant ones. The critical things will never get done.

It's much better to take the time to plan what you are going to do each day. Some successful practitioners I know spend 10 minutes or so at the end of every day making lists of the important things that must be done the next day.

Apart from planning your tasks for the day, it's good idea to have some general plans. For example, aim to return phone calls at certain times, to handle you correspondence at other set times and to have "think times" as well. This sort of systematic planning will help you achieve the things which are important to you. Yet the planning is loose enough to allow you to cater for crises or the unexpected.

Planning your day is helpful, but you'll find that planning your weeks, months and the year is even more worthwhile. Take some time out now to think about your long-term goals and things that you want to achieve. Look at the next 12 months on the calendar and plan any important or strategic issues over the days, weeks and months that lie ahead. Plan for holidays, trips, times with clients and customers-all of the major things you can predict.

You won't be able to get down to details, but at least you'll have a framework that allows you to see how productive time can best be organized. Then you won't do silly things like trying to spend time with a customer when you've got a deadline to meet in another area. Without planning, generally neither the customer nor the deadline is satisfied. Once you start to map out your time, you'll find that your journey is much easier.

3. Know when you fire best! Each of us is different, particularly when it comes to peak performance times. Many people say that they are morning people; others are better in the evening. Why then do we always try to arrange to do things at times to suit others rather than the times of our best performance?

If we really perform well in the afternoons, that's the time we should set aside for our most challenging tasks. Alternatively, if we really fire up first thing in the morning, we should undertake our most important activities then. The time you'll do a job well is when you feel well enough to do it ! So, take some time now to think about when you perform best. Are you an early morning, middday, afternoon or evening performer? When do you really feel on top of everything? Find out the answer to this and try to arrange your activities accordingly.

4. Tackle one job at a time. Perhaps we should alter the proverb to, "Too many broths spoil the cook. " It is difficult for most people to concentrate on more than one important task at any one time. However, if you're going to tackle one job at a time then it is obvious that you must put priorities on all of the tasks that you need to do.

Many people believe that they have lots of tasks all of which are equally important. If these tasks are to be done, however, one task has to be rated the most important so that it gets started. Better to start one important task and finish it than to start two important tasks and only half finish both.

Don't take too long debating and agonizing over which is the most important task-decide quickly and then grade the other tasks accordingly. Now you've got a list of tasks to tackle in the order that they ought to be tackled. It's like having a street map to your ultimate destination.

5. Say No. As you undoubtedly know, dear reader, most accountants have hearts of gold. These golden hearts manifest themselves in many ways, but never more so than in the way that many accountants agree to take on extra activities whether they have the time available to do them or not. Those golden hearts never seem to allow them to utter that terrible word "no."

What happens is that the activity never gets done because there just isn't the time to do it. Or, if it does get done, it's as a result of a desperate, last-minute effort. In the meantime, the commitment to take on the job has probably caused much mental anguish, turmoil and lack of sleep for the person who made the promise.

If you are to be in control of your time, you must learn to say no to additional tasks and activities if you cannot possibly deliver within the time envisaged by the person making the request. If you believe you can deliver in a longer time frame, then say so.

There is nothing wrong with saying no. It is better to let people know what they can expect than to let them anticipate and then disappoint them by failing to deliver. Agreeing to requests from other people indiscriminately is letting them manage your time.

6. Small tasks deadlines, follow-through. When you're determining your priorities and deciding what you have to do it's often a good idea to make sure that your top priorities are in relation to a series of small tasks rather than the completion of your whole grand plan. For example, painting the living room would be a better number one priority than painting the whole house. You see, a smaller task is more easily achieved than a larger one. Achieving a series of small tasks is part of feeling good about your time management.

So, make sure that the tasks you set are small and can be achieved within the time you've allowed. Then set yourself a deadline for completion. It's amazing what having a deadline does for all of us. That's why boats, trains and planes have not only scheduled departure times but anticipated arrival times. It gives the skipper, driver or the pilot something to aim for.

And finally, follow-through. Knowing the task and the deadline makes it really just a matter of working away and ensuring that the actions that are needed to complete the activity do happen. Follow-through is one of the keys to achievement.

7. The diary test. One of the hallmarks of successful time managers is the fact that they don't proceed on a course of action without reviewing their progress. It's important that you take time, say, once a week, to sit down and look at your diary to analyze what you aimed to achieve and what you actually achieved; to make sure, if you like, that you're heading in the right direction.

If you are in practice you can review this every time you sign your time sheet for the week. Yes, I know that it's a dull task. Now that you've got some objectivity about it you'll really be able to see whether you're making good use of your time. You'll know exactly how much of your time was really productive and how much was wasted. Best of all, you can do something about it in the future.

8. Organize your desk. A lot of time is wasted by many people in paper shuffling. We receive something and we put it on our desk. Then we read it. Then we move it around. Then we put it somewhere else. Then we file it and so on.

Let me admit I am no expert at this, but I do try. The secret is to deal with each piece of paper and make a decision. If dictation or correspondence is required, place it in a file for that time of the day when those matters are handled. If it needs a quick comment from you, write it and pass it on. If it requires some other action, give the briefing to the appropriate person at the time allocated to that and then make it happen.

9. Promptly return phone calls. Really a minor point, but a necessary part of time management. In your time allocation, set aside a time to return phone calls and then stick to it. Your clients, customers and staff will often rate you on how promptly you respond to them. It doesn't mean that you have to be at their beck and call or let them interrupt your activities when you want to concentrate on something else. It does mean, however, that they should expect that you will get back to them reasonably promptly.

These rules are by no means complete, but observing some of them will assist you in becoming more efficient. Each of us has limited time and it is important that we make the best of that time for business, family and community activities. The only guaranteed way to do this is to become an efficient time manager. The time to start is now ! HOW WELL DO YOU MANAGE YOUR TIME?

1. I know the activities where my best results come from and invest my time accordingly.

2. I have specific written business and personal goals.

3. I set aside time each day to plan tomorrow's activities.

4. I put priorities on the things I have to do.

5. I know my best working times and arrange my schedule to suit.

6. I try to delegate to others whose competence I have developed.

7. I say no when I can't meet time deadlines without causing problems.

8. As far as possible I work at each task until I have completed it.

9. Generally, my desk is a model of efficiency and organization.

10. I get time to myself when I need it.

Good managers generally score "Yes" to six or more questions, if you scored less, you should give some thought to learning how to manage your time better.

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