As much of the world has ground to a halt in the midst of a global pandemic, the concept of time has shifted for many finance professionals. Some may find they suddenly have large vacuums of time, while others who now have to take care of their children full time on top of everything else may find there’s no longer enough time in a week.
Yet in many ways, effective time management still comes down to math. By calculating how long it takes to complete each task and analysing the return on investment, you can start to determine top priorities and adjust your work habits to achieve what’s most important.
“So much of time management involves doing the math,” said Julie Morgenstern, New York-based author of Organizing From the Inside Out, a New York Times bestseller. “It’s much easier to say no to things if you realise it’s not worth the time, and it’s easier to delegate tasks or avoid procrastination when you do the math.”
If you’re a finance professional, time management is likely complicated by a variety of factors outside of your control, such as client delays, COVID-19 shutdowns, and economic downturns, all of which can make meeting deadlines a challenge for even the most organised individual. But by focusing on what you can control and leaving some space for the unexpected, you can make the most of your time and meet deadlines.
Here are a few tips from experts on how finance professionals can effectively manage their time:
Get your priorities straight. If you’re not clear on what your biggest priorities are, you might find yourself in a perpetual state of busyness without feeling a true sense of accomplishment. It can help to sit down at the beginning of each week and decide which tasks should take top priority.
“With the volume of work that we in the accounting world have, you have to prioritise because some things sort of get pushed off, and the next thing you know, it's due in two days and you have a little bit of a problem,” said Mike Sapperstein, CPA, CGMA, manager at Rosen, Sapperstein & Friedlander LLC in Baltimore in the US.
Try incorporating Morgenstern’s advice and figure out exactly how much time it takes to complete each of your tasks. Then ask yourself whether the time spent is worth the return on investment generated by each task. If you’re still having trouble deciding which projects should take top priority, seek out guidance from a manager.
When you’re listing your priorities for the week, Sapperstein recommended allotting a chunk of time for unexpected tasks that can pop up and throw off your entire schedule if you don’t leave some buffer room.
Break projects into specific actions. When your to-do list is filled with big, amorphous tasks rather than small, achievable actions, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and put off intimidating projects until the last minute.
“If you miss deadlines consistently, it’s usually because you procrastinate on these big projects until you’re up against the wire,” Morgenstern said.
As a way to make large projects more digestible, Morgenstern recommended breaking projects into 30- to 60-minute steps as a way of moving the project forward.
Graham Allcott, entrepreneur and founder of Think Productive, a UK-based company with offices around the world that runs productivity workshops, recommended using one of the many free project management apps available online, such as Todoist, Nozbe, Asana, or Trello, as a second brain where you can offload everything you would like to get done. When you notice that a task includes three or more actions, Allcott suggested treating it as a project.
“Often instead of having a projects list, you just put project information on your to-do list, so then your list is cluttered up with loads of bigger stuff like ‘Organise this event’, but there’s actually no action in there,” he said.
If you break down a task such as developing a scenario plan, the individual actions might include talking to business partners, researching economic conditions, and writing a report.
Take advantage of peak attention hours. Once you’ve identified your priorities, you should figure out which parts of the day you have the most “proactive attention” and schedule your most focus-intensive tasks for those times, according to Allcott.
He explained that there are times throughout the day when you are more “switched on” and you have the most energy, and those are the times when you’re best able to do the most difficult tasks. On the other end of the scale are times when you’re really drained and it’s like the lights are on but no one is home. Allcott recommended filling those times with “mindless” tasks, such as ordering items online, clearing out email folders, and completing administrative work, all tasks that need to be done but don’t require much mental concentration.
“Scheduling and organising your work based on your level of energy and attention allows you to carve out the quality working time to do the stuff that really matters,” he said.
Set up specific times to check email. It is extremely common to impulsively check email first thing in the morning, but Allcott pointed out that by doing so, you’re putting yourself into a reactive mode and immediately immersing yourself in the demands and requests of others.
He suggested giving yourself at least a few minutes before checking your email to get mindful and write out a list of what your intentions are for the day. Then check your energy level, figure out how best to use your attention throughout that day, and set your strategy based on you, rather than turning on your email and setting the strategy around everyone else.
Of course, you can’t ignore email forever because there could be pressing issues to address, so Sapperstein recommended choosing specific times during the day to check your email and doing your best to keep out of your inbox at other times of the day.
“Stick to a specific time so you're not checking it every time an email pops in,” he said.
Schedule tasks well before the deadline. One sure-fire way to meet deadlines is to schedule tasks on your diary on the day you're going to do them, rather the day they’re due, according to Morgenstern.
“If you schedule it on the due date, by the time you see it, it’s too late,” she said.
Morgenstern recommended always aiming to get big projects done a minimum of three days before they’re due, so that if anything unexpected comes up, at least you have a little bit of buffer room.
She added that everyone should recognise time management as a skill and that making even one or two small changes is worth the effort and can have huge payoffs.
“You don’t have to go from zero to one hundred; you can go from zero to ten,” she said. “Don’t try to fix everything at once; pick one thing and correct that and then radiate outwards.”
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.