As the holidays recede in the rear-view mirror, many CPAs begin to observe a worrisome trend. The stack of paperwork on the corner of the desk, the number of e-mails in the inbox, and the items on the to-do list begin to expand as if by magic. It is a sign that the busy season is upon us, yet again.
There is another early sign of the busy season, and that is a resurgence of productivity myths. They tend to raise their ugly head (or five) right around this time, preying on unsuspecting CPAs who just want to do better for their clients and families. Here are the five heads of the dragon, slayed one by one. 1. I must multitask to get it all done.
Multitasking is dead, except no one has informed it, so it still shows up in job descriptions and on people’s resumes. It seems that the ability to handle several competing responsibilities simultaneously is a job (and life) requirement virtually everywhere. The reality, backed up by significant research, is that multitasking can do more damage than good because it requires one to juggle limited resources to complete each task successfully. As the tasks grow in complexity (and for CPAs, they start out complex and get worse from there), the juggling act takes on a life of its own, consuming significant willpower and mental space.
What is a CPA to do? Handle the tasks one at a time. I know, it sounds ominous and counterintuitive. This is where the multitasking monster gets you: despite its claim to efficiency, it saps your resources, and results in more mistakes. The shortcut does not get you where you want to go. Instead of spending the processing capacity of your brain on the juggling act, you would be better served by taking a critical look at what you have to do, and whittling that down to a manageable size.
2. I must trudge through the slump, no matter what.
This myth is persistent, in part because it seems to offer a way to use your mental game to prevail over nature. Never mind that I am exhausted – I must persevere and get through all of these documents/e-mails/meetings at any cost. It feels like you are doing the best for your clients and co-workers, except for one tiny detail. You are really not doing anyone any favors by working when you cannot see straight. Willpower and mental processing are your limited resources – and choosing to spend them on gluing your butt to the chair means that you don’t have them available for other things. Like a thoughtful review of a client proposal.
Instead, take a break. A real break, which means that you actually detach from what you are working on, and allow yourself an opportunity to recharge. A nap would be best, although a walk can also work well.
3. I must get up early, or the day is wasted.
The problem with the idea that waking up early is the only way to accomplish anything is the presumption that everyone is most productive and creative in the morning. Do you know any night people, of the variety that is best left undisturbed until 10 AM, who must be approached with care and gentle offerings of delicious caffeine until noon? Then you already know that you cannot force a person to be what they are not. Anyone can stand on his or her head occasionally, for a short time. No one can do it forever.
A better approach? Work when you are typically most productive and creative. That is not the same as working when you feel like it – you may still need discipline and willpower to get you into that chair. However, if you choose the time when you are naturally your best, your day will be less of a struggle.
4. I must work more hours.
More hours means getting more done, right? Well, not quite. There is a clear point of diminishing returns, and if you are really honest with yourself, you will see it too. When you know on a Wednesday that you will have to work on Saturday no matter what, do you feel inspired to get more done, or discouraged enough to slack off because your efforts are a drop in a bucket?
Try measuring your efforts by the results, not the hours you put in. This is a dramatic change for many CPAs, with their traditional emphasis on the hourly billing, coupled with an expectation that a busy season isn’t busy unless they are working 80 – 120 hours a week. It is unfortunate that few CPAs see the profound damaging effect of that mindset, which can include lower productivity, more mistakes, and a poorer quality of life. It can even lead to fewer new clients, as prospects might feel that you are too busy to take on anything new.
5. Nutrition and productivity are not related.
Oh, the love affair between CPAs and a vending machine. They visit with it frequently. They can recite its contents from memory. They feel genuinely hurt when the machine is out of a favorite treat.
Close your eyes and picture a vending machine right now. No, really, please do. What do you see? Carbs. Fast-burning cards that, unless combined with protein and fats, will only give you enough fuel for 30 minutes.
Next time you are feeling at the end of your rope, exhausted, exasperated, and just generally done, think back to the last balanced meal you had. If it has been more than 4 hours, you have no one but yourself to blame for your sad state. For the love of everything that matters, please stop what you are doing and go eat some real food.
At the end of the day, productivity is not a one-size-fits-all model, and nothing will replace self-awareness and some trial and error. What works best for you?