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What Tax Accountants Know About Surviving Life's Busy Seasons

Swamped at work? Accountants go through that every year. Here are their time-management strategies.

What Tax Accountants Know About Surviving Life's Busy Seasons
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shuttertock]

Accounting can be a great profession for work/life balance overall. However, as any accountant knows, that is not the case during "busy season" (often from January to March for auditors, or into April for those dealing with taxes). Long hours are the norm. When I did a time diary project a few years ago looking at professional women with families, I found that few people worked more than 60 hours a week, but of those who did, the majority turned out to be accountants in the midst of their busy season ramp-up.

There’s nothing fun about it. Talk to accountants, though, and they’ll tell you that these long hours force certain time-management strategies. These strategies can be useful for anyone trying to cope with busy seasons in their lives.

Plan Ahead

Sometimes you can’t anticipate a work deluge, but oftentimes you can. Busy season rolls around at around the same time every year, so veteran accountants know to plan for it. They take care of life-maintenance tasks, such as getting the car serviced, before busy season hits. Some even talk of "paying in" to various relationships ahead of time, taking a good friend out to lunch at the beginning of January because the accountant won’t be able to come to her birthday get-together in March.

Do It First

Mornings are a great time for getting things done in general (see our story on What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast), but this is especially true during busy season. Anything scheduled after work can get jettisoned by work woes. Smart accountants take care of personal priorities before work woes intrude.

Mary Sweeny, a partner at a small accounting firm, has been in the business for years. She noted that the culture at a big firm she used to work for seemed to value staying late, "but I still wanted to spend time with my children. So I negotiated that I would come into work at 10 a.m." She spent the morning hours—6:00-9:30 a.m.—with the kids, and then dropped them off at daycare on the way to the office. "It made staying until 9-10 p.m. not so terrible."

Prioritize Self-Care

Like all machines, the human body will give out if it's not refueled. Nancy Muench says that even as she’s preparing piles of tax returns, "I go to the gym every day. There are plenty of people who give that up." But she’s found ways to work it in. Her gym has a spin class at 5:30 a.m., and "the pool opens at 5 a.m. so, worst case, I can always to go to the pool at 5 a.m., swim my mile and be done, and get into the office by 6:30 or 7." She tries to eat well—microwaving a giant bag of steam-in-the-bag veggies for lunch if necessary (they taste better topped with Parmesan cheese)—and she’s figured out that sleep doesn’t take time, it makes time. "I try to get 7 hours," she says. "I can’t go on 5 hours. At 2 in the afternoon I’m unproductive and I have to be productive until at least 6, 7 at night."

Cut Out The Commute

The most painless way to ramp up your work hours is to stop commuting. Time spent in the car is generally wasted, and the time spent getting into a suit and packing a lunch can likewise be redeployed to actual work. "Telecommuting is still possible while working on a big audit," says Sweeny. "I would make sure to do all the interviews and gather all the documents I needed from the clients over 2-3 days and then would be able to work from home the other days. Cutting out the commute and personal prep time freed up precious time." Smart firms employ software that makes remote collaboration possible.

Schedule Work And Schedule Breaks

Cathy Cavin, an enrolled agent, says that "During the day I use the time-tracking program Moosti to get things done—especially things I don’t feel like doing. I set the timer for 10 minutes and at least start on it." She also uses it to take breaks, "like right now, to stretch for five minutes and read my favorite websites before getting back to work." While breaks might seem like wasting precious work time, "Not taking 5 to 10 minute breaks every 1 1/2 hours leads to a massive headache before the end of the day," says Cavin. "I really try to take a lunch break, even if just for 10 minutes, and read a little of a good book while eating."

Enlist The Village

You may be surprised how many of your normal tasks can be farmed out if you’re swamped enough. Karissa Childs says that "I lent my dog to my sister for part of my busy season this year. It made taking her for walks one less thing on my list that wasn't getting done (and one less thing to feel guilty for)."

Batch Tasks To Boost Focus

Muench reports that she stacks client conversations on some days, but on others, "I just work on returns all day. I’m very efficient when I do that." To be sure, clients do call, but she returns these calls during natural breaks at noon and 5 p.m. All other times are for buckling down and doing the work.

Remember You Aren’t Always Working

Yes, a lot of evening TV time or weekend time will become work time. Childs, who has young children, reports that "Weekend nap time is work time during busy season." On the other hand, "I have tracked my time consistently for a couple of months now, partly as a reminder about how much time I don't work." Even if you’re working 70 hours a week and sleeping 49 hours a week (7 per night), that leaves 49 hours for other things. You can squeeze a lot of quality into those 49 hours if you try.

Remember It’s A Season

Take the long view. DVR your favorite shows, let the magazines stack up, and plan to return to them after busy season ends. "Most big accounting firms offer substantial time off during the summer months," says Sweeny. One year, she took most of her kids’ summer vacation off by combining unpaid leave with paid vacation days. This made life seem much more sustainable. "When you spend 8 weeks in the summer without working, it doesn't seem so bad to spend 10 weeks in the winter working like crazy."

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