National Partner Director, Xero
At crunch times like the end-of-financial-year period, you need to ensure that all the essential tasks get done in the time. That means prioritising the most important and urgent tasks. Here are some steps that may help.
Write a task list
A prioritised task list is the simplest tool you can use to prioritise your work, yet it’s also one of the most powerful. You give your tasks a simple ranking of importance (A/B/C is easiest). Where you can, break the big tasks into subtasks – experts agree this is the most important single step to understanding how much time something will take.
Judging tasks’ importance must ultimately be an intuitive judgment, because so many factors influence it. “No system will tell you what to do,” says David Allen, the personal productivity expert who created the widely-used Getting Things Done system. But a task list lets you see all of your options and allows you to add new tasks as they arise, he notes.
For accountants and bookkeepers, a few general principles usually apply: client work will often be more important than internal work, new clients will need attention so as to understand their business, and jobs that major clients are concerned about will rank high.
You can write your task list on a sheet of paper or a simple text file on your computer. If you find they suit your working style, other options include:
Online programs that will create more elaborate task lists with special features that you can access from computer, tablet or phone and use to share tasks with colleagues – programs like Wunderlist, Todoist, Checkvist, Evernote and Trello.
The tasks feature built into Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar. These can be quite powerful because they make it easier to schedule tasks.
Project management, client management or practice management packages that have task lists built in. The WorkflowMax job-management app, for instance, has a built-in task manager.
You should also note tasks’ deadline where they have one. Now your list should reflect both the tasks’ importance and their urgency.
Your list will keep changing over time, so a computer file or an app seem natural ways to manage it. Yet for all of the technology available to us, paper remains a surprisingly popular way to write task lists – and research suggests we recall things better when we handwrite them.
Separate the urgent from the important
Your list will have some tasks that are important, but also others that must be completed within the next day or two. Check that the seemingly urgent tasks really are urgent and can’t be delegated, and then set aside some time each day to address them. This is best done earlier in the day to remove a source of stress.
Some tasks need to be started right away if you’re to have what you need to complete the job days or weeks from now. One example is to gather your clients’ financial records. Where possible, list these dependencies as sub-tasks.
CPA Australia has a detailed checklist of financial and management tasks that small businesses need to undertake; you may want to use this as a starting-point for the checklist you send to your clients.
Review your workload
Effective prioritisation requires that your list of priority tasks be short enough not to overwhelm you. So look through your list for tasks – and indeed, whole projects – that you can effectively delegate. Where necessary, ask other people in the organisation for help (and make sure they know you’ll reciprocate when needed).
And if you have clients you just don’t look forward to servicing, ask yourself whether you can separate from them now so that they can find another accountant to do this year’s tax.
Prioritise your tasks, daily
The methodology favoured by many productivity experts is to review your task list daily and pull out the next batch of high-priority tasks you need to complete. Many people do this in the morning, but you may want to try doing it before you leave each night, when your awareness of your day’s work is still in your head.
What items should you prioritise? Favour the most important and the genuinely urgent.
Productivity expert Tim Ferriss, famous for his 4-Hour Workweek bestseller, says he looks at items on his to-do list and asks: "If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?" If the answer is “yes”, he will prioritise that item and the subtasks needed to accomplish it.
Jason Cunningham, a founder of Melbourne-based accounting firm The Practice, takes a similar approach. He cites the third of author Steven Covey’s 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People – “putting first things first”. Do the three most important things on a list of 23, he says, and you’ll gain a clearer and calmer outlook that will allow you to deal more quickly with the remaining tasks.
Most experts say you need the greatest clarity on your top three to five goals each day. That’s a short enough list that you can put it on a handwritten sticky note attached to your computer monitor each day.
Tackle the worst
To remove another source of stress, set aside time at the start of your day to tackle the most difficult and least appealing tasks – a technique known as “eating the ugly frog first”. This can relieve a lot of stress from the rest of the day.
Work through your tasks
Deal with the priority tasks one at a time and wherever possible, finish each one before starting another to build a sense of accomplishment. Try to save email inbox-checking for the time between tasks.
Schedule your tasks
As part of prioritising tasks, many people aim to estimate the time needed to complete each one. For accountants and bookkeepers, task times will often be rough averages rather than precise estimates – but even rough estimates will allow you to see how the work compares to the time available.
Some experts, such as productivity coach Daniel Markovitz, recommend moving your task list into your calendar (usually a software version like Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar) and blocking out time for each task. Markovitz calls this technique “living in your calendar”. It can confront you with tough choices, because it often shows you that you have less time than you have tasks. But as productivity coach Peter Bregman notes, this technique also means that “you can be strategic about what gets left behind” – and you won’t end the day feeling so disappointed about what you didn’t get done.