Every position has a busy season. In my current role, my busiest months are June and July as every aspect is in full swing. When the summer comes for me, or the first two weeks in April come for you, there will still only be 168 hours in a week, however utilizing just a few quick tricks before and during busy season can feel like you’ve somehow managed to squeeze out a couple extra hours. Even if one of these tricks, such as speeding up how you open your most frequented folder, only saves you ten brief seconds every time you open it, if you open that folder ten times a day you could save three hours during tax season just in folder-opening time alone. Imagine the potential if you learned even just a few tricks like that! Here are a few tips like folder-opening that I utilize to prepare for a busy season.
- Create Templates – You already know many types of messages you’re probably going to have to send in April: “It appears that your Tax Organizer is missing a couple of documents. Please submit these documents by [deadline] so we can process your return in a timeline manner.” There are also probably particularly long client names that you have to type frequently. So why not write those canned phrases out while your head is clear and re-use instead of re-think them every time you need to call upon it? These template phrases or paragraphs are called “Quick Parts” in Outlook and in Word. To create a new Quick Part, type out your canned phrase. Select it, then go to the Insert tab > Quick Parts > Save Selection. When you need to insert that phrase or paragraph into one of your emails, simply go back to the Quick Parts button and click on it to insert. To make insertions even faster, you can right click the Quick Parts button and “Add to Quick Access Toolbar” at the top of your window so it’s always handy. Also, in Outlook, try naming your Quick Part as the first few words you usually type in when using that phrase, so when you start typing, Outlook will even guess you want to enter that pre-set text and all you have to do is click Enter and it appears on your page!
- Keep your favorites at your fingertips – Instead of wasting time navigating to or trying to remember where you stored that form template or important spreadsheet, keep your most frequently used documents always within reach. On your taskbar, right click your Word or Excel icon, and click the “pin” next to a recent document to have it always show in that list. Then anytime you need it, simply right click on the icon and open your document without having to navigate around to find it or having to close any windows to get to it on your desktop.
- Set up your Favorites Folders – If there are certain folders you look in frequently that are embedded in other folders, save time by only having to click and think once rather than dig through sub folders. In Windows Explorer, find a folder you often navigate to, then click and drag that folder into the left navigation pane and drop it onto the yellow star called Favorites. You can then rename and reorder your favorite folders to make it easier for you to get to quickly.
- Clear your desk – Research studies indicate that our minds pay attention to everything we can see, even if it’s just slowly working in the background. Help yourself focus on one task at a time by moving all the piles on your desk to outside your peripheral view so when you look at your computer screen all your mind can see is the task at hand. One trick I use is to add the project that piece of paper represented to my To-Do list, then file the papers away. My list will remind me to do it at the appropriate time, and I won’t waste my time thinking about it every time I step up to my desk just because it’s sitting there demanding attention.
- Space it out – In launching into our busy season at my last position, my supervisor and I used to set a day aside for planning. We would brainstorm all we wanted to get done in the upcoming season, then order them based on priority, then I would sit down with my calendar and estimate how long it would take to do each project and pop them onto my calendar starting with the most important project until I ran out of calendar. Spacing projects out ahead of time helps set mini deadlines so you can regularly monitor if you are on track and stay focused on your goals, and have forewarning if you need to adjust your plan to delegate or drop any projects.
- Set your day’s goals – In busy season, our lists are so long sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. I usually write the items that have to get done that day on a dry erase board or in a different color on my To-Do List each morning so as emergencies come up throughout the day trying to turn my attention elsewhere, I can clearly stay focused on what the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’s Time Management Matrix encourages: the important, not the urgent.
- Break projects into bite-sized chunks – One trick that’s suggested by popular time-management method Getting things done is to write out the steps necessary to accomplish a project and focus on them one at a time. So instead of writing on your To-Do list “Johnson Audit,” perhaps for that day you might write “Clear review notes.” Breaking it down into manageable tasks, you don’t have to remember every time you look at it where you are and what to do next, and it feels less overwhelming so you are more likely to start the project rather than put it off. Additionally, it helps me to see a verb/action rather than a noun/item on my To-Do list such as “Clear review notes” instead of just “Review notes.”
- Save it for later – Another trick from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is if a task will take you less than two minutes, it’s better to take care of it right then. If it takes longer than that, don’t stop your train of thought; add it to your To-Do list and take care of it when you choose to not when it comes onto your desk.
- Schedule email time – On a similar note, just because John emails you at 11:43 a.m. doesn’t mean you have to drop what you’re working on and respond right then. As your company’s customer response-time policy allows, select a particular time to respond to emails, such as once in the morning, at lunch, and in the afternoon. Mind Tool’s Time Management Training suggests it takes approximately 10 minutes to get re-focused; stopping every time an email comes in may never allow us the time necessary to accomplish a particular project.
- Set an alarm – Not surprisingly, “Pick up the house” is an item I often avoid on my mental home To- Do list as it doesn’t feel accomplishable and takes an undefined and increasingly greater amount of time as I go. However, selecting a small task like cleaning the dishes, then setting an alarm for how much time I think it should take, turns the task into something accomplishable and measurable. A variation on the Multiple Put Down Technique, setting an alarm for a manageable increment such as 20 minutes helps you keep focused on one project until it is complete.
What productivity techniques do you use? Please feel free to share in the comments section below. Best of luck in busy season.
Kaylen Saunders, Member Services Manager for CPAmerica International, holds a masters in Curriculum and Instruction and has experience as a professional development trainer. Saunders is responsible for scheduling and hosting webinars, administering CPE, maintaining the members-only website, and coordinating the CPAConnect Roundtable.