Most CPAs realize the importance of being responsive to clients. Tied to that vital duty is the art of prioritization, the ability to organize and reorganize to ensure everything gets done in a timely manner—or gets done, period.
The trouble is, prioritizing is not always easy for CPAs, who are often too busy working to focus on their daily and weekly agendas. "CPAs in general have a desire to please everyone and finish all tasks at once, and we are not doing ourselves any favors," said Matthew Morey, CPA, a senior staff regulatory analyst at Entergy in New Orleans and recent graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.
Lack of prioritization, which is really a buzzword for effective time management, can mean unhappy or lost clients, disappointed superiors, communication breakdowns in-house and externally, missed bonuses or promotions, burnout and stress, and a diminished reputation.
So it is imperative that CPAs learn how to manage and organize their time and tasks in order to propel themselves and their companies forward. "The better you can prioritize, the happier your customers are," said William Dunn, CPA, managing partner at Dunn & Dill CPAs, P.C., in Garland, Texas. "Your clients are your lifeblood, and you have to take care of them."
How does a CPA prioritize effectively and find time to do it? Morey, Dunn, and other experts offer the following tips:
- Create one to-do list: You may be married to your computer and its online calendar, or you may prefer writing your to-do list on paper. Choose one format for your list and stick to it, and review that list every morning. "The most productive people we see are those that have a list, and they look at it and refine it every day," said Sandra Wiley, president of Boomer Consulting Inc. in Manhattan, Kan. Also, estimate the time needed for each task, and be realistic. If you fall behind during your first 15-minute appointment, you will be playing catch-up all day, she noted. Dunn also advised that each firm adopt a good software program that "keeps all the due dates and projects in one place" that you can get to in real time.
- Assess the importance of each task. Allan Koltin, CPA, CEO of Koltin Consulting Group Inc., in Chicago, travels 150 days annually and prioritizes constantly. CPAs, he said, should place their tasks into three categories. "Must do," or level one, has to get done. "It gets stage presence and is at the top of the list. Nothing else gets done before then," he said. "Should do," or level two, needs to get done within the next two days or problems can ensue. And "nice to do," or level three, has to get done this week but is the least crucial. He compares CPAs to surgeons in an emergency room on a weekend: "The first question you have to ask is, 'How bad is the bleeding?' You're in a hospital and you can't operate on everyone at the same time." In other words, determine which tasks must be completed and which simply need a bandage until tomorrow, the next day, or the end of the week.
- Prepare for the unpredictable. No matter how hard you try to stick to your daily plan, other things will surface that may throw you off track and ruin your day or week. So when making your to-do list, factor in time for the inevitable surprises and give yourself a cushion. "Getting blindsided should be built into your budget," Koltin said. "It's going to happen."
- Know yourself and your body clock. Are you a morning person or do you thrive after lunch? Are you brain-dead before your third cup of coffee? Be aware of when you are most alert because that's when you should attempt to tackle your most challenging tasks. Save less taxing work for your lower-peak hours.
- Talk with the task-giver. If your supervisor or client hands work your way, discuss upfront the urgency of the job so you can organize your calendar. "I usually communicate with the person who has given me the task," Morey said. "Effectively prioritizing tasks is the answer to achieving client or supervisor satisfaction and to avoiding the stress of operating under unrealistic expectations."
- Delegate. Feeling overloaded? If your firm is large enough and you are a manager, figure out which jobs you can hand off to others in your firm. "More than 50% of everything you do in a given day can be done by a more junior person," Koltin said. "If you don't buy into that, your ship will sink and you will sink with it." One-third of what you do can be considered "brain and heart surgery"—only you can do those tasks, he noted. But you could possibly delegate one-third to two-thirds of your other work, if necessary, depending on the tasks. Delegating also helps motivate your staff, keeps them engaged, and paves the way for future handoffs of work, Morey added.
- Respond. Before each day ends, show respect for your clients by answering their calls, emails, and texts, so you find out what is on their minds and what could be on the agenda tomorrow. A lack of response makes clients think you did not get the message, are too busy, or don't deem them important enough to warrant a reply. "It doesn't mean you have to solve the problem," Koltin said, "but every matter has to be closed out."
- Recognize the importance of prioritizing. Goal-setting, organizing, and assessing the value of your various tasks may take a back seat to actually doing the work, but high performers in the profession know how to manage their time efficiently. "The biggest mistake," Koltin said, "is not having a fundamental respect for the importance and art of prioritization."
Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.