Try these simple productivity tips to improve efficiency

Start by controlling your email, instead of letting it control you.
By Teri Saylor

Every day Andrew Dorn, CPA, sits at his desk at Moneta Group in St. Louis, studying client tax returns displayed across three computer monitors. He had always used the old drag-and-drop method of shuffling data among the screens, until he recently discovered a simple keyboard shortcut (Windows key + shift + left/right arrow key) that allows him to quickly shift from one screen to another so efficiently that he saves 10 minutes per day. Added up, that translates into 50 minutes per week, and over the course of a year, the time savings equals an entire workweek.

"Old habits can often lead to doing unnecessary work," said Dorn, a tax associate. He is always seeking ways to manage his time so he can tackle new challenges and continue to grow.

Paul Burton, J.D., is a former corporate attorney and founder of QuietSpacing, a national consultancy that provides time management solutions for professionals. He agrees that maintaining the same work habits for years can lead to loss of productivity and unnecessary work. "There is a difference between activity and productivity," Burton said. "Activity doesn't always result in forward momentum, while productivity is the act of advancing the project at hand."

From managing email to delegating simple tasks, avoiding duplication of efforts, eliminating clutter, and even re-arranging your workspace, Dorn, Burton, and other experts weigh in on ways CPAs can be more productive.

Control email pollution

According to Dorn, it is not unusual for CPAs to send and receive more than 100 emails per day. A disorganized email mess creates more than unnecessary work. It can also be a drain on time and efficiency. Most email platforms have settings that allow users to create alerts, such as noises and pop-up notices, when new emails arrive. Dorn advised CPAs to turn off those alerts to avoid distractions, and instead check for new emails throughout the day when there is a break in workflow.

He treats phone calls the same way. "When I am two or three hours into a project and someone calls or emails, I don't drop everything," he said. "If it's a call, I let it go to voicemail. Then I'm able to streamline my work and complete the task at hand. Afterwards, I can pull the client's files, get ready to talk with them, and return their call or respond to email."

Ronnie Eubanks, CPA, a partner with Cherry Bekaert in Durham, N.C., admits email drives him crazy if he doesn't control it. "The key is organization," he said. "Manage your email and don't let it manage you. File what you need to keep. If it's junk, delete it immediately."

Most email platforms have tools and settings to help users organize their inbox. Some of these tools allow users to forward messages into specific folders. Color-coding emails or flagging them can help identify the most important or deadline-sensitive messages. Some platforms have settings that automatically delete old email after a specified time period. Electronic news services generally allow recipients to cancel subscriptions and stop unwanted emails from arriving in the first place. Setting up these simple filters and rules and using tools for unsubscribing to random marketing messages will save you time deleting unwanted emails.

Delegate and grow

As CPAs are promoted and move up the ladder at their firms, some hold onto vestiges of their previous, familiar roles because it's difficult to relinquish control. Delegation is a struggle for Jason Poole, CPA, who is a partner with TRP CPAs PLLC in Fayetteville, N.C. But he knows it's key to his personal growth and prosperity for his firm.

"We recently had a partner meeting and talked about how important it is to delegate to the most junior staff person whenever possible," Poole said. "Still I sometimes find myself doing tax returns when it doesn't make economic sense. I need to spend my time in front of clients and generating new business."

Eubanks seizes opportunities to delegate when staff members propose new ideas or a new way of performing a task. "Listen to your team. They have ideas. They are engaged, and if they express interest in something, let them take it. Eventually they will run with it," he said. "Then you have shifted an idea or a task to someone else, and it feels amazing." 

Mix it up

"Novelty will be greatly rewarded," Burton said. "Try changing a routine, then see how a simple change can produce different and positive results." Shifting your route to work may spur creativity by giving you a fresh outlook on your day. Eliminating clutter may give you a sense of accomplishment, and more time to reward yourself with an activity such as exercise at the end of the day.

Stay on track

For Eubanks, self-reflection and continuous improvement are keys to staying on track, and he believes being entrenched in old habits can lead to stagnation. He strives daily to try different methods that lead to greater productivity, such as finding new ways to control his email, seeking tips for staying organized from colleagues, and maintaining focus on the tasks at hand.

"Ask yourself who you are performing each task for—yourself or your firm," he said. "If you are doing it because you like doing it this way, then ask yourself if it's useful. Keep an open mind. Do better tomorrow than you did today. It's not so much about the tasks you perform as it is about the opportunity to keep improving."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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