CPA INSIDER

How to practice mindfulness and lessen stress

CPAs are busy people — here’s how to take the edge off taxing times.
By Cheryl Meyer

CPAs face pressure all year long — whether during the traditional busy season for tax work or afterwards when working on tight deadlines for other projects.

"The world was fast-paced 30 years ago, and with technology, it's a runaway freight train," said Jeffrey Schwartz, CPA, founder of Jeffrey R. Schwartz CPA in Delray Beach, Fla.

Despite this, some CPAs have found a way to manage the strain of hectic workloads by learning and practicing mindfulness. Simply put, "mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to one single point of focus," said Deborah Norris, Ph.D., founder and president of The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Md., and author of In the Flow: Bridging the Science and Practice of Mindfulness. She is also a director of the Psychobiology of Healing Program at American University in Washington, D.C.

Proponents say mindfulness offers many potential benefits: Greater productivity and clarity; reduced stress; a calmer, more relaxed demeanor; a sense of balance; greater job satisfaction; and healthier relationships with colleagues, friends, and family. CPAs who apply mindfulness may also better serve clients and themselves.

"Mindfulness is not a dogma. It is not a philosophy that you have to believe in," said Gurumukh Singh Khalsa, CPA, who runs the Eugene, Ore.-based accounting practice, Gurumukh CPA. "It is a practice. It is like rebooting your mind."

The practice of mindfulness has gained attention in recent years largely due to the technology overload and distractions felt by many professionals as cellphones, email, and other digital tools have become more ubiquitous. "It can be harder to find peacefulness," said Steve Breitman, CPA (inactive), a former public accountant and now CEO of Mindful Business Solutions, a bookkeeping and CFO services firm in Lafayette, Colo.

It's an overload that can be harmful to business. Distracted, unfocused people "react to emotions they are feeling in the moment and don't necessarily take the time to analyze the situation," Breitman said.

So how does one develop and exercise mindfulness, to help get through demanding times? Breitman, Schwartz, Khalsa, and Norris offer the following practical tips:

  • Commit to mindfulness: Choose a time every day when you will pledge to being mindful by first doing things you already enjoy and that help you decompress. Take a walk. Go for a run. Attend a yoga class. Relax. Sit in your chair with your spine straight and clear your mind of whatever it is you have been doing. Then make it a habit to perform  these mindfulness exercises daily. Find the time. "Be willing to commit to the practice," Khalsa said. "Do it every day, even if it's only three minutes."
  • Breathe, focus, and meditate: These are by far the most important mindfulness exercises, experts say. Sit down, close your eyes, inhale, and exhale slowly. Pay attention to your breathing. Meditate, even for a few minutes in your office chair or at home, and give your mind a rest. Start with short stints and expand your time from five minutes to 10 minutes to even 30 minutes. "If you continue doing this every day, it has a cumulative effect and will influence how you feel the rest of the day and help you handle stress," Khalsa said.
  • Set a timer: Sometimes you may become so absorbed in your work that you suddenly realize hours have elapsed. But if you take regular breaks and practice mindfulness, even for a few minutes throughout the day, you will likely be more productive and effective — and less frazzled. So, set an alarm to go off once hourly. When Breitman's timer goes off, he said, "That's my time to disengage for a minute, and do my breathing and let go of my tension."
  • Use tools at your disposal: There are many resources that can help you be more mindful. For instance, the Mind-Body Journal, created by Norris and The Mindfulness Center, offers articles and other resources. Also, consider attending classes or mindfulness retreats. "It helps to be with like-minded people for a certain period of time," Khalsa advised.
  • Prioritize: If you have hundreds of tasks to complete, and work feels overwhelming, just looking at a stack of documents can stress you out. So, focus on one task at a time, and do this at a regular, calm pace. Mindfulness is about concentrating and not getting bogged down with multitasking. "Work, no matter how much of it you have, is somewhat like putting on your pants," said Schwartz, who is a board member with The Mindfulness Center. "You can only do it one leg at a time."

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters for the JofA, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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