CPA INSIDER

Why accountants need to learn mindfulness

This ability is essential for time management, productivity, and the development of the soft skills needed to succeed.
By Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA

Mindfulness and technology may not be the first two words you think of when considering professional development, but perhaps they should be. When you consider the amount of time you're beginning to save through automated processes, it's evident that technology provides accountants with an incredible opportunity to take control of their day and direct their energy in a more mindful way.

As accountants, we usually dedicate the bulk of our continuing education time to technical development, carefully learning the newest regulations and standards so we can deliver everything our clients need. However, we don't necessarily take the same amount of time improving how we communicate, how we collaborate, and how we deliver our services. To grow as an adviser, we need to dedicate as much time to soft skills as we do to technical skills.

You might view "soft skills" as an afterthought when it comes to career development, but business wouldn't be possible without these nuanced personal attributes. Simply put, soft skills refer to how you interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. Using mindfulness, you can build and strengthen these ever-valuable personal traits.

Disconnect to connect

Think for a moment how different our lives would be if we were completely focused on every single thing we attempted.

How different would people feel about each other if we were all completely present and focused on the person with whom we were spending time? If we step back and learn from observing how people feel, it may cause us to more naturally allot the appropriate amount of time to everyone we work with.

Disconnect from distractions to better connect with yourself and the people in your life. Check yourself. Does your mind start to wander when you have a meeting with a teammate or employee? Are you invested in what your colleague is presenting, or are you somewhere else mentally, checking your phone, thinking about your next call, or maybe even daydreaming?

Reducing how often we "tune out" the person or job at hand helps us to have a more accurate and complete perception of reality. As you begin to acquire or sharpen your soft skills, remember that you will register more information by eliminating the distractions and being more mindful of what's in front of you.

Using mindfulness to master soft skills

Soft skills require time and attention to develop and mature. The problem is that many of us have effectively trained our brains to accept that we don't have the capacity to improve because we've created a time deficit. The real problem? It's probably that somewhere along the line you've lost control of your focus. The article "Your Brain on Meditation" discusses how neuroscientists believe that your brain today "is, in part, a reflection of the demands you have placed on it." When your brain is always working overtime to focus on everything all at once, your brain will begin to reflect that chaos, leaving you wondering at the end of the day what you actually finished.

In fact, a big part of why we feel so busy and don't have enough time to finish everything is that we aren't paying close enough attention to the present moment, resulting in the task at hand taking us longer to do. In psychology, the ability to mentally envision possible futures is called prospection. It's why humans don't naturally focus on the present like other animals do, but rather dream of things that do not (yet) exist and mentally wander into a future, the fear of which can cause anxiety and stress.

When you're thinking about the next item on your list, or replaying a discussion from a morning client consultation, you aren't focusing on the present moment. If you're not paying attention to what (or often who) is in front of you, you continue to create a time deficit in your day. This leaves you in catch-up mode, with less time for those around you.

When we learn to live in the present moment, we become better leaders and collaborators. We learn to improve our listening skills so we can catch the most important ideas or emotions that come up in a conversation. If we don't focus on the person and question in front of us, we could end up giving answers that are misleading or even derail a project.

It's paramount to practice the art of listening because, just as with any other skill, it's easy to fall out of practice.

Get to know your brain

Having a better understanding of how the brain operates can help you use it more efficiently. When you try to force your brain to do too many things at once, you end up gumming up the works.

Believe it or not, our amazing brains are equipped to process data only linearly — one thought at a time. Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out, explained in an interview with Forbes that the brain is not designed to efficiently switch between tasks. In fact, she said, "it takes four times longer to recognize new things" when you bounce back and forth. You may believe you are doing more by juggling several things at once, but it takes more of your time, not less.

If you think you're a brilliant multitasker, consider how much more efficient you would be if you could devote 100% of your attention to one item for an extended period.

When we better manage our time, we don't feel as rushed. In addition, we're confident we'll get certain tasks done and therefore don't need to hurry through meetings with others. We feel more centered and focused on each individual we work with.

One thing at a time

Clear focus on each task can have a lasting impact on the profitability of your work as well. Research by Harvard Business Review found that companies that have fewer priorities were more likely to report a positive impact on their bottom line.

"Executives with the most focused set of strategic priorities (one to three priorities) were the most likely to say they had achieved above-average revenue growth," HBR reported.

To reduce overtime, don't attempt to juggle. It takes practice, but anyone can improve their focus. Start by working on one task for as long as you can. Set a timer or make a note of how long it takes before you're interrupted by a thought or a distraction. Refocus and time yourself again. Try beating your personal best with each new task you start. In doing so, you'll free up time for yourself, for the team that wants to meet with you, or for clients who want to discuss their business issues.

Technology has now reached a level where it's possible for us to home in on the skills that may have fallen to the wayside as we transitioned to a more interpersonally disconnected age. Each soft skill you learn, whether it be project management, leadership, or collaboration, will be used effectively only when you apply mindfulness.

Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is the CEO of The B3 Method Institute, a keynote speaker and adviser, Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA's Information Management Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee, and the author of the book Integrative Advisory Services: Expanding Your Accounting Services Beyond the Cloud, published by Wiley. Learn more at www.amyvetter.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com

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