Setting limits and saying no when work overwhelms

How CPAs can establish boundaries with colleagues and clients.
By Lea Hart

Whether it's busy season, or just a busy week, CPAs can struggle to say "no" to a project or request from colleagues and clients.

"It's definitely very hard to set boundaries and it's taken me years to do so," said Craig Franklin, CPA, president of Craig Franklin, CPA, P.C., in San Antonio. "It's a continual learning process — being a small business, we always want to make sure we have plenty of work for our employees."

At the same time, saying "yes" when you should say "no" can create a lot of problems, including feeling overwhelmed and stressed or developing resentment toward others, said Ellen Kamaras, CPA, a life and career coach in the New York City area.

"When you commit to doing something you don't want to do or don't have time to do, you are setting yourself up for lots of negative outcomes," she said.

Sarah Saunders, CPA, partner at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP's Atlanta office, points out that CPAs run the risk of not performing at their best when stretched too thin, which can have serious implications. View the skill of setting practical boundaries as an opportunity to avoid career burnout and build trust with your colleagues, she said.

So how can we say no, instead of taking on one more task or project that may just be too much? CPAs offer the following advice:

Prioritize before giving an answer. Before you even open your mouth to say yes or no, take a minute to decide if what you're being asked to do fits with your priorities, said Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, vice president of finance and tax at 1st Financial Bank USA in Dakota Dunes, S.D.

Be able to prioritize all of the things you have on your list, and think about where this new item will fit in. "Does something else need to be delayed or drop off the priority list? Be able to be honest about that," she said.

Find out the details of a task or project, and then let the person know when you can realistically do it, Saunders said. By saying you cannot get to the task right away, but can get to it at a later time, you may discover the task can wait until you do have the time, she said.

On that same note, don't feel you need to give an answer right away, Kamaras said. "It's totally reasonable and acceptable to say you will get back to the client in a day or two," she said.

Be transparent. Have an honest conversation with the person asking for your help, whether it's your boss or clients, Stevenson said. Tell that person where this new task will fit on your list, and ask if it meets his or her expectations. If not, ask for help in reprioritizing, she said. "You don't want to tell a client no; instead explain to them that you want to give the best you can give, and explain your priority list," she said.

Having these conversations in person or by phone can be more collaborative and helpful, Saunders said. Always be sincere, she added.

Come up with a script. If you're someone who tends to say yes when you should say no, try coming up with a script and practice so that you feel prepared when the time comes to say no, Kamaras said.

Build up a good network. It can be easier to say no if you have someone else who can take on the work, Franklin said. He's built a strong network of associates at other CPA firms, so when his small, 10-person firm needs to turn down work, he refers clients to someone else. "It's better to turn away business than to put yourself in a position where you may have to rush through business and make a mistake," he said.

Within your firm, keep tabs on the workloads of your teammates around you, in addition to learning their expertise, and suggest someone else who isn't as busy and needs the billable hours, Saunders added.

"Public accounting is so much a team sport, and when it comes to the busy season and serving our clients, we're all in this together," she said.

Block your schedule in advance. Franklin creates his schedule weeks in advance, even blocking time where there can't be any meetings or interruptions, in order to get work done. "Even then, you still have to be disciplined and say no," he said. "If not, you go back and look at your schedule and you've got all these meetings in time you'd blocked out."

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at

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