CPA INSIDER

Finding time for new skills while working

CPAs share schedule-taming practices.
By Leigh Ann Carey

For five years, Leanna Polidoro, a CPA with Matrix Financial LLC, in Wellesley, Mass., took a night class each semester to earn a Master of Science in Taxation. After a full day of meetings and phone calls, she'd head over to nearby Bentley University, where she'd spend four hours in class.

Kristopher Miller, CPA, earned his Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) designation while working full time at Nashville's Lexington Financial Life Management. Picking up online coursework meant rising at 4:30 a.m. most days to crank out a few hours of work before his children awoke for school.

Furthering your education and seeking new designations in the accounting profession, as Polidoro and Miller have done, can boost your career. But there's a big challenge in figuring out how to juggle classes on top of already brimming work and personal schedules. Here are a few tips they and others recommend to tame your calendar while pursuing new opportunities:

Track your time. Productivity expert and author Laura Vanderkam encourages people to keep what she calls a "time diary." Similar to tracking calories to lose weight or monitoring your money habits to save more, a time diary is a systematic way to keep exact track of how you spend your time.

If you are new to time tracking, the first step is to establish your baseline metrics. Numerous free online tools like Toggl or the OmniFocus app can help. Vanderkam uses these ready-made Excel templates to track her time.

She recommends tracking activities in 30-minute increments from sunup to sundown for one week. Include everything from meal preparations to client meetings to playing with apps on your phone. "Get a week's worth of data and assess," she said.

Schedule your priorities. When reviewing your results, Vanderkam suggests asking yourself, "What did you like from your week? Not like? What do you want more of? Less of?"

Polidoro, for example, valued free nights more than ever during her master's degree program. She still kept an active social schedule but cut back on impromptu, leisurely dinners out with friends. Instead, she used free time to catch up on work or her class projects.

No matter how harried Polidoro's schedule became, she knew going to the gym daily was nonnegotiable. "Even if it was just one hour out of my day to go work out, that was what I needed," she said. "If I didn't have that in my day, I would feel a little out of control."

Another priority was taking the time to eat healthfully.

"Don't forget to take care of yourself," she said. "Have a healthy dinner. Whatever makes you feel good."

Avoid common time traps. Pay attention to how much time you spend mindlessly scrolling through content on your phone. A 2018 Deloitte study of mobile phone usage found 40% of people believe they use their phone too much, and consumers check their phone an average of 52 times a day. In addition, 84% of working adults reported using their smartphone for personal reasons while on company time. 

Vanderkam conducted a study with over 900 participants for her latest book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Every participant tracked his or her time for one day. The average person in her study picked up his or her phone five to eight times an hour.

She notes that skimming through the latest news headlines is seductive. It feels productive, but very little of real value is taking place. This doesn't mean you have to go cold turkey with your phone, but use technology sparingly and with purpose, she said. You'll not only have more time in the long run, but will feel more relaxed, too.

Keep colleagues looped in. Taking on new classes will inevitably impact your business relationships. Both Miller and Polidoro made sure to keep important people at their workplaces looped into their schedules and needs.

Polidoro made it easy for her colleagues to know her schedule in advance by putting her class times on a firm-wide calendar.

"Everyone knew what nights I had class," she said. "I did my best in trying to avoid taking classes around busy times of the year." 

Each week, Miller took a hard look at his task list to evaluate potential trouble spots. He reviewed his workload and escalated time-sensitive items he was struggling to accomplish. Frequently, those tasks were delegated to someone else, though Miller notes sometimes he had to adjust his study schedule. "It was all about keeping dialogue open so that my employer could properly support me," he says.

Both Polidoro and Miller credit supportive firms as a key part in being able to juggle school and career. If you are thinking about adding coursework, Polidoro recommends beginning the conversation with your employer as soon as possible.

Be prepared to address any concerns they might have after researching the program you're interested in.

"Come forward with a plan," she said. "Explain how further investment in your education will add value to their bottom line."

Leigh Ann Carey is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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