CPA INSIDER

Time management strategies for CPAs

Leveraging technology and controlling your schedule can make the most of limited time.
By Liz Farr, CPA

Time is a precious commodity for CPAs. It's something there's never quite enough of. To survive — and thrive — as a CPA, time management is essential.

Below, four CPAs shared ways they end up getting more done with less time.

Block out time for specific tasks. Logan Graf, CPA, tax director at Scott & Aderholt in Cedar Park, Texas, found that frequently switching among the tasks of preparing returns, reviewing returns, and meeting with clients was counterproductive.

"Your efficiency is gone," he said. "And your quality is also gone."

He addresses that by blocking out certain days and certain times for specific tasks. For example, during busy season, he tries to schedule new client meetings only during certain windows, say from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other days, he has blocks of time dedicated to preparing or reviewing returns.

Louise Cochrane, CPA, who has a solo tax practice in Alameda, Calif., uses a similar tactic. During the last busy season, she designated Monday and Wednesday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for client meetings. Fridays were left open for urgent client meetings or tackling complicated tax returns.

In the summer, when her hours drop dramatically, she spends her first half-hour in the office answering emails and making phone calls before moving into what she terms "work mode" to conduct deeper-level work in a three-hour block of time. At the end of her first three-hour block, she takes a break for lunch, then repeats the same cycle in the afternoon, starting with answering emails and returning phone calls.

Schedule the small stuff, too. Tax season can be "like drinking from a firehose, and you end up getting pulled in 100 different directions," said Josh Azran, CPA/ABV/CFF, CGMA, founder of Azran Financial in Los Angeles. He keeps a calendar, which he shares with his team members, that goes into granular detail, including slots for working on specific tasks, such as reviewing a particular client's Form 1040. 

In addition to keeping him focused, scheduling in such detail helps firm members, including Azran, provide clients with realistic expectations regarding when tasks will be completed. This transparency reduces stress across the firm because everyone can see the plan for getting the work done. "At least if you're buried in work, there's a shovel and an arrow pointing at the way out," he said.

Include time for home and family. Amanda Aguillard, CPA, founded her virtual accounting firm, Aguillard Accounting, in 2012, when she was a single mother of two. Aguillard, who is also the co-founder of Elefant Training in New Orleans, built her monthly bookkeeping firm to allow her to be available to her children. Now, every Sunday she plans out her week in her online calendar, including commitments for her children's schools and sports, tasks for her clients, weeknight dinner plans, and time for exercise, as well as appointments to connect with her all-remote team.

Flex with the season. Cochrane's solo tax practice requires her to work 60 to 70 hours a week for part of the year. But, come April 16 most years, she drops her hours to five or 10 a week to spend time with her family. That schedule also allows her to take two months of vacation, scattered throughout the year, and spend every Friday outside of busy season with her youngest daughter. This summer, however, Cochrane extended many more returns than normal because of the 2017 tax reform law, so she was working three days a week.

Remember to eat. With her intense busy-season workload, Cochrane found that scheduling two-hour lunches during the week helped her improve productivity by giving her an hour to eat and an hour to work without interruptions. "When I had a one-hour lunch, I was always working through my lunch and not eating," Cochrane said. Having those two-hour lunches serves a dual purpose: a chance to get needed work done and take care of herself.

Develop processes. An ongoing project for Graf is to develop processes for as many tasks in the firm as possible, along the lines described in Michael Gerber's book, The E-Myth Revisited. These detailed processes mean that the firm runs like "a machine rather than just unorganized chaos." He used OneNote, a digital notebook, to create an operations manual with detailed instructions for administrative tasks such as answering the phone, notifying clients that returns are ready, or scheduling appointments with clients. This allowed the administrative person they hired for tax season to "do her job without having to consult us throughout the day," Graf said, further cutting down on distractions.

Leverage technology to automate tasks. Azran uses the scheduling app OnceHub combined with Salesforce for managing workflow and projects. With OnceHub, every member of his firm can set their availability and capacity by defining the frequency and duration for various types of meetings. For example, he might set a personal weekly limit of 10 tax return review meetings with clients to allow adequate preparation time. An initial client meeting might be 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the preference of the partner.

His firm customizes Salesforce with various plug-ins to centralize information and automate many administrative tasks. Because his phone system is integrated with Salesforce, "when a client calls in, Salesforce pops up the client's information right on the computer screen for us," Azran said. "The full life cycle of the client is there in one system — all their projects, all their background, all their information, everything we could possibly need."  

Aguillard's all-mobile, all-remote accounting firm uses technology heavily. Zapier is one of her favorites: This app connects different pieces of software that don't have native integrations with "zaps" to create automated workflows. "We don't have control over what our clients choose as their general ledger or over their point-of-sale system, or their customer relationship management system," Aguillard said. But by using Zapier to connect parts of her clients' business and accounting systems, her team can save time in bookkeeping through automation.

Use technology to communicate. To keep in close contact with her remote team, Aguillard uses the messaging app Slack for quick messages and Zoom when a face-to-face conversation or on-screen collaboration is needed. She also uses Acuity for her clients and prospects to self-schedule appointments. This saves time that might otherwise be spent on back-and-forth emails to schedule meetings.

Final thoughts

When you intentionally structure your work and your time, you can get more done with less stress and make busy season a bit less chaotic. As Cochrane reminds us, "It doesn't have to be crazy all the time."

Liz Farr, CPA, is a freelance writer based in Los Lunas, N.M. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a  JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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