CPA INSIDER

Cutting out busywork to increase productivity

Move beyond busyness to accomplish strategic goals.
By Hannah Pitstick

As distractions and unread emails pile up, it's increasingly easy to become absorbed with work that feels productive but won't help you achieve long-term goals. 

The trap of busywork is perhaps especially treacherous for accountants and finance professionals who need to set aside time for deep work in order to pursue loftier objectives, such as developing a long-term financial analysis.

"To achieve true, creative productivity you need white space [a strategic pause between activities] and time," said Michigan-based Kristen Rampe, CPA, founder of Rampe Consulting. She argued that this requires you to stop filling your day with what Cal Newport referred to as "shallow work'" in his book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World.

If you've found yourself stuck in a cycle of busywork, try these five tips for achieving true, creative productivity that will help boost your career and business.

Step back and consider your priorities. Busywork is often characterized as a form of procrastination that feels productive in the moment but has little lasting impact. Clearing out your inbox might be momentarily satisfying, but it's unlikely to move your career ahead. It's important to have a clear understanding of your priorities so you don't get caught up in low-impact errands. In order to identify your top priorities, you may need to step back and determine the strategic goals you're trying to achieve over the next month, year, and five years down the road.

Karen Eyre-White, founder of Go Do, an online productivity coaching business based in the UK, recommends carving out some time and taking yourself somewhere physically different from where you normally work, whether that's a different room, a different building, or an Airbnb rental.  

"Put yourself into a different headspace and do some of that big-picture thinking, so that in your day-to-day role, you can make more proactive choices that are aligned with the bigger goals, which is what true productivity is," she said.  

Avoid operating out of your inbox. Email is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to busywork because it's often the first thing we check in the morning and a reflexive way to fill time between meetings and other tasks. Consciously managing your inbox at set times throughout the day can keep you from getting sidetracked by other people's priorities.

"Most people are using their inboxes as a kind of to-do list, but it's a pretty ineffective to-do list, I've got to say, because it doesn't let you prioritize things," Eyre-White said.

Rampe suggests leaving space and time for the "invisible tasks" like checking email and following up on loose ends, as a way to avoid operating out of your inbox.

"When you schedule time for this, you can constrain the time for these activities to what makes sense for your role and your day, and you can be more focused on the important tasks, because you know you have separate time to take care of the little things that come up," she said.

Eyre-White urges her clients to switch their mindsets around email from something they keep open all day to a place they enter at set times and then exit when returning to focused work..  

Schedule chunks of time for focused work. Once you've determined the higher-level tasks that will most contribute to your long-term goals, carve out time every day to focus exclusively on those activities.

Eyre-White recommends figuring out which parts of the day you're most productive and scheduling 45-minute sprints for deep work. During these sprints, make sure your phone is out of sight, your email is switched to offline mode, and any distractions are eliminated.

Once the 45-minute period is up, give yourself a short break, whether that's a change of scenery, coffee or tea, or a quick look at your phone as a reward.

"Think about that focused time as being incredibly precious, protect it from meetings, and don't spend it wading through your inbox," Eyre-White said.

Create actionable to-do lists. Perhaps the most useful tool for achieving productivity is the humble to-do list.

An effective to-do list should break down your long-term goals and priorities into actionable steps. Rather than being a list of amorphous goals like "get a promotion", it should include bite-sized tasks like "spend an hour learning a new Excel hack" or "reach out to a new connection on LinkedIn".

In addition to helping achieve true productivity, a quality to-do list can keep you focused on those higher objectives. 

"I think of a to-do list as a list of options of what you could do, and being successful is about making good choices between those things," Eyre-White said.

She added that the decision about what to focus on typically falls into place if you've thought about what your priorities are and what's important in your role.

Automate or delegate busywork. As technology continues to rapidly evolve, finance professionals need to be in a perpetual state of learning and growth in order to keep up with the changes. Automation and delegation can enable professionals to create the necessary time for this kind of deep work.  

Rampe recommends taking time to identify where you add value at your level, and where you don't, either because the work is too easy or distracting or it could be automated.

She added that you should talk with your boss about how you can be of highest value and what mechanisms you can use to reduce or delegate lower-value work. Implement existing technologies that can handle busywork, such as bookkeeping, invoicing, and payroll, allowing you to devote more time to higher-level tasks.

"Be intentional about the small things you need to do, the ones you can delegate, and the true value of that creative productivity and 'deep work', which is the highest value you can bring to your position," Rampe said.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com

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