Time management tips for busy professionals

Accountants are invariably highly focused, intelligent and resourceful individuals – yet most of you have probably felt overwhelmed by your workload from time to time.

Across all professions, worker stress levels are rising, with over half of the global workforce (53%) reporting that they are closer to burnout than they were just five years ago, according to a Regus Group Survey of over 22,000 business people across 100 countries.

In the accountancy profession there are countless tasks to remember and complete, often to tight deadlines, and often no one to whom you can delegate. During periods of high pressure it can be a challenge to stay focused and productive.

Rather than worry about missing deadlines and losing control of your workload, there are lots of simple things you can do to help stay on top of things. You probably already know and use a good range of time management techniques - from simple lists to delegation - but here are some other ideas to help you ease the burden and focus on the important stuff.

Plan your day

During the busy tax season, it's more important than ever to establish a workable routine for yourself, and plan your day in advance. At the end of each working day, plan your next day's work schedule – prioritising your "to do" list and allocating a realistic amount of time to each task.

Block out some time each day where you're totally disconnected, and remember to schedule in a specific time to deal with non-urgent communications such as replying to emails. If you dip into your inbox or answer calls throughout the day you will get distracted from the task in hand, and your schedule will start to slip.

Choose a suitable communication channel according to each task

Meetings can be time consuming, so arrange and attend them only when they are necessary – and decide upfront how much time you will need, and place a limit on the meeting length.

If you need to communicate the same message to multiple clients, it's worth using a bulk email rather than contacting each client individually. There are lots of bulk email services available, but many of them are only suited to marketing emails, so check and compare each system's features to find one that suits your requirements. Senta customers can simply use the emailer to send messages to individuals or groups of prospects or clients – sending a single message to many in one go, saving a lot of time.

There are also occasions where it may be more efficient to use the phone than email. When you need to ask complex questions to resolve a complicated issue, a phone call can often get to the bottom of things more quickly than email, which tends to involve multiple messages flying back and forth for clarification.

Use time management tools

There are plenty of tools available to help you manage your time. Find one that works well for you, and that you will really use – whether it's a simple email calendar, or a more comprehensive time management app – using reminders to help you stay on top of tasks.

If you use Senta, the Workflow & tasks system will keep track of all the client work you need to do, monitoring and reminding you so that you never miss a deadline. From the moment you add a prospect you can rely on the system to give you work to do when it's time to start it, whether that's client take-on, recurring work like VAT or payroll, or background client admin tasks.

Senta will also involve your clients, asking them to complete forms and upload documents when you need them, which immediately reduces your workload. And if anything goes off schedule, Senta will warn you.

Although ours is a sophisticated task management system, it's also incredibly easy to use. It's set up so that you can enjoy the benefits right away, out of the box – but then it's also configurable so that you can also create new workflows, forms and so on if you want to make it even more powerful and effective for your practice.

If you don't use Senta, there are many other tools that you can use in combination to achieve similar results. You could use Google Keep or Remember The Milk to set up "to do" lists, for example, and Google Calendar to schedule and remind you about meetings or to block out chunks of time for specific tasks.

Plan your deep thinking

There are two main types of work: shallow work, such as emails, meetings and routine administrative tasks; and deep work, which involves strategic tasks looking at long term business goals.

It is easy to get bogged down by shallow work when we need to make more time for deep work. The only solution is to schedule in blocks of time when you commit completely to deep work, without distractions – and this needs to happen during your most productive work periods, which brings us to our next point:

Use your most productive time wisely

We all have energy highs and lows throughout our work day which can impact on our productivity. If you can establish your most productive time(s) of the day, you can schedule the most demanding and important tasks to coincide with that period.

Online tools such as RescueTime can help you understand your daily habits so that you can focus better and be more productive. Alternatively, you can just use a simple spreadsheet to create an "energy map" of your week. You can list each working day along the top, and each half hour period on the left. Print off a few copies so that you can take them with you wherever you need to go, or use a mobile spreadsheet app to update them. Fill in what you're doing in each time period, along with a rough rating of how productive you feel (with 10 being as productive as you could ever feel, and 0 being the exact opposite). If you do this over several weeks you will soon build up a pretty accurate picture of which times of the day and points in your week when you tend to enjoy a higher level of productivity.

Only worry about what you need to worry about

If you want to maximise your productivity, it's really important to banish as much stress as possible from your working day. Once our brain secretes more of the stress hormone cortisol than is useful, we immediately hone in on the perceived threat. This is a simple survival mechanism, but it makes us incapable of thinking in broad terms – or creatively – about our work.

You're probably wondering how to banish stress if you have too much work to do. You can help significantly by only worrying about the things you need to worry about. Start your day positively by prioritising your work tasks; planning realistically how long each task will take; then avoiding any interruptions or procrastination.

By sticking to your planned schedule, and carrying out all your tasks to deadline, you will feel on top of your work and far less stressed.

This is really what Senta is all about: making your workload more manageable by making sure you only ever worry about the stuff you need to worry about right now. The system takes care of many everyday tasks and routinely reminds you and your clients about important deadlines, so you don't need to sweat over the small stuff.

Of course it's possible to set up a multitude of other tools to achieve a similar end – perhaps using your email calendar and reminders, Google Keep for "to do" lists, and so forth – but that may involve more management in itself, whereas Senta rolls it all into one easy-to-use package.

Make time to disconnect outside of work

Socialise regularly with your friends. Do something you enjoy that has nothing at all to do with work. And get a decent night's sleep – preferably every night. Sleep plays a key role in our physical health, and a lack of it can affect our immune system. In the short term, a good sleep routine may reward you with fewer colds and other minor illnesses, while in the long term it could reduce your risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

A lack of sleep also affects our daytime functioning, making us less productive at work and more prone to making mistakes. Work can then get on top of us, making us feel stressed – and as a result we're less likely to sleep well when we do finally turn in for the night. It's important to break this vicious cycle and establish healthy sleep patterns. As Arianna Huffington says in her talk "How to succeed? at TEDWomen 2010, "the way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep".

Look ahead and streamline your processes

Now may not be the ideal time to do this, but once the busy tax period is over consider streamlining your processes and making workflows as efficient as possible ahead of next year's deadlines. Think about the tasks and processes that you need to repeat time and time again. What do you do every time you take on a new client, for example – or when you complete a client's accounts? You may think you provide the same high quality of service to each and every client, but unless you follow a set process that almost certainly won't be the case.

Also, look at simple everyday administrative issues, such as organising your computer files so that everything is easy to find. Try to de-clutter your physical work area, too, as a clear work space can boost productivity.

If you save time on the little jobs, it will all add up to more spare time – or the capacity to take on additional clients and increase your profits.