Whether you are in public or private accounting, efficiency is a skill that every accountant strives for. By being efficient at your job, you are better able to maximize your time, your effort and the profits of the company you work for or your own business.
Efficiency is also a skill that every working mom strives for as well. By being more organized as a working mom, you are also able to maximize your time, your effort and hopefully increase the level of balance you have in your life.
Unfortunately we aren’t taught how to create a system that makes it easier to get it all done and are often tossed into the deep end of the pool with other working moms, struggling to stay above water. Without an easy to use system, you can become stressed, overwhelmed and easily experience burnout.
If your current system consists of post-it notes, scraps of paper or a running mental list, there’s a much better way. Managing your workflow and your life-flow just takes a minimal amount of effort in the set up stage, but will pay huge dividends, giving you back your most precious commodities – time and peace of mind.
This week I’m going to discuss why having a system is important and how to create one that makes it easier to get it all done with less effort and more productivity.
Why having a system is important
I’m sure you’ve probably heard of people with incredible memories who can describe the details of any given day in their life. But since you are probably not a contestant in the World Memory Championship (yes, it’s a real thing) then understanding how your “normal” brain works is important.
Basically there is a cap on the number of things that an average person can remember at once in their working memory. That number is between 3 and 4, unless you are using some strategies, tricks and associations to remember more.
To understand this better, your working memory is basically a more active version of your short-term memory and relates to the information you can pay attention to and manipulate. The reason you can remember a 7-digit telephone number is because it is presented in groups of 3 and 4 numbers, making it appear as if you can remember much more.
But let’s face it, as a working mom, you have more things to remember and process than the average person which is why having an effective system in place is so important. Without a system:
- You will constantly worry about whether you have enough time to get everything done
- You will get paralyzed and spin in confusion trying to figure out what to do next
- You procrastinate because it seems so overwhelming
- You are often distracted when you are working on one thing, worried about whether you should be working on something else
- You have no idea how long tasks will take
- Your schedule feels out of control
- You frequently have “Uh, oh” moments where you remember something you need to do later
- You don’t sleep well because you have a nagging feeling that you are forgetting something that needs to be done
Not having a clear system can just create chaos for you professionally and personally. It adds incredible stress to your life because there’s no sense of control over your time or your organization at work or at home.
But don’t let your brain tell you that you are already overwhelmed and that the thought of taking time to put a system in place and work within that system seems too massive a task to add to your already full plate. Not having a consistent system is costing you MUCH more time than it will take to put one in place.
Just like having a meal planning system takes a minimal amount of effort but saves you so much time, money and stress, having a system for all you need to do for your job as a CPA and your job as a mom can save you and your sanity. And what working mom doesn’t want more sanity?!
The system for getting more done
Just like compound interest continues to build over time, having a system in place that makes it easier to get it all done in less time is an investment worth making. Your complex life does not require a complex system, only a simple set of procedures that can turn chaos into order.
The key to getting more done is having both:
- A simple, manageable system
- An ability to manage your mind
The reason you need both is:
a) If you have a manageable system but don’t know how to manage your mind, you will never apply the system consistently and will procrastinate or spin in confusion plus
b) If you are able to manage your mind but don’t have a simple manageable system, you are going to feel disorganized and overwhelmed because of your working mind’s ability to only handle those 3 to 4 pieces of information at a time.
Author David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”, offers an in depth process for getting more organized and becoming more productive. Since his method takes more effort than I believe is necessary for a busy CPA mom, I’m going to share a simplified version of David Allen’s work that will help you to take back control and get it all done.
The key elements to a manageable system for CPA moms to get things done are:
- Process the inflow
- Do 2 minute or less items now
- Categorize more than 2 minute items
- Assign time on your calendar
- Incorporate flexibility into your calendar
- Manage your mind
If this seems complicated, it’s not; that’s just your brain resisting change. Your brain doesn’t like to make changes so it resists anything that might take effort in the beginning but once you’ve created a system and it becomes a habit, your brain will be on board and actually make implementation much easier for you.
It’s important to know that if you have an email inbox with hundreds of emails, post-it notes stuck all over your refrigerator or a drawer full of reminders, it’s no wonder you have a general sense of overwhelm and dread. Everytime you open your email, see those post-it notes or open that drawer, your brain tells a story.
That story can sound something like “You are never going to get all this organized” or “You have too much on your plate”. These stories then create even more inefficiency because you are now focused on all the emails, post-it notes and items in the drawer without a plan.
Now let me explain how to put together each element of the system for getting more done:
Your inflow of information, or inboxes, in your life are where to-do’s and work are coming in for your personal and professional life. These inboxes are where information comes in that gives rise to a task.
This can include emails, text messages, phone calls, bills, physical mail, notices in your child’s school folder, etc. Basically everywhere you learn about something that needs to be done.
In this element you JUST need to know what your inboxes are. Simply get clear about where information comes into your life that needs to be addressed.
2 Minutes or Less
Now that you know all the inboxes in your life, you have to set aside time to go through each inbox and process what’s in there. This DOES NOT mean you do all the work, you’re just going to assess what’s in those inboxes instead of avoiding it or getting overwhelmed by it.
You are simply going to take a look at each thing in your inboxes, question whether it can be taken care of in 2 minutes or less. That’s it!
Then you will ONLY do the things that will take less than 2 minutes.
For example, replying to a text message from a friend about meeting for dinner can take less than 2 minutes so that item in the text message inbox can be taken care of right away. Or paying the auto insurance bill that came in the mail can take less than 2 minutes (or better yet, take 2 minutes to set it up on autopay for later ease and efficiency).
More Than 2 Minutes
For this element of the system you will need to make a list of the projects that you have in your work and personal life and assign the items in the inboxes to one of those projects or create a new project for it.
If anything in your inboxes cannot be taken care of in under 2 minutes then it ONLY needs to be assigned to a project.
David Allen defines a project as any desired result that requires more than one action step. By breaking down your to-do’s or open items into projects you can get an aerial view of what’s going on in your life and how to efficiently handle it all.
Your projects will contain the items or actions that need to be done to finish the project and can be broken down in any way that makes sense for you. For example, you may have projects at work broken down by due date, by client or by manager; you may have projects at home broken down by time of year, by person or by physical location.
To review, you simply need to know that everything in each inbox will either be:
- A 2-minute task
- An additional task for an existing project
- A new project
For example, a client’s email with their YTD paystub attached for projection purposes would fall under the “Year-End Projections” work project category (or any category you choose). A note from your child’s teacher requesting certain school supplies be sent in for the class could fall under the “Shopping” personal project category.
For this part of the plan you just need a place that you can write down the lists of the projects in your life. You can use a pad of paper, a software program, a phone app like Trello or anything that allows you to assign the tasks from your inboxes to a project.
This next element is crucial to getting it all done and it can often create the most resistance. One of the biggest reasons why most working moms feel frazzled and overwhelmed is because you are so busy trying to get everything done for everyone else first, barely squeezing in any downtime, which is a surefire way to suffer with chronic stress and burnout.
So with that in mind, the first thing I suggest you assign time to, in writing and on a calendar is downtime. By scheduling non-work downtime first, you will get better at respecting your own time boundaries and refueling yourself with much needed non-CPA time.
Calendaring downtime first is not selfish or non-productive; it’s actually the most efficient thing you can do. It lets your brain know that this is important, that your life isn’t “all work and no play” and that you can have control over your time.
In order to assign time on your calendar for downtime and tasks, I suggest you set aside a little time on Sundays to look at the week ahead and the projects that need to be done in the next 7 days, only. Calendar your downtime first to signal to your brain that this matters and then pick the tasks under each project that needs attention and schedule them on the calendar as well.
Make sure you are realistic about the amount of time each task will take but don’t get caught up in confusion or overwhelm in assigning an amount of time to each task. Make a best guess, get it on the calendar and move on.
This is super important – once a task is on the calendar, delete it or cross it off the project list. This continual action of categorizing, calendaring and deleting will have you incredibly efficient in no time.
To all the perfectionists out there (me included!), don’t make your calendar another thing to beat yourself up over. If you tend to be a perfectionist then use a dry erase board, erasable pens or an electronic calendar that’s easy to make changes to.
Make sure you build in “blank spaces” to allow for unexpected things that come up. For example, if you work for someone who is unpredictable and believes everything they give you is urgent, then you will want to allow for time to switch to a task that suddenly comes up.
The more realistic you can be, the better. Things happen, kids get sick unexpectedly and last-minute changes are often thrown your way but with a simple system in place, you will be able to handle it all with ease and grace.
Manage Your Mind
The final piece in a simple system that helps you get things done is to manage your mind. This important element is the difference between taking control of your productivity and getting it all done versus losing control.
When you learn how to manage you mind, you can understand what makes you procrastinate, what makes you feel overwhelmed and how to take back control of your time. A managed mind is less anxious, it sees clearly what needs to be done and it follows the system and plan laid out.
So if you are interested in easily getting it all done and reducing your anxiety and stress, then the system I have described will do the trick. Once it’s put into place and you’ve created the habit of using the system, your life will be more manageable and productive than you’ve ever imagined.
- Not having a clear system can just create chaos for you professionally and personally
- The key to getting it all done is having both a simple, manageable system and an ability to manage your mind
- You first need to get clear about where the inflow of information and tasks comes from
- Then decide whether it will take 2 minutes or less to handle a task
- For tasks that take longer than 2 minutes, either assign the task to an existing project or create a new project
- Once a week assign time to tackle project tasks by first scheduling downtime and then scheduling tasks that need to be done in the next 7 days, all on a calendar
- Once it’s on the calendar, delete it from the project list
- Make sure you are flexible with the calendar allowing “blank spaces” for unexpected things that come up
- When you learn how to manage you mind, you can understand what makes you procrastinate, what makes you feel overwhelmed and how to take back control of your time