Busy season is always stressful. But there are many ways you can increase your resilience—your capacity to endure stress and use it to fuel your personal growth—this time of year.
We asked a resilience expert and some young CPAs to weigh in. Here are some of their tips for building up and maintaining your reserves until you complete the last return:
Focus your time. When it comes to how you manage your time, “chunking” is better than “sprinkling,” according to Paula Davis-Laack, a stress and resilience expert and author of Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Focus on one chunk of work at a time rather than sprinkling your attention on a variety of projects, she advised.
The folks at HoganTaylor LLP in Oklahoma City designate time for their staff members to focus, said Ashley Cooper, CPA, a tax manager with the firm and a graduate of the 2016 AICPA Leadership Academy. They call it HoganTaylor Focus Time. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8 to 10 a.m., staff members hit their desks and avoid distractions.
No internal emails. No walking down the hall to ask a question. Just focused tax work.
“It has been a lifesaver for me to have those six uninterrupted hours a week,” Cooper said.
Cooper has techniques for implementing such a system that others can apply: “I set a recurring calendar appointment that automatically marks me as busy on our instant messaging system and on my calendar. This also sends me a reminder that focus time starts in 15 minutes and allows me to follow through with this focus time.” She also preserves her dedicated focus time by setting her phone to the “do not disturb” setting, closing her email browser, and closing her office door.
Take regular breaks. After you’ve done that focused work, give your body and brain a break. (Diane Nguyen, CPA, a tax manager with EY in Denver, said her audit team breaks for coffee and even Jenga.)
Failure to take breaks is a leading cause of burnout, Davis-Laack said. Research shows that a break every 90 to 120 minutes is necessary to stay at optimal performance levels, she said.
Melyssa Brown, CPA, uses Stand Up!, a smartphone app that reminds her to do just that every 45 minutes. She’s a senior manager with Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., in Holyoke, Mass., and a graduate of the 2016 AICPA Leadership Academy.
“We all know it’s not great to be sitting in one place for long hours at a time,” Brown said. “I can just do a loop around the cubicles.”
Reframe the situation. Nguyen used to struggle with busy season. She felt she was working 12-hour days for someone else, not for herself.
But then she realized she needed to take a different view to get through the annual crunch time. She recast busy season in her mind as a growth opportunity.
“Think of it as, ‘We’re working on our skill set, we’re working on getting good at our profession,’” she said. “With that, you’ll become more confident and poised sooner.”
Many things about busy season are beyond a CPA’s control. Focus on other things instead, Davis-Laack advised.
“If you find yourself stuck in a particular situation, ask yourself, ‘Where do I have a measure of control, influence, or leverage?’ ” she said.
For example, you may find yourself waiting for overdue information from a client. Instead of obsessing over the missing information, work on a different part of the return or move on to another client’s taxes until you get what you need.
Learn to process criticism. Everyone makes mistakes, and the long hours and deadline pressure of busy season make mistakes more likely. Tempers are shorter, as well. At some point, you may have to deal with criticism from your boss or an unhappy client.
Davis-Laack has a series of suggestions for coping with criticism: Consider the source, get the specifics, and avoid imagining worst-case scenarios, also known as “catastrophizing.” Just because you were criticized doesn’t mean you’re about to lose a client or get fired, she said.
Brown strives to learn from criticism without dwelling on it. “I think the key is taking it for what it is, learning from it, applying it to the next situation, but moving on,” she said. “‘OK. I’ve dealt with it, I’ve addressed it, I’ve learned. Leave that behind.’ ”
Sometimes, of course, being resilient is simply a matter of putting your head down and taking care of business.
“Ultimately, I say, ‘Just do it,’ ” Nguyen said. “It’s busy season. Don’t overthink it—just do it.”
Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article, email associate editor Courtney Vien.
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