Save Time With These Productivity Hacks

CPAs and experts share ways to become more efficient at work.

February 21, 2017

Time is so easy to waste, yet impossible to get back. Mornings seem so much shorter after scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat—all before arriving at work. Then, at the office, there’s an ever-overflowing inbox with direct messages, a sea of carbon-copied emails (skip just one, and it will end up being the one your boss wanted you to read) and meetings.

Whew. You’re forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. Here are some tips from CPAs and productivity experts that can help you save time and make life easier:

Plan ahead. Make your to-do list in advance. Many “people spend the first 30 minutes or so trying to game plan and figure out what they need to accomplish during the day,” said David Almonte, CPA, an audit manager at Grant Thornton LLP and a graduate of the AICPA’s 2014 Leadership Academy. Almonte, who prides himself on being well organized personally and professionally, spends the last 15 minutes of each day writing up a to-do list for the following day.

Almonte suggests scheduling your most complex items for times when you’re fully alert: Are you a morning person? Or do you get a surge of energy mid-afternoon after the coffee has kicked in? Either way, tackle the trickiest tasks then. “Be sure to review the list throughout the day and reprioritize,” he added.

Be specific. There’s an art to an effective to-do list, said Maura Thomas, founder of and author of the upcoming book Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work.

“If your list is full of vague, imposing-sounding entries, like ‘develop budget,’ that makes it hard to dive in and take immediate actions when you have a few spare minutes,” she said. “Instead, write your tasks with specific language that tells you exactly what you need to do. An example: ‘Enter totals into spreadsheet.’ ”

Consolidate. Sure, you’re using a great app to manage your day. But there are also a dozen scribbled notes stuck to your monitor. Oh, and you’ve got hundreds of different color flags in your email inbox. Ironically, having too many organizational systems can stifle motivation.

“Get your to-do’s all in one place,” advised Thomas. The time it takes you to consolidate will be more than offset by the time you’ll save when you only have one place to look for things you need to get done, she said.

While Thomas suggested using an app, don’t be afraid to go old school: For some people, a spiral notebook with a basic bulleted task list that can be crossed off is easy and effective.

Control email. Email may seem outdated in the age of disappearing Snaps, but businesses still love it. There are several ways to get messages under control.

First, set up a secondary email account for promotional mail, Thomas suggested. If you use a Gmail account, you can set it up to automatically forward you anything you actually want, like work travel confirmations. This is “like having a personal assistant for your email,” she said, adding that a spam filter such as SpamDrain will pay for itself with saved time.

Next, stop constantly checking messages. Really. We’ve all heard this advice, but few actually listen. “A tiny distraction like answering an email or text will make you lose all the momentum you were gaining from working,” said Danny Garcia, marketing operations manager at Stacklist, a website that curates lists of business tools for startups.

“Instead of being a slave to your inbox, set aside times throughout the day that you use to focus on answering emails,” he suggested.

Use headphones. There are two ways to do this. First, just put them in your ears to throw off colleagues who drop by your desk to chat. Also, try music. “Listen to the same song over and over. If you zone out the world while you are trying to work, you will focus better,” Garcia said. “Your mind will put the music in loop, and it will help you not worry about time or get distracted by different songs.”

Work in intervals. You can also try a work surge. Try the “Pomodoro Technique,” where you work intensely for 25 minutes, then reflect for five minutes, Garcia said. (Focus Booster is an app designed for this method.) If that feels too short, try 90 minutes of deep, focused work, followed by a half-hour break. 

“While you may think you are doing yourself a favor by always working through lunch or never taking a break, most times you are not,” Almonte said. “You are more productive if you step away and clear your mind and then go back to work more refreshed.” 

Take a vacation. Repeat after me: I will use my vacation time and try not to work while on the beach. “Otherwise, you give 50% of yourself to work and 50% to the vacation—or however the numbers shake out—and you come back even more stressed then when you left,” Almonte said. “That does no one any good.”

Do you have a great productivity tip? Share it on the AICPA’s Young CPA Network LinkedIn group.

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email associate editor Courtney Vien.

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