Getting the Right Balance

For busy accountants, balancing personal and professional lives can seem an impossible task. Many of us often assume we have to sacrifice one to succeed at the other. Others try so hard to succeed in both areas that they end up feeling harried and out of control—as if they’ve failed in both worlds.

Few accountants would deny that mission statements, goal setting and strategic plans all help drive a business to success. But very few of us ever take the time to apply these same concepts to pushing our personal lives forward. But using these concepts in our private lives along with a mix of time-management strategies—so tried and true in the office—can help put us on the road to achieving more balance.

Most firms have mission statements that spell out who they are (their reasons for being), where they’re going and what they must do to succeed. Why shouldn’t you? As individuals, we need to think about our own mission or passion, where we are going and what we must do to get there. Start with a statement that broadly says what you would like to accomplish—what’s most important to you personally and professionally. While some people may shrug off mission statements as being corny or pie-in-the-sky, having one can help you set the direction for your life and keep you focused. Take the time to formulate one. Think about what really matters to you. What do you want to attain? More and more people are looking for meaning and spirituality in their work and at home. Knowing what your personal mission is can help provide that meaning.

What Matters Most
A survey of public accountants found that twice as many respondents, regardless of their sex, were concerned about work/life balance issues than were concerned about upward mobility.

Source: 2000 Women & Family Issues Survey of Professionals, Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee, AIaccountant, 2000.

Your mission statement as a accountant might include being a catalyst for positive change in helping to put the financial house in order for the people and the organizations you work with. Or being actively involved in your children’s lives. Write your mission statement down and stick it in a place where you will see it often enough to remind you of what’s important—a bulletin board in your office, the refrigerator at home or on a bookmark to tuck in the book you read on the train. It need not be too grand or too specific.

Once you’ve written your personal mission statement, you need to set short- and long-term goals—the steps along the path toward fulfilling your mission. This goal-setting process is more detail oriented and helps to focus your attention on where you need to spend your time and efforts. For example, if your mission is to play a more active role in your children’s lives, you might try to make sure you’re home for dinner with your family so many times a week. When setting your goals, don’t be afraid to reach, but remember to be realistic. You may find it helps to list the obstacles that stand in your way and then brainstorm strategies to overcome them. One of the biggest differences between people who succeed and those who don’t is that successful people go around and beyond roadblocks, while the others let obstacles stop them.

After you establish your goals, plan the steps you must take to achieve them. While this entire process requires extensive soul-searching, the real challenge in realizing your goals is the redeployment of your resources—namely time—so you can achieve them. Professional and personal demands on your time always seem to exceed the amount of time available. But to reduce stress and improve your life, there’s a simple rule: Maximize the amount of time you spend working toward your goals—and minimize the time you spend on less important things.

The following are 10 strategies you can use that will help move you toward achieving your goals:

1. Spend time planning and setting priorities. Determine your priorities both at home and at work. To do this, you must distinguish between the important and the immediate. Important is being on time to pick up your child after soccer practice. Immediate is dealing with a telephone interruption that will make you late. If you set priorities based on what is immediate, you probably do a lot of “fire fighting.” But putting out flames is inefficient, stressful and prevents you from focusing on what’s important. Examine the types of fires you spend the most time fighting. For example, do you find yourself putting off client follow-up so much that it soon becomes a client crisis? If you see a pattern, come up with a system and set of procedures to deal with it.

When setting priorities at work, discuss them with your boss to make sure you are on track and that they match what your boss has planned for you. When setting priorities for your home life, be sure to discuss them with family and coworkers to determine what is important and what will work. It’s also a good way to get their help and support from the start.

Once you have established your priorities, make sure they don’t conflict with one another. For example, have you promised your son or daughter that you will attend all his or her basketball games, many of which will likely be during the busy season? You will need to discuss any problems that pop up with family and coworkers to help resolve these conflicts.

2. Use to-do lists. Most accountants are masters at using to-do lists. So the issue is not necessarily having one, but setting priorities on it. We tend to first choose those to-do-list items that we can knock off easily—important or not. Sometimes, we do this to avoid a more difficult task or to make ourselves feel that we’ve actually accomplished something—which can help reduce stress. But avoiding the difficult tasks will only increase stress in the long run. Set priorities on your to-do list and follow through.

3. Identify your prime time. Many of us tend to classify ourselves as either morning or evening people based on when we’re most efficient. Identify what time of day you are most productive and schedule tasks accordingly. Always plan your most difficult work for the right time of day. Try to harness your physical and creative energy when it’s at its peak.

4. Conquer your “yes-buts.” Many people attempt to rationalize avoiding a particular task with, “Yes, I should work on that project now, but … .” Most of us are good at rationalizing why we choose to do something later rather than now; however, in order to conquer your yes-buts, you must stick to your priorities, follow your to-do list and learn to use your prime time.

5. Delegate when possible. Sure, no one can do it as well as you, but you need to realize that you can’t do it all, nor should you. If you don’t pass some work on to others, you will find yourself overloaded and under increased stress. Delegate both at home and at work. This requires good planning and realistic expectations of others. You have to have faith in the people you pass tasks on to or train them to do the job. If your planning is inadequate, you won’t be able to delegate effectively, if indeed you can do so at all, since generally we pass off part of a project rather than the whole thing.

6. Clarify and verify all communication. Effective communication is essential both at home and at the office. For example, whether you are delegating tasks and responsibilities to coworkers or to your family, ask clarifying questions to make sure everyone understands just what needs to be done. That way, work gets done right the first time. And never hesitate to ask clarifying questions when tasks are assigned to you.

7. Don’t expect perfection. While being a perfectionist can at times be a good thing, especially for accountants, we all know how it can keep us from achieving our goals. Perfectionists are often the worst procrastinators. If they can’t complete an important task now—perfectly—they waste time on something unimportant that they can do right. They would have been better off working on the main task at hand—even just getting a bit of it done so it’s not quite as daunting later, or allocating time to several projects and moving them all forward a bit.

Perfectionists often believe only they can do something right and therefore are less likely to ask for help or pass work on to others. Eventually, their plates becomes so full they can’t get anything done right, let alone on time. Always try to do your best and expect the best from others; however, while we would all like to get an A+, realize that sometimes an A or even a B is OK.

8. Use off-season time effectively. Many accountants do a very good job of planning for the busy season; however, the same can’t always be said of planning for the slower times. A common off-season problem is a decrease in effectiveness—or letting tasks expand to fill the time available. While a slowdown from the hectic pace of the busy work season is important to reduce stress, maintaining a certain level of effectiveness lets you stay sharp should something unexpected arise. Keeping on your toes means you won’t waste time and you’ll have more time to spend with your children when they are out of school during the summer.

9. Make the best use of your time right now. Occasionally, during the course of the day, perhaps because a client cancels an appointment, you find yourself with some unanticipated free time. Unfortunately, many of us spend it trying to decide how best to use it—which in itself can cause stress and be counterproductive.

Sometimes, it can help to have on hand a list of annoying little tasks you always seem to put off because they don’t suit the time you have available. When you’re looking for something to do, scan the list and see if there’s something you can easily knock off. At work, you might start or continue a project, answer e-mail or verify appointments. At home, you could take care of personal correspondence, work on household projects or spend time with family. Or perhaps this would be the ideal time for a “minute vacation” to relax. Close your eyes and imagine that you are at your favorite vacation spot.

10. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of workplace trends that support work/life balance. While this may appear obvious, many people still don’t take full advantage of opportunities that may provide support as they try to balance their lives. For example, responses to the 2000 AIaccountant Work/Life Executive Committee survey show that women often believe taking maternity leave or working from home will make them appear less committed or put them “out of the loop.” Men are particularly resistant to taking paternity leave or using the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed in 1993, believing others will view them as lacking drive. In each case the fear is that career growth will be slowed or hit the proverbial “brick wall.”

Don’t be afraid to take advantage of opportunities resulting from the FMLA. It allows leave time for a number of family related problems. And many states have enacted family friendly legislation to provide further support for balancing work and professional lives.

In addition, more and more firms are offering a variety of family friendly support options from day care and concierge services to flex-time. If your personal life is such that continuous full-time employment is not a viable option, you may want to take advantage of the trend toward part-time or contract work.

Technology has transformed the way we work and live. Whether it be cell phones, pagers, voice mail, fax, e-mail, teleconferencing or telecommuting technology, if used effectively, can help you leverage your time. But technology can also be a time-waster—are you squandering time surfing the Net for information? Or do you find yourself constantly interrupted by answering e-mails or your cell phone or your pager? Set aside certain times each day to check e-mail rather than checking it constantly. Turn off your cell phone and pager. When possible, let your voice mail pick up rather than answering every call. At first you may feel out of touch, but that will pass. Remember: Control the technology; don’t let it control you. If anything, you will probably find you are more efficient without those interruptions, and as a result, you will have time for the things that are important to you.

Developing a sense of what is reasonable and not overextending yourself is an important step in achieving harmony in your life. While we all would like to be the “superprofessional” as well as the “supermom/wife/daughter” or “superdad/husband/son,” this often leads to unrealistic expectations and puts the kind of pressure on us that leads only to frustration. Instead, focus on being the best professional and the best mom/wife/daughter or dad/husband/ son that you can be. Try not to worry about what others expect of you. Just do a good job at what you’ve deemed important.

And while you’re thinking about it, why not close this magazine, turn off your cell phone and pager and let your voice mail pick up any calls that come in. Start working on your personal mission statement now.

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