Accountants across the world right now are mired in tax preparation madness, as they try to deal with the myriad of work that needs to be done before tax filing deadlines. The period between January and April is universally referred to as busy season, a term which inspires dread and tests the mettle of even the most ambitious and hardworking accountants. Of course busy season is not specific to accountants. Retailers experience it during the lead up to Christmas while the hospitality industry tends to be busiest in June and July (Montreal’s grand prix weekend is both a boon and a logistical nightmare for hotels and restaurants). In fact most small business owners have periods when they are swamped, which can be problematic if they are not able to handle it. In the interest of avoiding premature hair loss and ensuring that your business continues its unabated growth, below are some simple, yet fundamental strategies, to help you cope:
The most important strategy that a small business owner needs in its arsenal is a system of prioritization. While there are a number of methods and matrices, checklists and to do lists, ultimately the ideal prioritization system is unique to each of us. My systems comprises a spreadsheet (being a bit of an excel junkie) with tasks, due dates, clients and colour coding for urgency and other visual cues. This has evolved over time and I imagine will continue to be perfected. A system, no matter how informal, can be invaluable in ensuring that everything that needs to get done, gets done.
Many of us over estimate our abilities and the hours in a day, leading us to make commitments that we cannot keep. This diminishes credibility and results in improbable and transparent excuses (it can be difficult to claim that the dog ate your computer) which are not good for long term relationships. It is vitally important to ensure that clients, staff, bank managers, tax authorities and any other interested parties know what they should expect and if necessary advise them of your limitations. People tend to be understanding, as long as their expectations are properly adjusted, as most of us have been in the same situation. Of course, deadlines must always be adhered to when possible, which ideally will be captured by the prioritization system. Despite its cliché status, under-promising and over-delivering is always a good strategy.
The temptation to check emails and voicemails frequently can be overwhelming. And of course inane Facebook updates are never more fascinating than when you have deadlines to meet. It is imperative to exercise discipline at these key times and do whatever it takes – turning off push notifications to your smartphone, shutting down the internet and controlling the urge to clean every nook and cranny of your apartment. Unless something is truly urgent, very few of us require immediate responses to our emails and voicemails. Setting a time to respond to communications can reduce hours of inefficiencies. It is also important to have a process to ensure that you respond to these communications on a timely and systematic basis.
There comes a time when you may be so overwhelmed with work that it becomes essential to delegate. This can be very difficult, particularly for small business owners who tend to be control freaks. With so many outsourcing and hiring options out there, however, there is absolutely no excuse not to take advantage of these resources. It might take a little time up front to determine what tasks can be outsourced and to train someone, butwith the right contractor or employee, it can save you tonnes of time and stress in the future. Most importantly, it frees up your time to take on more value added work.
Take Care of Your Body
Eating right, sleeping and exercising are often the first things to go by the wayside during times of busyness. It is much easier to reach for a box of crackers (with an uncertain shelf life) than to take precious minutes to put together a proper meal. You probably have a problem when your favourite take out places knows you by your phone number. Similarly it can be difficult to engage in any kind of physical activity which, along with cracker eating and stress, leads to sleepless nights. And as anyone who sleeps poorly knows, productivity tends to take a nosedive. So, take some time to get groceries, make meals during down time (cooking can actually be quite relaxing) and in bulk, get a skipping rope if you can’t make the gym and stop working at least an hour before bed time to ensure optimal sleeping.
Take Care of Your Mind
Finally, no matter how busy you are, it is important to do things that you like. Whether it is catching your favourite television show (Community and 30 Rock on Thursday nights), reading a book, getting together for some cocktails with friends or enjoying a glass (or two) of wine – stimulating the pleasure centres of your brain are essential for optimal productivity and to maintain pleasantness of demeanour.
Sadly, complaining about busy times tends to elicit responses such as “it’s great that your business is doing so well” and as such is somewhat un-gratifying. Instead, adopt the strategies listed above to minimize stress and maintain your sanity during busy times.