Tax season has always been challenging: the last-minute clients, the messy paperwork, the missing documents, and—certainly not least of all—the long hours.
The past few years have made tax season even more complicated. Dwindling IRS service, long hold times, PPP and who-knows-what-else: It’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out.
Getting into the swing of a fresh tax season isn’t always easy, but once you’re in it, it’s wall-to-wall for weeks on end. You might find you rarely have a chance to look up. And by the time you’ve phoned your spouse or significant other for the third time that day to update them on when you’ll be home (no, seriously, just another hour!), you might be starting to feel the burnout coming on.
It’s not at all uncommon, and it’s something you should take seriously. Burnout doesn’t just make you less productive. It can also hurt your sleep patterns, fuel depression and have significant health consequences. The more you can do to stay on top of it, the better off both you and your work will be.
The big trick to conquering any change in habits is to make sure you stick with it. Much like a diet, taking action to reduce your stress requires you to be conscientious about it. With that in mind, here are five handy tips from our accounting experts you can use to help you beat burnout and have a more productive tax season.
Tip 1: Acknowledge and name your stress
It’s easy to write off your stress to generalities. “Tax season stresses me,” or “Long hours stress me out.” But chances are you’re oversimplifying when you do this. Try to focus more on what aspects or tasks cause you the most angst. Is your accounting software not doing the trick or making your life harder? Clients unresponsive? Not enough staff to get the work done?
If you have trouble boiling it down to a handful of things, try taking the opposite approach: what do you love about tax season? It’s likely at least a few things bring a smile to your face, whether it’s Friday office parties or seeing a treasured client you don’t get to see often enough.
Putting your finger on what exactly stresses you allows you to start working on strategies for dealing with it. But if you can’t narrow that down, try starting a list of them as they pop up during your day. This will help you throughout the rest of this season as well as in the years to come. In lieu of that, identifying the things you love will enable you to focus on them as a goal for your day or week.
Giving a name to your stressors is much like naming your emotions—and there’s solid research to suggest that just the act of acknowledging how you feel about something reduces the stress it can cause.
It’s a great first step.
Tip 2: Bulldozing through your work is a terrible idea
We all have a tendency to look at a pile of work and just dive in without taking any breaks. This might make you feel accomplished and focused, but the truth is everyone has a limit.
You might be able to put in a 10 hour day stopping only to use the restroom, but in hour 8 your chance of making mistakes is exponentially higher than in hour 1 (you’re only human). Worse, you aren’t giving your brain the break it needs to refresh itself and re-engage, which can lead to burnout over time.
Opinions are split on the best schedule for breaks, and on how long those breaks should be. Obviously, there are limits. If you work for 15 minutes and take an hour-long break, that’s probably going too far. Plan to experiment to see what works best for you.
Many studies suggest that one full hour of uninterrupted work should be followed by some kind of a break. That means anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, but there’s a catch: you have to disconnect as completely as possible. If you can get away from your desk and outside, even better. But checking your social media or email doesn’t really constitute a break.
If your job limits the number of breaks you can take, make sure you take the maximum amount, and make a point of doing something totally unrelated to work, whether that’s yoga, a short walk, meditation or even thumbing through a magazine.
Try to learn the signs that you aren’t operating at peak efficiency. Are you getting distracted? Reading the same line two or three times before it sinks in? Yawning frequently? Fidgeting? Daydreaming? All of these are signs your brain needs a break from what you’re doing. Don’t take it, and you risk murdering your efficiency and making mistakes.
Tip 3: Don’t bring it home
It can be tempting to get out the door on time with the goal of wrapping things up from home. Unfortunately, you’re creating an unhealthy habit that will soon have your brain associating home with work; and then there is no escape.
Covid has complicated things for many of us who now must work from home. In this case, it’s important to confine all your work to a single spot in your home you can easily escape from at the end of the day. And never, EVER work where you sleep. There is widespread agreement that this won’t do anything but breed sleep problems for you.
If working late is absolutely necessary, try to do it from the office (whatever and wherever that is in this day and age). However, if you’re exceeding a regular workday of 8 hours, those breaks become even more important.
Tip 4: Make any time off you do get, count
Evenings and weekends are common in tax season, but unbroken weeks of work can be just as counterproductive as unbroken hours of work. Finding the balance is what an accountant does. Now do it with your life.
You might be facing fewer days “off” in tax season, so it’s critical to use them well. What relaxes you most? Do that. Be sure to engage with friends and family, which gives you the opportunity to open the release valve by enjoying the people you love most. The gang at the office is great and all, but it’ll never be the same.
If you aren’t an outdoor person, it might be time to make a change. Multiple studies have shown that exposure to sunshine can effectively reduce depression and energize the brain. Fresh air, pretty scenery and a break from being inside will do wonders to refresh you and prepare you for the work ahead.
Just remember not to do any work, and to the extent it’s possible, don’t even think about it. If you find you’re fixating on something you need to do at work, distract yourself with a puzzle or an activity that forces you to concentrate in order to do well.
Tip 5: Work smarter, not harder
Yeah, yeah. I know—you’ve heard this a zillion times and still don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. Honestly, this is the kind of cliché I hate as well, but it offers benefits if you know how to do it.
In essence, working smarter means finding the quicker, more efficient way of doing things. Here are several ways to work smarter:
Delegate any work it makes sense to delegate. Spending time on minor tasks you can offload to an assistant, intern or temp will just prolong your day.
Work from biggest to smallest. If you start your day getting the most complex and time-consuming tasks out of the way, your jobs will get simpler as your attention and patience naturally wane. As a bonus, you’re probably most alert at the beginning of the day, which means those big tasks are more likely to get done correctly.
Learn to ask for a hand when you can’t figure it out. When we’re challenged, it’s natural to want to figure out the answer by ourselves. And you most likely will figure it out, eventually. But how much time did it take you? If someone in the room might already have the answer, you can save precious minutes (or hours!) spent on trial and error when you could have licked it and moved on. If you’ve spent more than ten minutes on a challenge with no progress, it’s time to ask around. And be prepared to do the same for others.
Organize your work. Don’t just pull a return off the pile and start on it. Organize them in a way that’s meaningful to you, whether that’s longest to shortest (or vice versa), those you can complete vs. those that will probably need an extension, or similar. When you break your work into like chunks, it’s easier to work efficiently; you won’t need to reset your thinking as drastically with each new task.
When you’re working, work. I know, duh, right? But think about it. How often do you let yourself get pulled into a conversation with someone, or get distracted by social media? Tell yourself that while you’re working, you’re going to focus on the task at hand. And when you take a break, you give that as much focus. Never should the two meet.
Of course, the ultimate way to work smarter is to take advantage of technology. If you wouldn’t take a horse and buggy to visit your aunt two states away, why would you do any task manually that can be automated?
The drudgery of bookkeeping tasks makes them one of the most dreaded—and most time-consuming—of all the many things an accountant needs to do. And if your firm has to put bookkeeping off in tax season, you know the frustration of getting caught up when season ends.
You can free up employees to work on higher-value advisory services, reduce overhead, and improve efficiency and accuracy by taking advantage of the world’s most powerful bookkeeping software, built specifically for firms. Plus, it can continue running the bookkeeping for you while you’re buried in tax season—which means no ugly catch-up.
And with the extra time you find, you can take more breaks, finish earlier and get closer to that elusive work/life balance we’ve all heard so much about.
Wouldn’t that be nice?