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Time management for accountants.

While Benjamin Franklin is credited with coining the phrase "time is money" in the 1700s, it appears to have reached its peak popularity in the 1980s. There is probably no group of professionals who identified with this slogan more closely than public accountants. Unfortunately, in a competitive world where fees are based on billable hours, many accountants took the slogan too seriously. They focused their attention so intently on how they were spending their time that they failed to consider the more strategic question of how they should have been spending their time.

This phenomenon may explain why many accountants were never able to reach their full career potential. They may have been successful, some even rising to the rank of partner--but somehow they were never able to be all they could have been. They worked hard--but all to often they worked hard at the wrong things.

This article encourages accountants to step into the 90s, to look beyond their appointment books, daily planners and electronic calendars. It suggests that accountants consider time not only in terms of efficiency but also in terms of effectiveness.

The Time Management Matrix

A two-by-two time management matrix can be used to describe how individuals spend time. The two parameters that bind the matrix are urgency and importance. Urgent matters are those things that demand immediate attention. A ringing telephone, a knock on your door or a voice calling your name are examples of urgency. Most people would interrupt whatever they were doing to respond to any of these urgency queues.

Urgent matters may or may not be important. Importance is concerned with results. For example, in a specific accounting practice, a matter would be considered important to the extent it contributes to the accomplishment of the goals and objectives of that practice. Based on these two parameters, time usage can be classified into one of four quadrants as depicted in Figure 1.

Quadrant IV: Not Important, Not Urgent

Quadrant IV is the obvious enemy of effective time management. Even so, on an occasional basis, all accountants are likely to engage in activities that are neither urgent nor important. Quadrant IV provides an escape from the stress and exhaustion that can accompany the more taxing duties of the other quadrants.

In a recent issue of PC Magazine, Michael J. Miller disclosed the secret screen phenomenon. If a certain set of unlikely key strokes is pressed in some computer applications, a clever visual effect giving credit to the application's programmers will appear on the computer screen. Creating these secret screens takes developer time and wastes some degree of computer memory. Finding the screens consumes the time of the curious end user. While both creating and finding the screens represent activities that are not urgent or important, people continue to engage in them. The draw comes from the fact that the activities are fun and interesting.

Since we all need the rest and relaxation offered by the refreshing Quadrant IV activities, they are likely to persist. Accordingly, the objective is not to eliminate but to exercise appropriate control over Quadrant IV activities. While an occasional break is healthy, too much time devoted to this area leads to boredom, irresponsibility and a level of productivity that can ultimately result in the termination of employment. Accordingly, Quadrant IV activities must be controlled.

To a large extent, control of Quadrant IV activities can be accomplished through awareness. Schedule breaks with specific starting and stopping times. Plan for health-enhancing down-time. Include healthy snacks in your briefcase not only to sustain your energy level but also to keep you away from the vending machines and the extended conversations that tend to develop in the break room. Plan brief stretching or other low profile exercises.

Being aware of your idle time can also help you attain an appropriate level of respect for others who are engaged in productive time. Killing time by visiting with others effectively doubles the wasted time. Not only are you engaging in Quadrant IV activities yourself but you are also forcing your coworkers to do so. If you make a habit of avoiding this type of activity, your coworkers are likely to extend to you the same courtesy of not interrupting your productive time.

Quadrant III: Urgent, Not Important

Quadrant III activities include useless phone calls, unimportant committee meetings, junk mail, gossip and eavesdropping. These activities are urgent because they demand your immediate attention. You simply have to listen to office gossip while it's hot. Nobody is interested in yesterday's news. Since these activities are generally entertaining and interesting, they are hard to resist no matter how unimportant they may be.

The fact that many Quadrant III activities involve socialization makes them particularly difficult to avoid. Their avoidance requires not only awareness but also diplomacy. Telling a friend you are too busy to talk, refusing to join in the planning of an office party, walking past the Monday morning discussion of the weekend's sporting events, avoiding the heated philosophical argument going on just outside your door and turning a deaf ear to the latest gossip not only causes you to miss a good time but also may offend your friends and co-workers who are seeking your participation.

Much of the time management literature is directed toward helping people minimize their Quadrant III activities. For example, Roy Alexander, author of Commonsense Time Management, suggests that time-wasting drop-in visits can be reduced by using a modified open door policy that permits reasonable access by keeping your office door open during designated hours and closed otherwise. Further, conversations can be limited by setting specific time limits up front. Tell people upon entering, "I'm really interested in talking with you but I only have ten minutes." Then set your watch to go off in exactly ten minutes as a clear message for the uninvited drop-in that it is time to leave. Finally, standing up during the visit can reduce the duration of a visit and arranging your furniture to avoid eye contact with people who pass by your office may discourage uninvited guests from approaching you in the first place.

With regard to telephone interruptions, Michael LeBoeuf, author of Working Smart, suggests that phone messages be screened by secretaries or answering machines. He encourages the use of a three-minute hourglass to minimize the length of a conversation. As soon as the conversation starts, the hourglass should be turned over. The call should end before the last grain of sand drops to the bottom indicating that the allotted three minutes have passed. Incoming calls should be accumulated and return calls made at a designated time of day--preferably toward the end of the day. LeBoeuf notes that the motive to waste time on the telephone diminishes as the end of the work day approaches.

The consensus view of most time management consultants is that the essential ingredient in the avoidance of time wasters is the ability to say "no." Peter Drucker, internationally acclaimed management consultant, advises that "to get that half-day or those two weeks of really productive time requires self-discipline and an iron determination to say no." Michael LeBoeuf suggests that "your success at working smart depends on knowing what not to do. Master the ability of knowing how and when to say no, and half the battle is won." Similar advice can be found in a wide variety of time management manuals. Once the ability to say no to the time wasters has been accomplished, the question of what to do with the newly-acquired time emerges. Should it go to Quadrant II or Quadrant I?

Quadrant I: Urgent and Important

Most time management consultants in the 1980s suggested that tremendous improvements could be made in productivity by applying time saved through the reduction of Quadrant III activities to Quadrant I activities. There is a great deal of intuitive appeal to Quadrant I activities because they are both urgent and important. They seem to call out to you, "this must be done now." Alex Machenzie, a nationally-recognized time management consultant, advocates the use of a priority matrix to identify the urgent items that are important. He suggests these items as candidates for the highest priority when allocating time. Michael LeBoeuf echoes Machenzie's conclusions by imploring his readers to include an importance/urgency column in a daily log. LeBoeuf asks readers to ask themselves, "Am I doing tasks that are urgent and unimportant?" and, "How can they be reduced or eliminated?" There is little question that Quadrant I was the definitive focus of time management in the 80s.

While many individuals could see the validity of concentrating on Quadrant I, they simply failed to do so. They too often found themselves drifting back into Quadrant III and Quadrant IV activities. Many complained that they felt stifled by the regimen of time tables and "to do" lists. They argued that strict adherence to schedules limited their creativity and robbed them of their spontaneity. Others concluded that they simply lacked the will power to say no to the enticing activities of Quadrants III and IV.

Quadrant II: The Heart of Time Management

According to Stephen Covey, an internationally recognized personal effectiveness consultant, the ability to say "no" results from a burning commitment to a greater purpose. Covey writes: "You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage--pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically--to say 'no' to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger 'yes' burning inside... Keep in mind that you are always saying 'no' to something. If it isn't to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things."

Covey suggests that '90s time management, which he calls fourth generation time management, requires appropriate emphasis on Quadrant II activities. He concludes that while people often feel they lack the discipline or will power to accomplish their objectives, they in fact lack the commitment. Will power becomes increasingly strong as one's belief in the underlying purpose increases. Indeed, the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II attest to the fact that people are even willing to give up life itself if the cause of that sacrifice is deemed justifiable.

Accordingly, a lack of discipline suggests that Quadrant II activities have been neglected. It is in Quadrant II where time is spent on defining goals and objectives. If you do not truly believe in the importance of the goals you establish in Quadrant II, you are very likely to yield to the temptations of Quadrant III and IV activities.

Ernest Huban, former president of the Institute of Management Accountants, suggests that complaints regarding lack of time are frequently merely subterfuge for lack of personal commitment. Huban says that: "Managing your time means investing your time to accomplish what you decide is important. How often have you heard someone say, 'I don't have enough time.' The fact is we all have 24 hours a day. We spend that 24 hours a day on what we think is important. Perhaps to say 'I don't have enough time' means we don't give the particular job high priority."

Personal commitment has been credited with being the force that created the growth of Sam Walton's corporate empire. In his book, Made in America, Walton's first rule of business is commitment. He advises his readers as follows:

"Commit to your business. Believe in it more than anybody else. I think I overcame every single one of my personal shortcomings by the sheer passion I brought to my work. I don't know if you're born with this kind of passion or if you learn it. But I do know you need it. If you love your work, you'll be out there every day trying to do it the best you possibly can, and pretty soon everybody around will catch the passion from you like a fever."

Establishing Purpose and Reducing Urgency

It is hard to overestimate the importance of spending enough time in Quadrant II. In addition to establishing purpose, Quadrant II activities include time spent on efforts to prevent or reduce the urgency associated with Quadrant I activities. Often the urgent and important items can be delegated to others. Delegation is a Quadrant II activity.

Training is also a Quadrant II activity. While it is rarely urgent, proper training can make significant improvements in productivity, thereby reducing the time it takes to complete level one activities and improving overall performance.

The activities associated with building helpful personal relationships with clients and suppliers also fall into Quadrant II. Indeed, most practice development activities are Quadrant II activities.

The results of devoting an appropriate amount of time to Quadrant II activities include the development of a sense of purpose, stress reduction and greater satisfaction. These nonmaterial rewards are the recognized motivational drivers of the '90s work force. However, these rewards cannot be obtained if you deplete your energy by devoting your full attention to the urgent and important activities depicted in Quadrant I.

Accountants are particularly susceptible to being drawn from Quadrant II activities by the demands of Quadrant I activities. Time spent on reflection is not directly billable; therefore, it is perceived as lower priority time. Clients being charged by the hour seldom appreciate the picture of an accountant staring into space, whether or not he or she is engaged in a productive thought process. Also, career development predisposes accountants to Quadrant I activities.

Many of the tasks an accountant performs require efficiency, which is a Quadrant I measure. Peter Drucker notes that efficiency is concerned with doing things right, while effectiveness is doing the right things. In many circumstances the right things to do are predefined for accountants and the task at hand is to do them in the most efficient manner possible. Given a stack of tax returns, the question is not what to do but how can you get the job done quickly and accurately. Similarly, confirming receivables, counting inventory and many other auditing tasks require attention to efficiency.

In a profession where the cost of services is billed on the basis of time, productivity is driven by efficiency. With the constant demands of your daily activities requiring attention to efficiency, the investment in Quadrant II activities frequently gets overshadowed.

While it may be difficult, those accountants who have pulled away from the pressures of urgency to afford time for meaningful reflection have received significant benefits. For example, Ron Stewart reports on a crisis that his firm recently faced.

Stewart owns a small CPA practice with five associates. During the recent Gulf War, one of the associates and the husband of another were called to active duty. With one employee missing and another faced with the additional duties of running a household without the support of a spouse, Stewart was faced with a major employee shortfall in the middle of tax season. Stewart had serious doubts about whether his remaining staff could perform the necessary work on time and the consequences to his firm's reputation if they could not.

To his credit, Stewart and his staff weathered the crisis in admirable fashion. To his further credit, Stewart took the Quadrant II time necessary to assure that his firm would not have to face similar conditions again.

Stewart worked out a practice continuation agreement with a larger local firm. The agreement provided mutual benefits for both firms. Stewart was able to provide referrals and advice in exchange for access to a professional staff who developed specific knowledge about his particular practice. Indeed, a key employee of Stewart's big brother firm cross-trained by actually working in Stewart's practice for six months.

After the agreement was signed, Stewart was not only able to assure himself of an adequate labor pool in case of unforeseen shortages but he was also able to offer his clients a wider range of services through referrals to a firm about which he had intimate knowledge and great confidence. Accordingly, the Quadrant II activity provided a solution instead of a band-aid to the risks associated with operating a small CPA practice.

As Stewart's experience indicates, the practice of Quadrant II activities facilitates rather than constrains the practice of Quadrant I activities. Neglect of Quadrant II drains productivity capacity and thereby ultimately reduces efficiency as well as effectiveness. The wise accountant will seek to attain an appropriate balance between Quadrant I and Quadrant II activities. Effectiveness and efficiency are not competing measures of success. They are instead complementary measures. The '90s accountant knows that peak productivity occurs when you do the right job in the right way.
Time Management Matrix

 Urgent Urgent

Important Quadrant I Quadrant II
Important Quadrant III Quadrant IV

Cindy D. Edmonds is an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She received her PhD from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Society of Public Accountants
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Edmonds, Cindy D.
Publication:The National Public Accountant
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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