• Guest Author

Focus vs. Fire‐Drills

A lot of mornings, I wake up at 6:15, prompted by my 3‐year‐old to please (if I’m lucky) make him a glass of chocolate milk and some toast—but not until I turn on a cartoon. I clunk like a zombie down the stairs, pull up a DVR’d episode of the Ninja Turtles, and hope my boy doesn’t notice that I turn my attention to the coffee pot before the chocolate milk.

With breakfast served, I head back up the stairs to get dressed—often passing my wife like a ship in the night as she carries our 1‐year‐old downstairs to start their day.

I dress, hug the family, take a coffee to go, and begin my commute—never quite sure which side of 8:30 my slacks will finally hit my office chair—but knowing once they do, I’ll begin my daily dance with competing to‐do‐lists, calls, emails, sticky notes and status checks, meeting requests and memos, friendly banter and fire drills.

As I evaluate one of my to‐do lists and select an item that can be completed between scheduled appointments, I find it physically difficult to flip the switch from a fast‐paced morning of multi‐tasking to a period of calm, focused work. Sometimes I settle into my focused mindset, only to be interrupted by a buzzing phone or walk‐in. After tending to the distraction, I have to start all over.

As the day draws to a close, I set out to complete my timesheet before I go home. I worked 9 hours but can only account for 5 of them, and that can’t be right… so I look over my to‐do list to see what I crossed off. Amazingly, my list did not shrink at all. I crossed off two items but added four more—and I also started a new list on a clean sheet of paper… not sure why that was necessary.

I’m still missing time, so I open Outlook to scroll through sent and received messages to see who I interacted with. In doing so, I notice a batch of emails I hadn’t read yet, so I respond to a few and flag a few more for later. One of the emails was a meeting request, so I check tomorrow’s calendar and create a reminder to do meeting prep in the morning. I glance at the clock and realize I just burned 40 minutes and it’s my night to cook dinner. I decide I can finish time entry in the morning (side note: I forget… and I’m on tomorrow’s naughty list). I run out the door and put pressure on myself to have a solid day tomorrow. Disappointed and feeling anxious, I head home to my family, probably not primed to be the best version of Dad this evening.

Truthfully, this used to be a fairly standard summary of my daily routine. Even more truthfully, it remains so more than I care to admit now. If this doesn’t feel familiar to you, keep doing what you’re doing! But if it does, you’re not alone. I truly believe this pattern is common among those in public accounting, and while the solution, or even the desired outcome, may differ from one person to the next, firms have to acknowledge the cumulative negative impact of the general lack of control that creeps into our routines. Recently, while reading Leaders Eat Last by Malcolm Gladwell, I learned of a study geared toward evaluating whether senior executives are more prone to heart disease given their (hypothesized) higher levels of stress. The study essentially showed no correlation between job rank and heart disease, noting instead that the common stress trigger, and thus a shared trait among heart disease sufferers was a lack of control over their work day. The perpetual feeling that even if a person knows what he or she needs to be doing, other forces dictate what actually gets done. If we start thinking about focus, organization, and discipline as key teachable skills that require training and development, we can effectively deal with the stress that is triggered by this type of day. At a recent conference with Boomer Consulting, we discussed this issue and how to combat it. Here are some key points:

  • Organize your workspace. Not every space has to be sterile, but find a layout and a system that helps you work effectively, and remember that clutter begets clutter.

  • Choose a medium for “capturing” the things you need to accomplish.

  • We track projects in Practice CS

  • Consider tracking deadlines on a calendar or in a planner

  • Keep miscellaneous reminders and notes in a note pad or digital app

  • Set and track personal goals on a spreadsheet

  • Using your “capture” system, document clear goals

  • Can be daily

  • Should be monthly/quarterly/annually

  • Schedule time to intentionally review and plan for your goals

  • Incorporate professional goals into coaching sessions

  • Re‐evaluate your daily routine

  • Consider time each morning to center yourself through exercise, reading, or simple doing some deep breathing

  • Avoid feeling rushed

  • View your day in 60‐90 minute blocks and fill each block with something intentional, even if it’s general, like “email” or “return calls”

  • Schedule your distractions

  • Errands, interruptions, etc. are inevitable and should be planned for

  • Practice not being distracted – even if you have to be “mean” about it

  • We all have things we need un‐interrupted time for, and it’s ok to insist on having that time during normal work hours

  • Turn off email notifications

  • Close email entirely during focus time

  • Put your phones in do not disturb mode

  • Take a lunch break and clear your head

In addition, we also discussed several “hacks” to increase our ability to focus:

  • Again, disable all visual and audible email alerts on your computer and phone. Reading emails upon receipt is crippling and unnecessary.

  • Consider closing email entirely and opening only your Outlook calendar.

  • Set your IM status to “busy” when you need to focus.

  • Use the blue/green name plates on your door to minimize office interruptions—and kindly hold your team accountable for respecting it.

  • Be respectful of others’ time, so they return the favor.

None of these tools are earth shattering, but this problem does not require extremely innovative solutions. In 2019, when communication, reaction, and cries for our attention are constant, we simply have to be reasonable with the expectations we set for email, phone, accessibility, and feedback. We also have to be disciplined enough to build routines that keep us in manageable positions. Finally, we have to work together to strike the right balance between collaborative work and individual focus time. If we hold ourselves accountable for using these tools and remember that single‐tasking is far more productive than juggling, we can gain control over our routines, stress less, and fill our calendars with high‐satisfaction days.

Adam Wolfe, CPA is a Partner at Wilson Toellner CPA