Time management: Start with your inbox

Robert Lovell
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Following their first session on practice structure, mentor Russell Smith moved on to practical tips to help Tim Charles deal with his time management and efficiency issues.

Smith kicked off by asking Charles how many hours a week he worked and found that he had a fairly irregular work pattern.

“I’m not sure”, Charles said. “As I'm working from home I dip in and out. I've got a young baby, so after he's gone to bed I might do a late shift, say 7pm until 1am, particularly if I felt I hadn't done enough during the day.”

Looking at how long he deals with each client might focus his mind on the whole thing, Smith suggested. He explained that the real goal, in addition to increasing profits and decreasing the number of clients, was increasing the amount of time you get back.

“You've got every chance of doing it, because you're giving good service and you've got a lot of people coming to your website,” the mentor said.

Charles promised to start completing a timesheet to analyse the time spent on each client.

Smith moved on to efficiency: “If you got an output everyday of say 100 [not pounds], everything that we talk about now can improve your efficiency.

“I can probably get your efficiency to around 120 or maybe 130, but if you're talking to the best time management expert in the world, they're never going to get you past 150. As an accountant your output is never going to be 50% of what it is.”

He added that with the right team or systems in place, it could be 100,000 a day. “So you are confined by the fact that you are just one person,” Smith said.

“Do you like doing chargeable work?” he continued.

“I don't mind it,” was the response, “but I much prefer client care and client management.”

Smith said small practitioners are in a business where most of their time had to be devoted to production of the work.

“But actually what you really love is the people contact,” Smith said.

“Presumably you like talking about the numbers and the accounts; it's not that you don't want to do accounting, you like that aspect of it - that's potentially a big issue for you because even if we make you hugely efficient, if everything about you is 'actually I just want to speak to people'. So sitting in a room doing a tax return and accounts might not float your boat."

Smith acknowledged that it can be difficult for him to discipline himself to get his head down to do a large amount of work.

It would be “one to dwell on” and that the next time he does a tax return or a set of accounts, to ask himself, would he rather be with a client?

Moving on, Smith asked how often he checked emails. “It's on constantly,” replied Charles.

Smith advised that the first thing would be to take the ping off: “You need quiet, and with that ping going off that's hugely distracting.”

He then asked how he read his emails. “As an email addict, we don't want to go cold turkey, but we want to be looking at starting to fast your email time,” Smith said.

“Maybe check your emails four or three times a day and the goal should be you looking at your emails once a day really.”

He explained that there are two ways of looking at emails - going down the prioritisation route so you go into emails and answer the things that really need to be answered. Or you basically clear your inbox every time you open your emails.

Charles replied that he dreamed of clearing his inbox: “It would be like a weight, just saying that word, would be off my mind.”

With 400 emails to clear Smith said it was achievable.

Charles quipped that maybe he shouldn't read all the AccountingWEB Any Answers, because they take “ages to read”. However, he added, “The thing is I learn so much and benefit so much from AccountingWEB, so sometimes it can take me an hour just to clear the Any Answers.

Smith replied that he didn’t have to action everything in those emails, but just get them out of the email inbox. He also advised setting up an AccountingWEB sub-folder and reading them at his leisure.

“The key thing is the clear inbox, it does seem like you need to have some time to go through 400 emails. The issue is, once we clear it, in a weeks’ time it might come back and be even more cluttered,” Smith said.

He went on to advise checking emails three or four times a day, but clearing the inbox every time, to which Charles committed to action.

Speaking about his own system, Smith said he doesn’t respond to everyone, but rather only responds to people he want to: “I'm quite happy to ignore emails and that doesn't bother me at all. I won't ignore client emails and I won’t ignore emails from my team, but there will be people who want to speak to me by email who I will happily ignore.”

Smith also added that using the phone can close down queries a lot quicker. “In my team I always encourage them to phone clients rather than email, unless the client specifically likes email,” he said.

The next suggestion was a to-do list. Charles currently keeps a page-per-day diary and writes a list of clients whose work needs to be done that week.

Smith said that it doesn't really matter where the to-do list is written, but it's what works for you.

“The key thing is that you do do one” he said. “If you write the to-do list the night before your efficiency will go up the day after. I call it ‘cashing out’ at 5.15pm.”

For 15 minutes Smith writes a task list for the next day and also writes when he’s going to do stuff.

He added that it's whatever works for you: "But it's important to start the discipline of actually doing it. Many of the points of action seem simple, but are actually quite difficult to see through”.

Keep tuned for the next instalment where we catch up with Smith and Charles to see how the changes were implemented.

About Robert Lovell

Business and finance journalist


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    By pawncob
    02nd Nov 2012 12:31

    Don't read junk mail

    Start ignoring junk mail from Accountingweb.

    Thanks (0)
    02nd Nov 2012 13:55


    I'm a great believer in timesheets so I totally agree with Russell but I am amazed by the number of accountants and marketing people who say that they don't use them. I've seen people say

    that they take too long to complete (it's a timesheet - not a book),

    people lie (sack them), and

    an accountant is not selling time (a timesheet is in indication of cost - it helps to know how much profit you are making per job).

    Thanks (0)
    to lionofludesch
    02nd Nov 2012 14:26


    I totally agree that timesheets are useful for recording the profit made on a job but, as a basis for billing, they have no place in the accounting profession at all.

    Thanks (0)
    02nd Nov 2012 17:13


    I'll quote for a job but if the client hasn't done what is agreed and is incapable of correcting the problem I charge on the basis of my time to correct matters. I don't know what the exact cause the problem is - say they can't reconcile the bank - then it's fairer to charge for my time.

    Thanks (0)
    05th Nov 2012 10:08


    I keep hearing about people against keeping timesheets. I understand this for routine compliance work but what about other ad hoc tasks for clients such as tax planning, general financial advice, dealing with tax enquiries etc. Surely a lot of what Accountants do can only be measured by "time"?

    Thanks (0)
    05th Nov 2012 10:13

    Pricing and profits

    An accountant can always take a stab at a price and quote that in advance.

    Sometimes it may be too much and other times it may be too low. Keeping a timesheet would at least provide useful information for quoting in the future.

    Thanks (0)
    05th Nov 2012 11:11


    I personally think time sheets are an essential management tool for internal and external use. How can you monitor staff or your own performance if you cannot record how you use your time. Chargeable time is money that as a client I insist to know what my accountant has charged and who has actioned my tasks. I do not need a Partner doing my book-keeping at £150.00 per hour when it can be done for £20.00. If the partner selects to do my bookkeeping I would not pay more than £20.00 a hour. If you cannot prove the time taken on a job do not expect your client to pay. I wouldn't and I like it is unprofessional not to justify your time.  Where are accountants ethics!

    Thanks (0)