Della Hudson draws on her triathlon training experience to physically and mentally prepare for the busy self assessment tax return season.
No matter how much preparation we do and how much we nag and chase clients throughout the year, tax return season always seems to be upon us before we are really ready. This year I did an iron distance triathlon. Whilst the physical side is quite tough it is mainly an exercise in mental strength, and it taught me a lot about how to handle relentless, busy periods of work.
As with triathlon, you will be at your strongest mentally if you are in good physical shape. Build time into your week for exercise (at whatever level is appropriate), sleep and proper food.
Food is particularly important for me with a young family, so I either cook ahead for the freezer or stock up on healthy ready meals. This means that I’m less inclined to eat junk food because I’m too tired to cook.
I’m a real comfort eater so I also keep lots of snacks on hand to ward off the chocolate cravings. Popcorn and rice cakes make healthy alternatives to crisps, while dried fruit or pre-chopped fresh fruit are a good alternative to sweets. As we get closer to the deadline, cakes, chocolate and bacon butties creep into the office but at least we’ve made a good start.
I know that if I work long hours I become less and less productive, so I try to keep to my normal sleep routine. I find that fresh air and exercise help my brain to unwind enough for a good night’s sleep most of the time. Some people use meditation techniques to achieve the same thing, so experiment in plenty of time to find what helps you to sleep well.
Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night as I remember something, so I make a quick note of it on my phone (yes, I’m one of those addicts who sleeps with their phone by the bedside!) which usually allows me to get back to sleep having captured the idea. If I can’t get back to sleep, then I’ll often get up and work anyway with the intention of finishing earlier to compensate.
Arrange your day
Once you’ve taken care of the physical things, it’s a case of arranging the work to suit your best working hours. If I come across anything tricky towards the end of the day I leave it until I can check it the next day. I’ve learned my lesson from sending out work completed in a hurry when I’m tired. As far as possible we try to complete the bigger tax returns earlier in the year so that the work gets easier as we become more tired. Obviously, this relies on the tax return information coming in as you request it.
My major stress comes not from the volume of work, but the fear of missing a deadline. Remember that your client is responsible for ensuring that their tax return is submitted on time (it’s probably in your engagement letter). In practice, we know that they rely on us to remind them.
During the year we chase each client three times, then check our jobs list in September before sending a final email telling tardy clients that, if we don’t have everything by the end of October, they are in danger of missing the deadline. As I don’t expect to remind my own kids about things that are this obvious, I am satisfied that this is sufficient for adults, so I don’t stay awake at night fretting about clients who haven’t bothered to respond to our fourth, fifth or even sixth reminder.
Many accountants stress about clients who haven’t yet sent in information, so decide for yourself when you feel that enough chasing is enough. Even though we keep chasing we add these clients to our ‘D’ list to deal with in the new year. The only exception last year was a new client who had cancer, so we worked flat out to submit on time, although he may have had a reasonable excuse for lateness due to his illness.
There are various ways of dealing with clients who provide information late. Increasing your fees after a certain date may make you more cash, but still leaves you with the hassle of overtime. From the beginning of December, we prioritise work in the order in which we receive it. We generally don’t penalise clients but warn them that they may be late and remind them that it is their responsibility.
After the deadline, we sit down with our list of ‘D’ clients to decide whether:
- they can be trained to bring things in earlier next year;
- we could speed up the process by improving their bookkeeping through training or by taking it in-house; or
- sadly, we have to let them go.
When we let clients go we try to refer them to other local accountants who are more flexible on working overtime in January, and we provide information promptly to make this transition as smooth as possible. All remaining clients go onto the job list for the next year’s tax return season and their first reminder in May.
How do you keep yourself motivated during tax return season?
About Della Hudson
Della Hudson was part of the class of 2009. She built up Hudson Business Accountants and Advisers from her kitchen table to a small team of flexible workers with independent premises in Nailsea, near Bristol. The firm ran regular Money Matters seminars and other training and webinars. Della sold the firm in 2017 in order to focus on the business consultancy side and to write her first business book