Busy season CPAs: 5 steps to recovery

By Natalia Autenrieth

Busy season… Say it to a room full of CPAs and you get a round of all-knowing nods in return. “Busy season” is like a secret code: to those in-the-know, it stands for long hours at the office, mad dash to the deadline, poor team morale, and missed family gatherings. Many CPAs have resigned themself to trudging through 5 months out of the year, and feel there is not a lot they can do to change their predicament. After all, the common agreement seems to be that you have surrendered quality of life at the door in exchange for that CPA license to hang on your office wall.

Allow me to let you in on a big secret. The common agreement is wrong. You have been fooled. The busy-season staples of eating from vending machines, staying in the office until 1 AM, and missing your child’s Saturday football game are fundamentally flawed for one simple reason – they are not sustainable. You may be telling yourself that you are making sacrifices for the benefit of your clients, your boss, or your family – and yet I challenge you to think again.

Let us start with a simple premise: doing the high-quality, thoughtful, demanding work that you pride yourself on takes energy. That energy has to come from somewhere. If your priority is to be of great service – to your clients, your team, and your family – does it not make sense to focus on the factors that allow you to perform at your peak ability?

You may not think of yourself as an elite athlete, but what you are trying to accomplish during busy season is not all that different from running a marathon, except your ultra-long distance race lasts longer than one day. Would you advise a professional athlete to live on a diet of M&M’s and espresso, and to pull all-nighters for several weeks leading up to a big competitive event? If not, why would you choose that strategy for yourself?

This is the year to try a different approach. Here are five things you can do today to set yourself up for a more sustainable busy season. They may look deceptively simple. You may even be tempted to dismiss them as too basic. They are, however, so fundamental that I recommend you build your habits around them now. Come January, you will be in for the best busy season of your career!

Here are five ideas to try, adapted from “Grow on Purpose: The Nine Disciplines of Sustainable Growth” by Doug Autenrieth.

1. Pay attention to your diet.

You don’t need complex formulas or rules.

  • Choose natural foods, simply prepared, as they are most nourishing. If you must have commercially prepared foods, pick ones with ingredients that you can pronounce.
  • Combining protein with carbs is the secret key to extending the energy burn.
  • Small meals eaten every 3-4 hours will keep you going without the subsequent crash. Try scheduling regular snack times into your daily planner!
  • Watch your intake of stimulants – if you are tired, your body needs rest, not another espresso.

Willpower, attention, and focus all run on blood sugar. To be blunt, by skipping meals, or eating highly processed foods out of a vending machine, you are doing a disservice to your clients.

2. Allow yourself to rest.

Continuous strain without a period of rest and recovery leads to break-down and is not constructive. This includes long hours in the office. Be honest with yourself: are you genuinely productive at the end of a 14-hour work day, or just active?

Rest comes in many forms. Sleep. Nap. Walk outside. Do all three and come up with more! If doing all that seems dramatic, start with small steps that are an improvement over your “normal” – resolve to leave the office a half hour earlier than you typically would. Take a half hour lunch break outside the office.

Going without adequate rest during a demanding time inevitably means that your best performance remains out of reach. Want to make better decisions and be more productive? Get a good night’s sleep and take breaks.

3. Create time for exercise.

Physical movement can provide a great re-set and a welcome respite. It keeps your body fluid, flexible, and healthy. It can offer a different prospective. This step is easiest if you choose an activity you enjoy – in other words, don’t commit to daily jogging if running is not your thing. Try biking, swimming, yoga or kick-boxing instead. Once you have found something that works for you, continue to show up for training regularly.

4. Build in some mental stimulation (not of the accounting variety).

The work that you do in the office can be challenging, but you also need a different kind of mental stimulation. Think of things outside your work that lift you up, challenge you, fascinate you, and provide a creative outlet. That could mean resurrecting a hobby, having a stimulating conversation in a local coffee shop, experimenting with a new recipe in the kitchen, or coloring with your child. I like to cook. What do you look forward to?

5. Choose a spiritual practice. Then practice!

You may think of yourself as a spiritual person – or not. You may belong to a religious community. You may be an atheist. No matter where you are on that scale, connecting with yourself and the world around you can be a source of energy. Whether it is prayer, meditation, or fishing – find something that connects you to the rest of the creation, and make that your practice. If you think you are too busy for meditation, you’ve got it backwards. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, if you have much to do, you better meditate twice as long.

These practices are about self-care. They are not selfish. Think you don’t have the luxury to take care of yourself during your busiest time? You don’t have the luxury not to. If you expect exceptional performance, resolve to take exceptional care of yourself first.

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