May I ask you a personal question? Do you feel like your job description is “last-minute issue tackler”? You are not alone. As the filing deadline is fast approaching, more and more tax preparers feel that there are not enough hours in the day to get it all done. Throw in the interruptions – a phone call from a client, a question from a staff member, a jammed photocopier– and you’ve got an already busy day spinning out of control.

How did this happen? Well, you probably started with a commitment to excellent client service. That is what sets you apart, and keep the clients happy. You added a commitment to train your staff and help them grow. That commitment gets you great team members, and keeps them happy. With all this “happy” going around, seems like the only person who is not happy is you!

But that call only lasted 5 minutes, you might say! Your staff might not have been able to keep moving through the return had you not addressed that question right away. And only you have a special golden touch with the finicky photocopier! I hear you. Your desire to provide top-notch customer service and staff support is commendable. However, when it morphs into overtime, overload, and inability to focus, you are of no service to your clients or your staff. I am not advocating that you abandon your clients, or leave your staff people to fend for themselves. Nor am I recommending following a knee-jerk urge to respond to everything – personally, immediately and indiscriminately. I am challenging you to walk the middle way: to make a conscious decision, during this busy time, to accept the interruption – or not, however you choose, after weighing the pros and the cons.

Consider this: all tasks, big and small, require set-up and mental switching-of-gears. When you are interrupted, you lose your momentum and concentration, and it might take you 10 minutes to half an hour to get back to that state of “flow”. Add up the effect of all interruptions ­­­throughout the day, and think about what you could accomplish if you had that time available for productive work!

Here are three steps to re-claim that lost time.

1. Create your working space.

Set up “protected” time blocks when you would like to work without interruption. Choose the times when you are naturally most productive or least likely to be interrupted – early morning might work for some, late afternoon for others.

Once the “protected” time blocks are selected, tell people about them. If your normal routine is to have an open door policy in the office, and to answer your phone every time it rings, let your staff and clients know that this busy time is requiring a temporary change. Here are some ideas:

  • Set up an automated e-mail response along the lines of this example, adapted from “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss: “Hello, Due to the upcoming deadline and high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mails twice a day: at 11 AM EST and at 3 PM EST. If you require urgent assistance that cannot wait until 11 AM or 3 PM, please contact me on my cell phone at 888-888-8888. Thank you for understanding. This move helps me accomplish more to serve you better.”
  • Set up a similar voicemail on your work phone. Tell the caller that you will call them back the next time you check your voicemails.
  • Put up a sign on your door that requests no interruptions during your “protected” work time.
  • If your electronic schedule is shared with the rest of the office, block off the desired time on your calendar as unavailable.
  • Train your staff or assistant to be your gatekeeper. Enroll them in protecting your time – this will make them less likely to be “time thieves” themselves!

This is probably a big change for you, so expect it to feel scary at first. If you are worried about not being able to respond to an urgent development, offer your cell phone number so people can reach you for immediate assistance.

2.  Guard your working space.

Despite all you have done to set up “protected” work time, there will probably be interruptions. A few will be genuinely urgent. Most will be routine questions that could have waited, but were asked out of habit. Define acceptable reasons for an interruption (i.e. building on fire), and divert all others. Clarity and consistency will help, as your clients and staff members begin to think through the true nature of their request (is it really urgent – or just recently arisen?

3. Use your working space.

Be clear on what you want to get done. Having a specific project or milestone in mind will help you focus. If you go into your office to finish the tax return for Mr. Smith, you will know exactly what you are picking up, and likely emerge with a sense of completion – not so if you go in with a vague idea “to get a few things wrapped up”, and spend half an hour figuring out what “things” look like.

Take care of your immediate needs. Have healthy snacks and water close by your desk to ward off the “I-need-to-go-get-a-snack-now” monster.

Last but not least, do your best to shut off all distractions. Resist the urge to check voicemails and e-mails during your “protected” work time in an effort to guard your concentration and “flow”. The commitment to limit your e-mail and voicemail checks to twice a day may feel terrifying at first. Thoughts of emergency scenarios, lost clients, and missed important requests will probably cross your mind. However, I challenge you to test drive this for a day! True emergencies are exceedingly rare. Most interruptions can wait 3-4 hours with no major damage. As Doug Autenrieth put it in “Grow on Purpose”, to the greatest degree possible, do only the things that only you can do. Delegate the rest, and carefully guard your time.