Diary management tips for busy accountants: how to take back control of your day

When you have a growing business, your time is always under threat. Whether it´s the firm’s really important client who will only speak with you, or a team member needing lots of support, someone always seems to need a piece of you. In this article, I share what works for me in terms of diary management. This is how I take back control of my time and stop feeling as if someone always wants a piece of me.


My story

When I first started my business, it was with the vision that I could do the school run every day. And for quite a few years, I did most of the morning school run drop-offs. That was until they started walking to school without me.

Those were the days when my diary was mostly empty, and I could just take most of the day off, if it was sunny, to ride my bike.

As my executive assistant and operations manager for the club, Alyson Pendlebury will now tell you, trying to get a full day free in my diary without 6 months' notice is nigh on impossible. Which kind of makes it almost impossible to take a cheeky day off on a whim just because the weather is nice. 

a man covering his ears and screamingWhat happened was that I got a little bit busier. This then became my norm. Then I got a little bit busier. This then became my norm. I then got a team around me, allowing me to take on more work. But some of the time I freed up was then needed to help the team. And I still got busier… In fact, my previous business partner pointed out to me many years ago that my ‘normal’ was most peoples´ flat-out busy. 

Then, this cycle repeated itself until I realised that working ‘flat out’ has become my norm. There is literally little or no time in my diary, making diary management tricky. I’m either doing something with the team OR working with clients, and time off has to be planned months in advance.

And it´s not just me either.

I see this pattern repeating itself in our members, especially when they first join the club. They often arrive overwhelmed and frazzled, with everyone wanting some of their time. 

From a personal perspective, this level of work activity just isn’t sustainable. At some point, working harder isn’t the answer. So, what is the answer at this point?

I can say for sure, that it´s definitely NOT about working smarter. Because if it was that easy to do, we would have all done it already! Saying work smarter or do a time management course is a little like putting a sticking plaster on a big gaping wound. It will help a little in the short term but is just covering up a much deeper problem. 

As a coach to many of our members, I know many ways to take control of your schedule and your time. However, knowing the answers is often not enough. After all, I know the answers, but am still working far too many hours! Being able to apply the answers normally takes discipline, awareness, courage and accountability.

Read: The 5Ps you need to always make time for business development


This is always a “work in progress”

loading to represent how to get control of your scheduleIt’s tempting to think that there is this utopia. That, when you get there, your diary will be magically organised, with plenty of time for you to do what you want to do. The reality, however, is that this is always going to be a work in progress. After all, if you are like me, as soon as your time frees up in one part of your life, you just fill it with other things.

The key here is to realise that to take control of your schedule, you need to work at it consistently. After all, it’s so easy to let good intentions and a desire to deliver great client service drag you back into working within the business. Or stopping you from having enough time to work ON the business.


The work-in-work-on trap

When you are growing your firm from £50k to £500k, you are at risk of falling into the Work-In-Work-On (WIWO) Trap. You can fall into the WIWO trap at any point in your business life, but it is much more common when your team numbers are under 10 people.

The WIWO Trap was first discussed in our book ‘The Accountants’ Millionaires’ Club’. It’s where something happens, such as a key team member leaving or a run of good fortune with winning work, and the firm owner gets pulled back into the business. Whilst initially it may feel good to be ‘back on the tools again’, it doesn’t take long before frustration sets in. After all, being pulled back into the business may be good for your ego, but it hampers the growth of your practice.

Read: 4 ways to carve out 8 hours a week to work ON your small accountancy firm


Why does your time come under so much pressure?

Feeling that everyone wants a piece of you is often a function of where your firm is with its growth - it’s not because you have made a mistake or are being too nice! Although those things can contribute to your situation, it is more likely linked to the growth stage of your firm.

Until you can get fee earners to take the lead in a client relationship, every new client win means more time is needed from you. At some point in your firm’s growth journey, this will become unsustainable. But what got you here may not help you get to the next stage of your business growth. For example, you may believe that your firm is winning clients because they like the personal service they get from you personally. We have several members who joined the club with this belief. While they may be true, eventually, you will have to reduce the number of clients you personally manage. Otherwise, you will always find that everyone wants a piece of you.

sand timer to represent dairy managementWhen you start hiring your first few team members, you will typically hire inexperienced or part-time team members. After all, your profit margin is probably unable to sustain a full-time qualified accountant. But by not paying top dollar for your new team members, you will have to spend more time developing them. This is likely to be time-consuming, keeping you working long hours. After all, when you have answered all your teams’ and clients’ questions and queries, you still have to do your own client work. Often the only time for this is early mornings, evenings and weekends.

In the early days, every team member will report to you. This brings with it lots of ‘red’ type activities (See article for more about the Red/Black/Blue model.) I.e. activities not directly related to generating revenue but the cost of being in business. As your team grows, what happens organisationally is you become the hub in the middle of a wheel, and your team, clients and suppliers are at the end of the spokes. They all need to come to you for a decision for anything to progress. This is why it can feel like everyone needs a piece from you. The solution is to restructure your firm and start to develop a leadership team.

Often when you start your firm, you take on voluntary positions. These can be for purely personal reasons or to help you grow your profile to attract new business. When it becomes known that you are an accountant, the treasurer position comes your way. Having these voluntary positions always takes up time. Time which you once had when your practice was small, but don’t have now. Very often, if you are going to get the time to work on the business, you need to take a long hard look at these voluntary positions. Which ones are still a good fit, and which must be ditched? For example, for me, it was the local netball club. I no longer had the time or energy to coach a year group, manage the adult team, and play once or twice a week.


How to take control of your schedule

There is so much information out there on how to free up your time, but the trick is to find what works for you and focus on the few that matter. From working with many accountants over the years, here are 5 things that work for the majority of our members.

1. Work out what you are there to do

Recently I had to put on my big girl pants and have a difficult conversation. I am often seen as the route to market services to our members. I accept that this is part of the role I play. But sometimes, the balance between myself, the club members and a partnership with a supplier can become wrong. This is what was happening: it started to feel like my role was to supply warm leads to a supplier, so I had to toughen up and say no.

A good way of working out what you are there to do is to write your job description for your role if you are to achieve the next growth stage. Then, when you have written this job description, compare it to what you are doing now. When I did this exercise, it was illuminating, and it’s the same every time I ask our members to do this exercise.


2. Remember that every time you say ‘yes’ to something, you are having to say ‘no’ to something else

a woman looking at two different pathsThis is such a powerful reminder that our time is truly limited. Of course, all the good stuff happens when you say ‘yes’. But every time you say yes to something, you are basically saying ‘no’ to something else. Or, even worse, you get overwhelmed and end up letting someone down later when you can’t deliver on time or to the required quality.

When you know what you are there to do, it is easier to say no to the wrong things. For example, I was invited to a party at the opposite end of the country. Whilst I would love to be there, I know I can’t afford to take 2 days out of my diary to travel there and back.


3. Reconnect with your ‘why’

Every time I start to feel overwhelmed, I tend to flirt with the possibility of stopping the growth of my business where it is. After all, wouldn’t it be much easier to stop the ‘scale’ part of running my business? But each time I flirt with this possibility, I am reminded of why I am doing what I am doing. This timely reminder is all I need to work out how to manage my time differently.

Read: How to re-find your desire to grow your small accountancy firm


4. Identify what mindsets and behaviours you have which are contributing to your current situation

For the first 8 years of running my business, I didn’t want to scale it to the point where I had a team. In those years, I discovered that I was energised about winning new work and being seen in the marketplace as THE expert. Back then, my value and identity were tied to being the biggest fee earner in the business.

If I am honest, I still see my role as the biggest fee earner in the business. However, now I am consciously having to change my mindset about where I add the most value going forward. We often see our members feeling guilty about shifting from the most chargeable to the least chargeable in the business, but a lot of the time, this is a necessary shift if you want to grow.

Whereas my mindset about needing to be the ‘provider’ for the business is hampering the growth of our business, you may have other limiting mindsets. For example:

  • Not trusting your team enough to delegate anything more than the simple stuff.
  • Believing that you need to work more hours than anyone else in the business to prove your worth to your team - this is more common than you think. 
  • Enjoying the technical work, so keeping your hand in the work for longer than is actually needed.


5. Work with a coach

a handshakeUltimately if you are going to get back in control of your time and not feel as if everyone wants a piece of you, you will need to make some changes. These may be related to your mindset, behaviours, or day-to-day habits, and it will take discipline, bravery and accountability to change them.

For many of us, we need external help to make such changes and increase our chances of success. But not all coaches are created equal!

A good coach - such as one of our Growth Specialists - will help you explore what needs to change, help you outline the steps you need to take, and then give you the accountability to make things happen and to ensure you don´t slip back into old habits and behaviours.


Get more time AND grow your practice

It´s easier said than done, but this really is it. To take control of your time, and ensure you´re working on the right tasks that will grow your business, you need to be strict with your diary management. Outline what you need to do and what others can do, create boundaries for what you take on, identify self-limiting beliefs and behaviours, and start working with a coach. You´ll soon start to feel like you´re control of your own schedule again, plus you´ll see your practice soar as a result.

Ready to kick-start the growth of your firm?