Thrive — don’t just survive — this busy season: 3 tips to coach yourself to the finish line
Note: this article was originally published in the Minnesota Society of CPAs Public Practice e-Newsletter.
No matter what your role is, the first few months of the year are likely to be crunch time for one reason or another. If you’re in public accounting, April 18 marks the finish line for the annual race known as tax season. For CPAs in industry, the finish line may be closing your year-end, completing the audit, or filing quarterly reports if you have a year-end other than Dec. 31.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get caught up in survival mode this time of the year. But don’t settle for mere survival this year. Instead, use these three self-coaching techniques to thrive during your busy season.
1. Revisit your ‘Big Why’
One approach to thriving this busy season is to revisit why you became a CPA and why you do the work you do. We are all motivated at our inner core by what I call the Big Why. It’s a sense of purpose that gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s what enables us to push through problems and difficulties on the way to achieving our goals.
You may have chosen the CPA profession because you like to generate financial reports. Perhaps you became a CPA because you enjoy talking about financial data with others in a consulting role. Or you saw becoming a CPA as a step toward starting your own business someday. Maybe, it’s because you viewed it as a good career path and job security. Or a solid paycheck to provide for your family, send your kids to college and enjoy nice vacations.
Likely, your Big Why is a combination of reasons, both selfless and selfish, which is OK. Some of those reasons may have changed over the years. Whatever your reasons for being in this line of work, it’s a good time to write them out. Jot down a few bullet points or write a short paragraph. Capture the essence of your Big Why in a way that propels you toward the finish line.
Once you revisit your Big Why, create some visual cues to remind you of it during crunch time. That might involve keeping pictures of your kids or grandkids on your desk or changing the background on your monitor to a scene from your favorite vacation spot.
2. Build natural rewards into your work
In their book, “Self-Leadership: The Definitive Guide to Personal Excellence,” authors Christopher Neck, Charles Manz and Jeffrey Houghton distinguish between external rewards associated with work and rewards that are inherent in the activity itself. Paychecks, raises and promotions are examples of external rewards. These rewards are important but don’t generate the same deep satisfaction that comes from doing tasks that are intrinsically rewarding.
To the extent possible, arrange your work to devote as much time and attention as you can to activities you enjoy. You may be able to delegate or assign less pleasant aspects of the work to others (bonus points if they find those aspects enjoyable). When you have no choice but to tackle both pleasant and unpleasant work, concentrate on the enjoyment you receive from the pleasant parts.
For example, you may not enjoy preparing audit schedules but get fulfillment from meeting to discuss them. In that case, focusing on the how the schedules will be discussed at the meeting makes the preparation more palatable and the overall work more rewarding.
Another natural rewards strategy is to find a pleasant place to perform challenging tasks. That’s one reason I frequent my “branch office” (aka the local coffee shop). Tackling a difficult writing project seems less daunting in a warm, friendly environment with my favorite cup of coffee. As I make progress on the assignment, my confidence builds, which enables me to complete the work sooner and with greater satisfaction.
3. Improve your self-talk
We all talk to ourselves. It may be in the car, while we shower or as we move from one meeting to the next, but we all do it in some way. If not out loud, we regularly carry on conversations with ourselves in our heads. Unfortunately, we often fall into the trap of negative self-talk, or using what Neck, Manz and Houghton call “sappers.”
“Sappers are destructive self-talk: they prevent you from achieving your goals and feeling good about yourself. They serve as self-fulfilling prophecies, because what you tell yourself every day usually ends up coming true,” per the authors.
The research bears this out. Effective use of self-leadership strategies such as positive self-talk increases self-efficacy, which is our perceived ability to successfully navigate challenging situations. Higher levels of self-efficacy lead to better performance and effectiveness. Compare the following examples of self-talk:
“I’m nervous that the client is going to ask me a question I can’t answer,” versus “I’m well-prepared and will give a good presentation to the client.”
“I always have trouble reconciling book and tax income,” versus “I’ve learned a lot about reconciling book/tax differences and I am getting better at it all the time.”
“I tend to freeze up when I deliver bad news to my boss,” versus “I’ve done my homework and I am ready to give my boss the information she needs, even though some of it is bad news.”
“I back down when confronting my direct report over poor performance because it makes him feel bad,” versus “I care enough about the development of my direct report to help him improve his work.”
Which self-talk statements are more likely to lead to a successful outcome? In each case, it’s the second statement, which serves as a reminder for us to constantly be aware of what we tell ourselves. So rather than going through this season saying, “I don’t think I can pull this off,” coach yourself with self-talk such as, “Busy season is a challenge, but I’ve been successful in the past and will be this year, too.”
Practice, practice, practice
Developing these self-coaching techniques takes practice. Set a daily reminder on your calendar to use them. Pause for positive self-talk before entering important meetings and conversations. Schedule a weekly review and record your progress. Find a partner to work with you, be it a coach, mentor or peer who can encourage you and hold you accountable.
Coach yourself to the finish line of your best busy season ever!
Jon Lokhorst, CPA (inactive), is a leadership coach and consultant, partnering with CPAs, CFOs, and other leaders to maximize their talent, build high-performance teams and deliver extraordinary value to their firms and clients. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.