“Time is money.”
It might be one of the most commonly heard cliches in the business world, but it also carries a lot of truth.
Modern finance professionals are increasingly under pressure to achieve more in the same number of hours – and it can all become overwhelming if you don’t manage your time properly.
In this article, we’ll run through some interesting productivity hacks designed to save you time and bring order to the chaos!
1. Ditch unnecessary meetings
Think about how you spend your time day-to-day. For all too many finance professionals, the words ‘unnecessary meetings’ will feature prominently. Recent research suggests that there are 11 million meetings each day in the US alone – of which up to 47% are considered a waste of time by their attendees.
The theory behind having meetings is sound; a place for people to come together, collaborate and work through problems. However, dig a little deeper and you see there are big problems. Studies have suggested that 63% of these meetings have no planned agenda; 45% are simple staff meetings; and 73% of people spend their time in meetings doing unrelated work.
Of course, there’s still a place for meetings. But successful leaders need to make sure they’re focused, short and clear, with a stated outcome to be achieved and a clear agenda.
Stand up meetings are a good way to ensure meetings are brief and operate with the right level of energy.
Messaging apps like Slack have popped up as another way around this problem and are well-worthy of consideration.
2. A healthier relationship with email
Likewise, there’s no denying that email, when used correctly, is an incredibly valuable communication tool that makes life easier and more efficient.
The problem is, although it’s ubiquitous, few of us know how to use to our advantage. It’s been suggested that the average office worker checks their inbox a staggering 30 times an hour. We’ve all found ourselves in the middle of a crucial task, only to have our train of thought derailed by an email popup.
This is another predicament that’s quite easy to undo; just turn off your email. Schedule times to check and process it at certain points during the day – first thing in the morning and just after lunch are two good windows.
You should also try to stop email from managing your life. Use David Allen’s ‘Two Minute Rule’ to inspire you – deal with an email immediately as long as it will take two minutes or less to read and reply to it. Otherwise, you should acknowledge receipt (if necessary) and add it as an action on your to-do list to be revisited at a convenient point.
As a leader in your organisation, there are things you can do to encourage a more healthy email culture. The first and easiest step? SEND less email. What’s more, if you’re routinely receiving long-winded emails, subtly address it with the people concerned and ask them to keep things brief.
Our inboxes can help us, or bury us. It’s all about how we manage them. Check out this article from Hubspot for 14 email management tools to help lighten your load.
3. Identify obsolete tasks and functions (and stop spending time on them)
There’s an old business adage: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it that way.” Often, we’ll spend precious time carrying out perfunctory tasks that aren’t really necessary, simply because that’s what we, or our organisation, have always done. This is a particular challenge for CFO’s new to an organisation.
There are almost limitless examples of this philosophy at work, but let’s take reporting as an example. How many of the reports that your organisation runs are really needed? If you’re not sure if people read it, you could simply stopping running a report and see if anybody complains. In large organisations, this simple approach can free up significant resources.
Minimise your efforts and focus on the parts of your role that truly add value to the organisation. The other stuff is (usually) entirely optional.
4. Automate where possible
For decades, science-fiction has imagined a world run by robots, with human beings taking a merely supervisory role. We don’t quite live in that world (at least not yet) but we do have access to powerful tools that can automate tedious, repetitive, time-sink tasks – or at least make them easier.
The truth is, CFO’s can ease a lot of pain by embracing automation. Take the monthly closing process for example. Companies lacking the right tools for the job face a time-consuming, complex process involving a lot of email tennis and countless Excel speadsheets.
Automating a process is not only better for internal control and compliance – but it also facilitates a single source of truth, allowing decisions based upon real data rather than on spreadsheets that may or may not be accurate.
The opportunities for automation are almost limitless. Purchase requests, invoice processing and payroll are all prime candidates. Automation saves time, cuts costs and, critically, reduces errors.
5. Give yourself a break
The human brain wasn’t designed to focus on single tasks for hours upon end. Hammering a task for a whole morning, or even a whole day, is not only far from optimal – it’s impossible. Your mind WILL wander and your productivity WILL fall. It’s not your fault.
So give yourself a break.
The Pomodoro technique is one of the well established solutions to this problem. It commits you to working for short, intense ‘sprints’ of around 25 minutes, before an allotted break period of 5 minutes in which you allow yourself to stop staring at your screen and think about something else. Go for a walk. Look out the window. Browse your phone. PomoDone is an app that lets you time these intervals on your screen – and it integrates with a range of popular productivity tools including Trello, Evernote and Basecamp.
Taking such frequent rest breaks sounds like the antithesis of a productivity hack, but give it a try. Many people using Pomodoro have reported that they find it easier to be decisive when they know the clock is ticking, and manage to get mountains of work done during their ‘work’ periods. They also report feeling much more alert and focused – as well as less ‘rushed’ by the inexorable passing of the hours!
If this approach doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. There are other intervals to try. Try taking a break every 90-120 minutes, or simply aim for a couple of short quarter-hour breaks per day to refresh and re-energise.
6. Delegate and empower
CFO’s and finance decision-makers often face two conflicting narratives. The first one is, “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself.” The second is, “You can do anything – but you can’t do everything.”
Your productivity levels often boil down to how you balance these two opposing ideas. How comfortable are you when it comes to delegation? It doesn’t help that many finance professionals ascend through the ranks thanks to their ability to take on lots of work and, understandably, don’t want to change a winning formula.
We’re all sometimes guilty of feeling protective of our workload. The idea of somebody else doing our work throws up all kinds of neuroses: whether it’s a mistrust of other people thoroughness, a steadfast belief in our own abilities or wanting to uphold our perceived value to the business. But, giving in to these feelings is a huge mistake.
The advice from top-performing CFO’s, time and again, is simple: delegation is crucial. Use the skills and expertise around you; share work with your team. Give them the opportunity to excel, and make more time for yourself in doing so.
But remember, delegation isn’t abdication. Set clear, simple goals, and set aside time to follow-up regularly.
7. Leave space
This final step might seem counterintuitive, but here goes: try blocking 1-2 free days each week. Literally keep your schedule free for these days. This time is sacred and can’t be booked.
Far from wasting these days, or taking time off, you can be using them to their full potential: taking time to speak to the people in your organisation, to customers of your business and to work on key projects.
It’s important to make sure that this blocked time is known to your colleagues and visible in your calendar.
Amidst a backdrop of rising expectations, it’s never been more important to ensure that you get the most out of every day you spend at work.
We hope the tips outlined in this article help you use your time to maximum effect, to get the most out of every day. Good luck!