Embrace Deep Work to Build a Better Firm
As I write this, most of my tax friends are busily getting the last of their extensions done. A key to getting that work done efficiently and accurately is the ability to focus deeply on the work. However, the environment at a busy accounting firm isn’t always conducive to deep concentration. With a steady barrage of phone calls, email, and colleagues stopping by to ask questions, plus all the distractions of our cell phones, it’s a wonder anyone can get the work done.
When I first started my career as a staff accountant in the cubicles, I noticed that from about 11:30 to 1:00, the office was quiet, so I began taking my lunch at 1 PM. This gave me nearly 90 minutes of relative quiet to focus on my work. Just that tiny bit of quiet helped me get more work done throughout the day.
Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, resonated with me when I discovered it about two years ago. Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
As Newport argues, this ability to concentrate deeply is becoming increasingly rare today. Besides the distractions of phone calls, meetings and questions from colleagues that accountants have always had, we’ve got email, text messages, and the tempting allure of the internet.
Because it’s becoming rare, deep work is also more valuable. Those who master deep work will be the most successful in the future — this skill is not one that can be replicated by AI, machine learning or bots. Deep work can only be done by humans.
Deep work is also what brings meaning to our work. That flash of insight when we come upon a creative solution to a client’s dilemma, or when we suddenly see a pattern emerging across the financials of various companies that can be leveraged by a client to succeed where others have failed. As Newport says, “creating work that matters requires deep work.”
Distraction-free concentration may feel like a bit of a luxury at a busy CPA firm, but I argue that working this into the fabric of how your firm functions will be essential to your success in the future.
As both accounting standards and tax law become more complex, remaining competitive means we have to master difficult concepts quickly. To provide value to our clients, we have to apply those difficult concepts to our clients’ situations, recognize patterns and advise them on beneficial actions to take. To remain competitive in the race to the bottom for fees, accountants will have to provide more that just a tax return or a set of financials, and will have to offer additional insights and advice.
Quality in our work means gettin things right the first time. It means that the staff accountant doesn’t just hope that someone higher up will catch all the mistakes as they rush through the work, but that they take the time and focus to make sure the numbers are accurate. It’s not relying on our firm’s quality control processes to catch all the errors, but doing it right from the beginning.
How to bring deep work into your firm
A commitment to deep work is “a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.” Here are some tips for bringing deep work into your firm.
Block out time
I’ve always found it beneficial to plan my day by blocking out time for specific tasks. For example, when I was working on getting my CVA credential, I blocked out the first hour of my workday to studying the materials and working on my case study. When I had urgent and competing projects going on, I split my day so that I spent my morning on one project, and the afternoon on another.
This may mean that you set up specific times during the day to respond to those emails that take more than a sentence or two to answer, and to compose the ones that require a thoughtful approach.
The pomodoro technique is a great way to get work done. Set a timer, and commit to working with as few distractions as possible for that time. Some productivity experts say 30 minutes, others say 50 minutes. Experiment and see what works for you. Many writers — including myself — use the pomodoro technique to crank work out.
A key to getting focused work done — and required for making the most of your dedicated blocks of focused time — is to reduce distractions as far as possible. At the very least, turn off most of the notifications on your cell phone and set it aside. Close your door if you have an office, or use headphones if you don’t. Shut off your email if you can, and don’t check it until the end of a focus block. Try not to take phone calls. Most of the time, those calls and emails can wait half an hour or an hour without any damage to client relationships.
If you have the option for remote work, this can also significantly reduce the distractions that come from working in a busy office. However, as I am finding, working at home has its own distractions. Dogs need walking, and house cleaning and laundry can be way more compelling than the work in front of me.
Identify your high value activities
The real key to deep work is to identify and prioritize the work that will bring you and the firm closer to your personal and firm-wide goals. Besides getting client work done in a timely manner, think about ways to develop and share your best talents with the firm.
Are you good at figuring out efficient processes for getting the work done? Document them and share them. Do you have a talent for creating spreadsheets that everyone in the firm copies and re-uses? Consider enhancing your Excel skills and creating templates for common tasks.
Beware of any activities that pull you away from your sweet spot. Find what you’re good at, and go deeper into those activities.
This just scratches the surface of the possibilities in Deep Work, and I encourage all of my accounting and bookkeeping friends to study this book and apply the ideas. As knowledge workers, our highest contribution to ourselves and to society comes from pushing our cognitive capabilities as far as we can.
A version of this article appeared previously in the newsletter for the New Mexico Society of CPAs.