The world of finance has evolved into a highly competitive workplace. Although there are only 24 hours in any single day, as the saying goes, time is money. Therefore, effective time management is a competitive advantage for any finance professional looking to become more productive and increase quality time away from work.
However, there are many distractions that can keep you at work longer than necessary. Read on to learn about some of these common time wasters and find out about a number of time-management tips that will have you getting more work done in less time.
The Black Hole
There are various time-wasters that can suck down productivity. For instance, finance professionals are perpetually tempted to multitask. Suppose that you're an advisor, and between 8:30 and 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, you manage to accomplish the following:
- You work on a spreadsheet,
- But stop after being interrupted by two new email messages,
- Then send off six emails in a row,
- Followed by checking a college friend's wedding pictures on Instagram,
- Then accept a company social outing invitation via a Slack message,
- Before fielding two unexpected calls from prospective clients, and
- Finally are forced to hang up abruptly as your manager stops by to remind you that you're five minutes late for the staff meeting.
Does this sound like a typical morning for you? If so, and particularly if you work in a cutthroat corporate environment like a private equity firm or investment bank, you are probably in the lowest-performing tier as compared to your peers.
Five or ten years from now, no one will remember, care about or promote you for all the busywork that you have accomplished. Would the world have cared if Thomas Jefferson finished a lot of paper-shuffling but never helped write the Declaration of Independence? The same is true in your job — your organization values necessary work and masterpieces, not busywork.
Each Sunday afternoon, finish your upcoming week's "to do" list, preferably using an application or web service that syncs across all of your devices. Highlight the items that are absolutely critical to your success at work and in your personal life. The ones not highlighted are probably things that you can delegate, delay or avoid altogether.
In finance, critical deliverables include reports or research that needs to be accurate and submitted before a deadline. Your organization is served better if you focus on improving the quality of these reports, as opposed to merely doing a decent job on them so you can free up time for non-key items (like answering low-priority emails or taking part in a long-winded meeting).
Similarly, ten minutes before leaving work each day, finish listing the next day's action items and number them in order of importance and priority. Again, continually ask yourself all the things that you do not really need to do — the things that do not meet a certain productivity threshold.
(Also, check out Find Your Niche in the Financial Industry.)
Success in finance boils down to one's ability to always deliver on critical and immediate deliverables. What are the crucial information and data points your finance managers are relying on? What can you deliver in order to help your organization and/or your clients win? Does it involve the timely submission of an audit report, accurate calculations of net present value on a proposed project or ensuring that the formulas on Excel lead to proper aggregate totals?
At the end of the day, no one cares about all of the emails that you exchanged, the social club meetings you attended or the chronological filing of folders in your cabinet. Multitasking constantly prevents individuals from giving their best on the few critical deliverables their employers really expect from them.
Do the important, difficult, urgent and highest-value action items first. Success in finance can involve simplicity in methods on how you approach your tasks. This may seem brutally simple for the well-read and uninitiated recent graduate, but do one thing at a time and do not stop until it has been completed. If your tasks relate to a long-term project, chop it up into shorter-term milestones and finish ahead of time. As Henry Ford said, "Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs." Doing things from start to finish eliminates costly inefficiencies because you'll avoid having to constantly start over and recalibrate on different, unrelated items.
If you spend three hours each week on useless tasks, this adds up to roughly 150 hours per year. Your associate a few desks from you, who is more efficient and puts in 150 hours more per year is likely to enjoy a few promotions and salary increases that others did not get.
(Explore the types of jobs in the finance industry with Financial Career Options for Professionals.)
Your inbox is a major time waster. If a majority of your emails are irrelevant to your immediate tasks at hand, then you are sporadically filling your day with garbage information.
To avoid this:
- Set predetermined times for checking your email, and check your inbox no more than three or four times per day.
- Create an after-hours folder for e-mails that you should get to, but that aren't urgent. This folder is particularly helpful for you to get back to important requests that can wait for a few business days prior to getting a response from you.
- Send only the most critical emails during your workday. While it is important to stay updated within your group, a major chunk of your time can be wasted by inexperienced or less disciplined colleagues who flood your inbox with irrelevant messages. You can reduce these types of emails by not responding to those that aren't work-related.
- Empty your inbox before you leave work. You can accomplish this by creating project-related folders in which you can park emails related to specific problems. Keeping your inbox empty saves you time by eliminating non-core messages from your attention. If there are items that absolutely require attention within the next few hours or by the next day, then place them in an urgent folder.
Other Time-Saving Tips
Keep Track of How Much Time You Really Waste
Create a simple spreadsheet that allows you to enter the estimated time that you have wasted on trivial matters. Do this on a daily basis. As you develop and maintain this habit, you will be training yourself to recognize unimportant matters as you encounter them.
Only Process Paper Documents Once
Once they are processed, you can file them, submit them or get rid of them.
Direct Message Your Colleagues
Walking around your office or between departments can cost you a few hours per week — and we know how costly that is on an annualized basis. Unless it is an important or complicated matter, using direct messages through a corporate messaging system or approved web service is often a more efficient way to quickly get answers to a variety of questions.
Know Where Everything Is at Any Given Time
This includes both electronic and paper information. If you value your time, don't waste it searching for things.
Separate Your Tasks Into Four Categories:
Urgent and important - such as financial and accounting reports with strict and approaching deadlines.
Not urgent and important - such as networking within your finance group, training classes, etc.
Urgent and not important - such as sporadic messages from your inbox and "sign up due dates" for club meetings.
Not urgent and not important - such as ten minute conversations by the vending machine, checking fantasy football, etc.
(Obviously, you should spend as much of your day as possible on the first category.)
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
This is what will separate you from the pack as you move up in the organization. Handle tasks that only you can execute. As you hone your time-management skills, you will soon have direct reports assigned to you. Assign out tasks that you do not need to handle yourself as much as possible. You should only do the things that absolutely require your attention or expertise.
Don't Manage out Your Personality
Finance professionals should possess time management skills, but they should also have rapport and goodwill with internal colleagues and the external community. Focusing exclusively on time can make you appear abrasive, which will put off a lot of people when they are around you, including in social and business development settings. If you're not careful, you'll go around thinking that you're the time management guru, but you'll be totally unaware of the "social idiot" stamp on your forehead.
Communication, leadership and business development skills are just as important as time management skills. As finance professionals move up in their careers, time management skills alone will no longer be sufficient in helping them to reach the next level (i.e., the executive level).
The Bottom Line
If you value your life, then you value your time. Work life is a sub-component of the larger picture of your life — the level of contribution and service that you can provide to others depends on your ability to make the most of the finite amount of time allocated to you. Remember: It is the important things that your employer expects you to deliver on that count. Your employer won't care much about everything else, and neither should you.
(For more, read Financial Efficiency: The Analyst's Guide to Time Management.)