Can Accountants Achieve a Work/Life Balance?

Published: January 15, 2020
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You’ve got to be kidding right!

Elusive…mysterious…maybe even mythical!

As an accountant or bookkeeper at this time of year, you may well believe that WORK/life balance is to be found somewhere just past the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, slightly to the left of the last silver-lined cloud, tied to the snout of the purple flying pig…

There is so much out there about achieving the ‘perfect WORK/life balance’. How, by making lists and following productivity guides and filling in a day-planner, you can achieve this absolute pinnacle of success known as the ‘perfect WORK/life balance’.

So many guru’s out there sharing how they hit rock-bottom… BUT! By just following this simple 5 step plan, or these 3 best productivity tools, they not only saved themselves and their relationships but also made millions and now only work five minutes a day and are happier than they have ever been.

And I’m certainly not going to argue with them – I’m very pleased for them (and of course horribly envious!) and if following any of the plans, steps, tips or guides help you, then follow them…

If it works, it works.

However, if you are struggling with WORK/life balance and sit at your desk hour after hour, day after day, night after night, weekend after weekend, wondering how it will ever get any better than it is now and how you will ever reach that zen-like state, then you are definitely not alone, unusual or failing.

Unfortunately, I do not have a miracle guide to achieving WORK/life balance, I am not going to give you a 5 step plan, recommend any super-foods, provide the perfect yoga workout or sell you a self-help book that will definitely help you achieve enlightenment.

I am hopefully going to make you feel just a little bit better about your current situation, and I am hopefully going to help you realise that there is no pre-defined formula for the perfect WORK/life balance.

Which means that, just because it’s quite unlikely that you will ever achieve a five-minute working day AND become a millionaire, you are not automatically a failure in the WORK/life balance race.

Firstly what IS WORK/life balance? What does it mean?

It is NOT a perfect balance between the amount of TIME you spend at work and on life.

WORK/LIFE balance is not (necessarily) achieved by spending 8 eight hours at work, eight hours doing things for you and eight hours sleeping during the week, and then having your weekends completely free to do whatever you want. And achieving 28 days holiday, 14 of them abroad, every year.

For some people this may work but it certainly wouldn’t work for me, I can’t bear that sort of routine, it would drive me mad.

And I’m not disciplined enough – sometimes I procrastinate, sometimes I’ll procrastinate for a whole day, even two. So I have to work at the weekend. Or I have to work non-stop to hit the deadline that I knew about, but didn’t prepare for, and sometimes the deadlines that I didn’t know about, but still have to hit.

That’s not because I don’t have WORK/LIFE balance, it’s because sometimes I don’t do what I know I should, but it still needs to be done. And because things come up, and I accept them and I do what needs to be done to get them done.

And what about all the household chores that you have to do, all the running around for the kids, doing the supermarket shopping? How does that fit in?

For me, those things (and I don’t have kids, so I’m not commenting on that particular element) are far worse than spending a few hours at work.

I work a little bit harder, and for a few more hours, so I can pay a cleaner once a week to clean my house and iron my clothes. And have done since my early 20’s – I figured out very early on that domesticity was not part of the balanced state I desired to achieve!

It is NOT (necessarily) being able to do what you want, when you want. Being able to decide on your own working patterns and how many hours and when you work, and when you don’t work. While I don’t like a routine as described above, this complete lack of any routine whatsoever would also not suit me.

And in any case, most of us have a certain amount of work that we have to do in a certain amount of time, so while this may appear desirable, it’s not really achievable for most of us – the required outputs mean that we have no choice but to put in the hours that we do – you wouldn’t still be sat at your desk doing tax returns if you didn’t have to!

That will almost always be the case for everyone who has to work to earn a living.

For those of us who decided to work for ourselves to earn a living it is often much harder – you are the hardest on yourself, you are ultimately responsible for every missed deadline, every error made because a job has been rushed. For paying the bills, the salaries of your team, your own salary.

Not only do you have to perform to the standards that you demand of yourself (which I am 99.99% certain is a MUCH higher standard than ANYONE else would ever demand of you, or that you demand of anyone else), but you also feel a responsibility far greater than would be expected of you by any other boss.

So…back to the point… WORK/LIFE balance. What is it?

It’s a state of mind.

That’s all.

No, don’t shout at me… I’m not going to tell you that by meditating for 15 minutes every day (although I actually would recommend this) you can achieve the perfect WORK/LIFE balance, even if you work 23.5 hours every day and will have to for the next 27 years to get on top of your workload. I hear you, I know how it feels.

If that is true then you need to change some stuff, and you need to start changing it now because it’s not sustainable – I give you three months, 27 years is completely out of the question. And then what will you do – you’ve let everyone down? That is not going to lead to a balanced state of mind!

I’ll come back to this in a moment.

WORK/LIFE balance is not really about work or life, it’s about how you feel.

We use ‘work’ and ‘life’ as a way of defining the opposites – it’s the same as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it does not actually have to be about work and life, and it can actually be the other way around – imagine the person who’s home life is desperately unhappy but who is fulfilled and happy at work. They want WORK/life with the emphasis on work, that’s their ideal balance.

Right now, for those of us in the accounting profession, WORK/life balance almost definitely means the ridiculously high number of hours we are spending doing tax returns, versus the ridiculously small number of hours we spend not doing tax returns, so let’s focus on that, for now.

You may well be there working 12-15 hours a day, 7 days a week at the moment to get through your clients’ tax returns and you may well be tired and stressed and really not enjoying yourself at all.

But how will you feel on the 1st of Feb, when you’ve achieved everything you had to achieve? When all of your clients are happy, when you’ve helped new clients who left it late and were panicking? Will you feel a sense of achievement? Will you be proud of yourself, your team? Will you have generated sufficient revenue to have made the last 31, painful, days worthwhile?

You see, it’s not about the immediate stress and pain that we are feeling now, it’s about the longer-term fulfilment that you get out of what you are doing – whether it is in work or in life.

It’s about whether you answered ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ to that question.

I’m currently training for a half-marathon. Am I enjoying it? No, not really. It’s HARD, it’s cold, it’s dark, it’s January. But will I be proud of myself when I succeed, 100%. And all those 5am starts will be worth it.

Let’s look at my running analogy. My goal is completing the half-marathon in sub 2 hours. In order to achieve that, I have to train. I don’t like training particularly, but I do like the idea of achieving my goal and when I do, I will be very proud of myself and I will be very pleased that I did the training.

When I am asked whether the training was worth it, my answer will be ‘YES’.

Let’s look at how hard you are working, and most importantly WHY you are working this hard.

Is it because you have a clearly defined goal and a strategy to help you achieve that goal? Is this period of stress and hard work part of that strategy, or, do you have a strategy to ensure that it doesn’t happen again? In which case, I don’t believe for one minute that this is a symptom of a poor WORK/life balance. It is part of your journey. It is but a short stay in a dodgy roadside motel on your way to your dream holiday. Don’t sweat it. Just make sure that you review this period in your life and make sure that it fits with where you are going, and moves you towards your ultimate goals.

It might be that you know that this year has been horrific and it absolutely is not part of your plan. But you do have a plan to make sure it never happens again.

This is not a sign that your WORK/life balance is totally out of whack, it’s a sign that you still have things to improve on and you have recognised this and are learning and adapting.

However, if this is just a way of life for you and you can’t even remember what the ‘life’ side of WORK/life is, and you can’t see a way out of this and you have no idea what you are going to do. You have a problem.

This is a very bad place to be in – your state of mind is not in balance and doesn’t show any signs of being in the immediate future.

You’ll burn out, one way or the other – mentally, physically, emotionally, or all three.

Get through to the end of January. Don’t add to your pressure right now.

When you’ve made it, before you rush headlong into the next task list. Please, sit back and take stock. Do you have a goal? If not, please take some time out of your schedule to think about what you really want.

This won’t be easy – you can’t, as they say, see the wood for the trees. Your mind goes into panic and shuts down at the very thought of spending any time not working on tasks, ticking off to-do lists, hitting deadlines.

I understand, I’ve been there.

But you do have a choice, we all do. Even though I know it doesn’t feel like it right now.

So, what now?

If you continue to do what you are doing now, it’s a choice that you are making – choosing to do nothing is still a choice.

Instead of choosing to do nothing, you can choose to change and start to redress that WORK/life balance, that state of mind. It might be that you set goals and you still work 15 hour days, but you do it because you have a goal and a strategy and right now, this is part of that strategy but you know it will change, because you are proactively changing it.

Your state of mind will improve, just because there is a light at the end of the tunnel – without changing anything about the number of hours you work, you have already changed your WORK/life balance for the better.

There are some things that some people can’t change, there are terribly hard and sad situations which are outside of any choices made or changes available and I hope that you are not now, and never will be, in any of those situations.

WORK/life balance in the western world, for accountants and bookkeepers running their own businesses, is not one of these things.

You, and you alone, have the power to improve your state of mind, to view your working life, and the balance that you feel you have, differently. You have the power to affect the change that you need to make, to make sure that next year will be different, and every year after that will be a little bit more different, a little bit better.

I always tell people to remember to take time to celebrate the wins – do that.

On the 31st of January, at midnight, or whenever you file that last return, celebrate your achievement – you did it. You got this.

But also, if you are exhausted, miserable, unfulfilled and, even though you did it, you are now dreading the 1st of February, take some time to really feel that.

And make a conscious decision to change it. You can do it. You got this, too.