April 30th. For Canadian accountants, it’s the worst day of the year. Every chicken comes home to roost. Every project is due. Every phone call is a must-answer. And, in all likelihood, the weather is beautiful outside.
For the most part, the eight weeks leading up to April 30th are no vacation either. Twelve to fifteen hour days are normal. You often walk into the office before the sun has risen and leave after the sun has set. There’s little time for anything other than number-crunching.
Now, nobody likes the person who brags about how busy they are or how hard they work. Everyone works hard — people need to work hard to make ends meet. Hard work is a necessity of life, for any and all people on this planet. But there are those people who can deal with a high stress load and there are those who can’t. Some people work 12 hours at the office, maintain a stringent fitness regiment, run a hobby business, and volunteer in the evenings. Others spend half a day at the office and find their lives too busy to do much more. Neither of these two people are lazy. They just handle stress differently. Those who handle stress well are, quite often, masters of self care.
“Self care” will mean different things to different people. For the basics, self care may sound like vacations, spa days, and maintaining physical health. Others may view self care as keeping your mind sharp by reading books, meeting new people, or having a creative hobby. Generally though, self care boils down to taking care of your body and mind to ensure stress doesn’t break you down. Of all things that get swept under the rug during the high-octane eight-week tax season, self care ranks right at the top of the list. Fitness gets pushed aside. Healthy eating goes down the drain. Vacations are out of the question.
For this tax season, journaling became my ultimate form of self care. Near-daily reflection and written entries worked in many ways to ensure tax deadline day went off without a hitch, and those written entries will certainly work to form a backbone heading into future tax seasons.
Here’s how journaling kept my head screwed on straight over the last few months:
Every time the front door opens, a new project stares you straight in the face. For our office, each new client brought in a new financial situation, a new set of variables, and a new opportunity to create a lasting relationship. When this happens a hundred times a day, it becomes hard to ensure each project is given the attention it deserves. In this light, journaling helped me understand how much I could get done in one day and how much I could plan to complete in my 10 to 12 hour day at the office. Even after a single week, reading through prior entries helped to point out the need for a mid-day mind break or mid-day walk. I learned I get more done when I head out to pick up lunch from a restaurant about 5 minutes away from the office. I learned I need to take 30 minutes at the beginning of the day to create a plan of attack and read the news.
In short, keeping a journal helped me to find my pace and stick to that pace for the grueling season. When the going got tough, it became easier to fall into a personal routine I had outlined in my journal and it became easier to know how much I could get done in a single day. So while the work kept piling in, the anxiety of completing that work didn’t grow. Learning to keep a pace was the single most important factor of the eight week stretch and meant I wasn’t mentally broken down by the time the bell rang.
Knowing how much you can get done in a day is only as good as the deadlines that are set for you. When the clock strikes midnight and the work needs to be done, well, the work needs to be done. When digging through my journal, I find a bunch of checklists — lists of plans, lists of steps to be taken, and lists of most important projects to be completed. The last set of lists became a guiding hand for each work day and work week. If something had an upcoming deadline, I put my nose to the grind stone on that project. Prioritizing may seem like a pretty simple factor when it comes to your personal self care, but it can be the difference between being focused on a specific goal and being scatter-brained around many projects.
Some variables you can control. Others you can’t. Journaling helps to highlight what you should focus on controlling and what you need to leave to others. There’s enough worry to go around, so why bother worrying about what you can’t control?
That last part — “what you need to leave to others” — is an essential form of self care. Not only can you not save the world on your own, you can’t save the world in one day. Trusting others to complete their end of the work and trusting the course of life to complete the remaining variables leads to a less stressful outlook on your task at hand. A healthy dose of reflection at the end of a working day can quickly highlight how your efforts impacted part of a project and where you wasted your time. This not only makes you more effective and efficient in your daily work, it also nails down how you do you. What are you good at? Where are your efforts best utilized? What can you control that others can’t? To me, there’s no way to answer these questions aside from healthy end-of-day reflection each day.
This would be the exact opposite of “prioritize”. A bit of journaling and planning can go a long way to determining which cans can be kicked down the road and which ones can’t. The kicker about deferring work down the road is the amount of work that inevitably doesn’t get done. And when work doesn’t get done, it’s, well, a lesser work load. If the need for self care arises from high stress and large work loads, deferring work and eliminating work can go a long way to maintaining sanity.
Where does journaling come in? I find end of day reflection can give great opportunities to discover activities you need to undertake and activities you don’t need to undertake. If the goal in life is to be the best you, then you need to learn about you before you can be the best you. Ted Williams always said he’d hit .400 every year if all he did was hit his pitch over and over. In order to determine what was “his” pitch, he had to study his habits after each at-bat. If you want to hit .400, journaling is the best way to discover habits and trends and can give you insight on the pitches you need to hit and the pitches you need to leave alone.
Perhaps the most important factor of journaling, discovering your successes can lead to enormous personal satisfaction. At the end of a project, journaling which parts of the project went well and which parts you’d do differently can lead to a new, more efficient workflow the next time you run through a project. For each project you complete and reflect upon, the more efficient and effective you become. But it can go a step further than that. One of the greatest stages of happiness hits through self-realization, or recognizing you succeeded upon goals you created in the past. Journaling those goals and looking through the process can greatly improve mental health and satisfaction.
There are always traps when partaking in a habit that doesn’t look like it has a direct impact on the work you’re doing.
- Having your boss or manager looking over your shoulder can work to deter you from journaling. If it’s not work, it can’t be a good activity, and it’s easy to fall into the trap as a manager in assuming an employee is fooling around when they are merely reflecting on their work.
- Not every hour of the day has to be productive. Perhaps I’m old-school, but I started off my working career with the assumption each day had to be a solid 8 hours of productive work. This, quite frankly, is next to impossible. Starting your day with reflection — either personal reflection or reflection on the news, media etc. — and ramping up your brain for the gruelling processes of the day can be just as productive as staring at a blank screen with a zombie-like mind.
- Social media may be a place where personal reflection can take place, but there really is a time and place for it. Generally, social media works to undermine any confidence I have in myself or my beliefs, so I try to stay away as much as possible these days. Having a personal journal can act as a social media platform. Either way, social media can surely work against any gains you make in self care.
- Saying “yes” can also destroy any momentum you have in keeping a balanced self care approach. I volunteer a lot, and I’m convinced the world doesn’t spin without volunteers. But just because volunteers are so important doesn’t mean you can save the world on your own. Pick your spots, and do what you can.
The best self care habits begin and end with the amount of activity, work, and stress you can handle. Any habit that works to improve your effectiveness in handling the right amount of activity, work, and stress, to me, would be a positive self care habit. And this is why journaling has become my number one self care habit through busy work stretches.
The world doesn’t revolve around you — this much is clear. But you can’t be the best you if you don’t take some time to focus on what makes you you. Keeping a journal and reflecting on your thoughts and activities is a simple step for discovering what makes you you .