5 ways to hack your brain to find the inner resources of strength to retain your sanity and business through busy season

So many small accountancy firm owners are feeling tired. They are feeling burned out, overwhelmed, perhaps they've even lost their mojo or their passion for their work, and all this before the height of busy season. It really is an uphill struggle when it comes to the end of Q4 and the beginning of Q1. So much so, that many of our members are asking how to survive busy season and if it's even possible.

The good news is that it is possible! No matter how overwhelmed or tired or drained you feel, it is possible to find the mental reserves of toughness that we all possess (even if it doesn't feel like it). All you have to do is hack your brain - this is the key to digging deep over the next 3 months and surviving busy season.

What is our brain concerned about?

a caveman to represent how to survive busy seasonOur brain's primary function is to keep us alive. It is motivated by 2 things; avoiding threats and enjoying rewards. It does this to the point where our brain is pretty much on the lookout and scanning for these two things constantly.

When it comes to threats, our brains are pretty much stuck in the caveman era. And one of the biggest threats to us way back then was getting rejected from our tribe. This pretty much meant certain death. As a result, our brains have a massive toolkit of threats that arise from social concerns.

Over the course of this article, we are going to explore both these concerns, as well as show you how to 'hack your brain' so that over the next few months you and your small accountancy business don't just survive, but thrive.


The 'Threat' and 'Reward' state

When our brains perceive a threat, they become hyper-focused on that threat and move into a 'Threat' state. In the 'Threat' state our brains do this to our bodies and minds:

  • Reduces our ability to think creatively or laterally.
  • Reduces our working memory.
  • Makes us less effective and more pessimistic.
  • Reduces our ability to see the bigger picture.
  • Becomes more reliant on our cognitive biases to help us make decisions. (So we often make poorer quality decisions as a result).
  • Raises our blood pressure and breathing rate.
  • Converts Glycogen from our livers into glucose in our blood.
  • Temporarily increases our immune system.

As you can see, being in the 'Threat' state isn't helpful when we have a  busy season to get through!

When our brains are in a pleasurable state, or the 'Reward' state, they are at their most effective. How? Because we have:

  • Greater access to our subconscious brains.
  • More insights and clarity.
  • Increased ideas and motivation for action.
  • Better quality decision making.
  • Easier to see the bigger picture.

Therefore, if you are going to hack your brain to 'sail' through busy season, it is important to do everything in your power to move your brain out of the 'Threat' state and into 'Reward'. Like most things, however, this is easier said than done.

Need more help on how to survive busy season? Read: The definitive guide to preparing your accountancy firm for busy season


The importance of self-care

a woman smiling with her eyes closed to represent surviving busy seasonYou know the feeling after a good night's sleep? How everything seems much easier to cope with? It's not just a good night's sleep that helps, it's self-care generally. That means prioritising the 4 foundational habits; sleep, nutritious food and drink, exercise and recharge time. When you have prioritised self-care it makes it easier for you to find the mental strength and reserves to make the small tweaks you need to hack your brain so you move out of a 'Threat' state.

When your brain is tired, it wants to avoid having to make considered decisions and would rather revert to making decisions on autopilot. The result of this though, is that we end up making the wrong decision or allowing ourselves to get pulled into the 'Threat' state, and not having the willpower to get ourselves out of it. This is why self-care is so important to our mental and physical health.

When we talk to our Accountants' Growth Club Members and others in the accountancy profession right now, we are hearing that the majority are tired, drained and overwhelmed. And that's before busy season moves at its real pace. As someone who has just returned from a week's break with the family, I can testify to the importance of taking a break or some time out now to help recharge your batteries ready for the next 3 months.

Read: How to properly switch off from your small accountancy practice when you go away on holiday


Using the SCARF model to hack our brains out of a Threat state and into a Reward state.

The SCARF Model was developed in 2008 by David Rock, (see "SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others.")

SCARF stands for the five key elements that influence our behaviour in social situations. Neuroscience tells us, given the importance of social connection to our prehistoric survival, that these five key elements activate the 'Threat' and 'Reward' states in our brain. And given that stress and social isolation during busy season are powerful 'Threat' triggers, hacking these 5 elements will allow you to move out of 'Threat' and into 'Reward'.

a woman wearing a scarfSCARF stands for:

  • Status: Our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Our being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: Our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

And yes, this is key for surviving busy season.

Status: Our relative importance to others

Status is all about hierarchy and our relative importance to others. Working from home has reduced our status as an accountancy firm owner. For example, we no longer have the visible clues of our importance as an accountancy firm owner surrounding us when we work from home. It's not just that our environment has changed, we also have threats to our current and future status such as:

  • Our firm shrinking due to clients going bust or trading down to a smaller and cheaper accountant.
  • Considering whether we really need the current size of our offices, or whether we can move to a virtual office set up or really need the 'boss's office.'
  • Clients no longer travelling to see us, but having video calls instead.
  • Fewer physical conferences taking place from our institutes or the large software vendors, where we can be with our tribe and confirm our status within the profession

You may feel that as a small accountancy firm owner, that status isn't important to you. After all, you may have made a decision to move away from the highly paid job in industry or in a mid- to large-accountancy practice. But it will be important to you if your brain feels threatened.

Remember that your brain naturally wants to move to a worst-case scenario. For example, what would happen if your clients deserted the firm? Would you need to get a job working for another practice? That would be a massive loss in status. And, therefore, a massive perceived threat.

So, what can you easily do to help yourself avoid this Threat state?

  1. Prioritise your personal needs for self-care. Being a martyr is actually unhelpful to your firm and your team. But prioritising your self-care can help you regain a sense of your own importance and status.
  2. Create a business plan with contingency plans to ensure the survival and health of your firm going forward. And yes, we can help you with that...
  3. Involve the members of your household to contribute to the domestic chores if you work from home.
  4. Create some virtual team events, aside from the normal meetings, if a lot of your team are location independent.
  5. Look to run some of your team meetings which you may have normally delegated to other members of your team.
  6. Consider planning an 'event' at home with your household members. Such as 'curry' friday or a movie night. Something which will make you feel special and wanted.

Certainty: Our being able to predict the future

a psychic to represent how to survive busy seasonCertainty is something that many accountants are still struggling with as we move out of the pandemic and into a recession. And that's certainty around:

  • Our firm's capacity to deal with the current workload from clients.
  • The client demands on us as we approach busy season.
  • How our firm will cope in busy season working from home.
  • Our firm's resilience to survive a recession and the aftermath of Covid and Brexit.
  • and on... and on...

One of the things I have noticed after running out of energy myself about 3-4 weeks ago, is that I lost my sense of confidence. My sense that I could achieve anything I put my mind to which then made me doubt myself. Slowly and without me realising, some of the certainties I believed about myself and my capabilities as the owner of a small and successful business state to disappear. I became a shadow of myself as my inner demons started to win the mental battle.

And I have seen this happening with our members too. The long hours over the last 2 years have taken their toll. What may have been easy, now seems hard.

So, what can you easily do to help yourself avoid this Threat state?

  1. Build a supportive community around you. Coming back from a week away to a huge amount of love from our members after I sent them all a briefing on a Sunday morning for them to share with their clients was like a tonic to my soul. The community of others experiencing the same thing can help normalise your own experiences. Which then helps you to move into a 'Reward' state.
  2. Double down on self-care if you are starting to doubt yourself.
  3. Ditch the news or social media if it's fuelling negative feelings.
  4. Stop speculating about the "what ifs?". Just focus on the present and the near future and what you can control.
  5. Build micro-moments of certainty into your day, such as:
    1. Booking 'live' online exercise classes that you attend at the same time each week.
    2. Create food plans for the week. (Which has the added benefit that older children and partners can also help you with the food prep)
    3. Create a proper routine if you're working from home.
    4. Plan and diarise your 'mental health' breaks. Whether these are 5 minutes to mediate or a 10-minute short walk. Just do it.
  6. Create a business plan with contingency plans to ensure the survival and health of your firm going forward. And yes, we can help you with that...
  7. Include daily and weekly review time to see how things are going and track your progress
  8. Book a coaching call to help you put things into perspective and look forward with purpose, not fear.
renee circle

"I have the clients I want to work with, and a great income from my business

The club initially helped me to structure my working week, so that I was working on the right things. It then helped me ditch my low paying clients or the ones who stressed me out. And then with some tweaks to my marketing, it has helped switch on a stream of a new client every week. So much so, my team has now tripled in size. My Growth Specialist is always there for me, and I couldn't have done this without them."

Renee Wengrofsky

Financial Advisor, JSN Consultants LLC

It is great to see the club stepping up with endless resources, daily zoom calls and email updates to assist us help our amazing clients

Great to see you help us assist our client's ensure they survive, navigate and thrive in one of most economically challenging times in recent history. 

Thank you Ashley, Heather and team.

Shahbaz Hussain


Autonomy: Our sense of control over events

a driver to represent taking control and surviving busy seasonYou don't need me to tell you that stress and anxiety and worry make us feel less in control. You also don't need me to tell you that these are probably at an all-time high right now as we move into busy season. Usually around this time of year, being the masters or mistresses of our own fate are taking a battering right now BUT we can help ourselves.

So, what can you easily do to help yourself avoid this Threat state?

  1. Focus on the controllables: what is in your influence to control right now?
  2. Create a business plan with contingency plans to ensure the survival and health of your firm going forward. And yes, we can help you with that... (I know, I've said this before...)
  3. Trust your team. If your team are good performers or even OK performers, resist the temptation to micro-manage them right now

Read: 5 tips that will help you trust work gets done with a virtual team


Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others

Even now, 2 years into the pandemic, many people perceive being with others as 'unsafe.' And that is completely due to having to socially distance for so long and seeing others as a threat. Activities that may have previously brought us joy, such as team sports or meeting up with friends and family, still may feel like a risk. And there's nothing wrong with feeling this way. I think these symptoms are going to continue for a long time.

So, what can you easily do to help yourself avoid this Threat state?

  1. Pick up the phone to people you care about - and that's phone, not video call. Phone calls can be more intimate and personal, which is vital with so many still feeling the need to connect.
  2. Focus on what you can control. Meet up with clients 1:2:1, maybe at a cafe at the quiet times of the day.
  3. Make an effort to talk with people when you are out and about. For example, saying hello to the Amazon delivery person.


Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

a weighing scaleWith everything going on, it's really easy to decide life has been harsh or unfair to us. Or unfair to people we care about. For example, when I spoke to my mother yesterday she admitted that they are unlikely to travel outside of the UK for at least another year. And they loved to travel. It just felt so unfair. Particularly as they have personally done nothing to cause the ongoing spread of the virus. As frustrating as it is, life is unfair to us all and so we need to try our best to be positive.

So, what can you easily do to help yourself avoid this Threat state?

Helping others is a great way to restore 'fairness' in our lives so try to think of:

  1. What small gestures you can do to help others or return a favour. Such as making a cup of tea for another member of your household or sending a thank you note to a client.
  2. How you can divide domestic chores up fairly amongst your household members, so you don't feel so overwhelmed.

I am grateful that I found you at Accountex and made the decision to join the club$

You always ask us each week what we are happy and grateful for each week: -

  1. Happy about the support I get from AGC
  2. Happy about the value I get from the AGC
  3. Proactivity of AGC has gone through the roof when most would be curling up and saying not today

Gareth Burton

Progress UK

What an amazing job, you and the rest of the AGC guys are doing

Worth your weight in gold and you are part of our team in every shape and form and when this time passes we will celebrate together.

Graeme Tennick

Graeme Tennick and Co

How to move your brain back into a positive state, i.e. 'Reward' state

Everything I have covered so far in this article has been practical suggestions to help you hack your brain to avoid or minimise how far you go into a 'Threat' state. But what happens if you do find yourself in a 'Threat' state? Luckily, it is in your power to move back into a 'Reward' state.

There are a lot of things which I could recommend which may bring you pleasure. Such as indulging a little more than you need when it comes to your favourite food or drink. (And yes, my waistline over lockdown 1 was a testament to this). Of course, a little bit of what you fancy can normally do no harm, but just make sure it is only that little bit and in moderation.

Here are some practical suggestions to help you move back into or remain in a 'Reward' state:

  • Take responsibility for what you can control. Such as motivating your team and setting client expectations, and stop wasting energy on things that are outside of your control.
  • When things are outside of your control, look to influence the present and the future rather than getting angry with the problems or challenges which got you there.
  • A problem shared is a problem halved, so pick up the phone and talk to other people. Particularly other accountants, such as club members, who can help you normalise your current experiences.
  • Book time with a coach to help you talk through your thoughts and sort out the truth from your mental demons.
  • Regularly look for opportunities to reward or recharge yourself, for example:
    • Meditation
    • Time away from your desk
    • Fun activities with friends and family (whether virtual or not)
    • Get outside
    • Do something you enjoy
    • Stroke your pet
    • Snuggle up with a weighted or favourite blanket
    • Watch a movie or box set or favourite TV programme
    • Play or sing your music at full volume (regardless of how disapproving your teenage children are of this....)

The information AGC is providing...is amazing.

The information AGC is providing in these unprecedented times along with the support is amazing.

This is the difference in businesses surviving or folding which is ultimately going to affect us.

This has given me time to actually advise clients and potential clients on how to practically action this.

Zee Razaq

Certax St Albans
Adam Bullen

'After spending 90 mins with Heather, I am so much more forward with my marketing.

For the first time in the life of my business I have clarity on my client personas and exactly how I help them. I’ve come away with so many content ideas to help me attract exactly the type of client I want. I know within 4 weeks I will have a website which I am confident will do what it says on the tin. My confidence and clarity is now sky high."

Adam Bullen

ABCounting Ltd

Ready to kick-start the growth of your firm?