The stark reality of near-flat UK productivity levels, highlighted in the latest official figures as part of the Autumn Budget, presents a good opportunity to examine how we work and to consider ways to boost productivity. However, chances are high that you won’t finish reading this article; your attention may have already veered toward an incoming email or been distracted by a notification ping or a phone call. In today’s busy digital work environment, this endless juggling of tasks, projects, systems, and screens shapes our collective work experience—a relentless backdrop of distraction and perpetual “context-switching.”
Busy doesn’t = productive
While such juggling and multitasking is often celebrated as a symbol of greater productivity, the truth is that it can result in scattered focus, decreased efficiency, and compromised work quality. This act of ‘context switching’, of moving between multiple unrelated tasks, takes a toll on our cognitive resources and may be wreaking havoc with our overall productivity. Our brains aren’t wired to seamlessly switch between tasks and the cognitive and productivity cost of this switching can be surprisingly high. Isn’t it time to shift our perspective and adopt a new approach – one that prioritises focused, mindful work over the constant juggling of tasks- recognising it as the genuine path to productivity?
Where has context switching come from?
Context-switching, originally used in computing and software development, involves saving a running process’s current state. This allows the Central Processing Unit (CPU) to shift resources to other tasks, minimising “wait states” and ensuring optimal processing. At any given time, users can then instruct the CPU to switch and resume the process from its latest state. This continuous operation is crucial in computing, aiming to keep CPUs actively processing, given their high cost and value, and prioritises engagement over idling.
With the rise of technology and increased demands on individuals to multitask and jump back and forth between competing demands and responsibilities, the context-switching phenomenon from the world of computing has been applied to psychology and the world of work. However, we are not operating systems, and for humans, context-switching is a productivity killer! Researchers and experts in these fields have observed the negative effects of context switching on productivity, focus, and well-being. Just as transitions were challenging for CPUs, consuming significant resources and resulting in a context switch cost that operating systems had to contend with, abruptly shifting to new tasks necessitates a mental gear change. This process is highly disruptive and it takes time for the brain to re-engage with the previous task effectively.
Here comes the science bit
Across a firm, at any one time, accountants will be engaging in a diverse range of tasks, each requiring distinct cognitive functions. For instance, when immersed in financial analysis, the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the part that is responsible for analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and systematic and structured thought processes – will be highly active. If called away to engage in client relationship management or to brainstorm creative solutions for client challenges, the areas associated with creativity, the right anterior cingulate cortex, are activated.
This shift in neural networks requires the brain to swiftly transition between different cognitive processes, potentially leading to a momentary decrease in efficiency. As a result, there may be a brief period of adjustment as the brain readies itself for this different mode of thinking, potentially causing a temporary dip in productivity, an elevated sense of fatigue, and more importantly, significant time to readjust and pick up where you left off.
Can we make up for lost time: what is the true cost of this switching?
A productive brain is one that has enough energy to perform: switching the focus of our brains between different tasks forces our brains to reassign energy. Neuroscientists suggest it can take up to 23 minutes to refocus once our concentration is broken but like any seasoned accountant, we’re going to write that down by 70% and call it a 6-minute unit.
If you frequently switch between tasks, get pulled in different directions throughout the workday, and it takes significant time to regain focus across the day, the cumulative time lost due to context-switching can be substantial—impacting not just your day but also the efficiency of your team or entire firm.
Let’s consider an accountant who frequently switches between tasks, projects or applications in their workday:
5 context switches x 6 minutes per switch = 30 minutes.
12 context switches x 6 minutes per switch = 72 minutes or total time lost 1 hour and 12 minutes.
With context switching occurring multiple times throughout the day with a significant “recovery rate” needed to regain focus each time, you could potentially lose from 1 to nearly 2 hours or more of productive work time – from one team member alone.
From data to insight
Imagine the valuable insights we could uncover by analysing data on the type, frequency, and volume of context-switching not just at an individual level but also across the team, the firm, and multiple service lines. Research emerging from Everperform in Australia, a professional services performance management consultancy, suggests a higher frequency of context-switching among partners in accounting firms. As firm leaders, partners are at the forefront of leadership and client interactions and need sustained focus and undivided attention to navigate complex issues, provide strategic direction, and foster strong client relationships. The challenges posed by excessive context-switching may not only hamper individual performance and productivity but also have ripple effects on the firm’s overall efficiency and revenue generation.
The conclusions from lost time and productivity are clear: in a professional services firm with clear deliverables and targets, the efficient use of time really is of the essence.
How much more could we achieve if we could pinpoint the triggers of our distractions and identify simple changes to minimise switching and improve productivity? Tracking when distractions occur, where they come from, and analysing the types of tasks most impacted by context-switching can highlight patterns. Stress, low energy, and even boredom could be potential triggers, and being aware of such factors and when they are most at play, and when you are most likely to interrupt yourself, is the key to developing awareness and a more mindful approach to productivity.
Morning lark or night owl: decoding peak productivity hours
Measuring peak productivity times involves self-awareness and observation of energy levels, focus, and cognitive abilities throughout the day. Acknowledging this diversity in our peak output and productivity times, and recognising that we all work differently and thrive at different hours of the day could yield transformative results. Whether it’s the early morning for some, late morning for others, or the evening for a few, tracking and aligning tasks with our peak cognitive moments promotes focus and helps people understand their work patterns, interruptions, and priorities.
Working smarter not harder: focused work vs distracted work
In the world of time management strategies and productivity hacks and tips, from time blocking and task grouping, and even the idea of checking emails just once a day (thanks, Timothy Ferriss), one approach stands out. Consider the perspective of Alex Pang, author of “Rest,” a leading advocate for integrating rest and creativity into our professional lives. According to Pang, the key to maximum productivity is dedicating specific hours each day to the kind of work that demands serious mental focus—a tactic favoured by some of the most accomplished individuals, the “greats” in their fields. This isn’t just about working harder; it’s about working smarter for optimal results and maximum productivity.
Of course, accountants operate within a framework of targets and expectations, and the notion of advocating for three to four hours of work a day or downing tools once this hourly threshold has been reached is unlikely to be practical. However, the emphasis on focus and deep work suggests a shift in time management perspectives. It’s about recognising that not all working hours are created equal and strategically allocating time for those tasks that require deep concentration can lead to heightened productivity and better outcomes— even within the framework of targeted deliverables in a professional services firm.
Isn’t it time to foster a culture change and prioritise education around more effective and mindful approaches to work?
With the legacy of the pandemic-induced blurring of boundaries between work and home and the changes in working practices and environments, there can be a sense of “living at work” rather than “working from home.” This raises the critical question: is it time for a culture change? Should we shift away from perpetuating the “always-on” expectation, reevaluating incentives, rewards, and the unrealistic goal of providing instant responses that contribute to task hopping and distraction? What conversations and training initiatives are essential to ensure an optimal working environment that empowers our teams to realisze their full potential?
As we conclude, let’s keep in mind that this article isn’t a manifesto or doctrine on time management but rather an opportunity to reflect on how we allocate, measure, and manage our time. Above all, a moment to contemplate the tools at our disposal and enhance productivity with intentionality, to foster a culture that supports individual work patterns, and empowers our teams to reach their full potential.