Let’s talk about Cognitive Load.

First, what is Cognitive Load?

Basically, it’s how much working memory you are using in your brain, a person can hole 5 to 9 items in working memory at any one time. High cognitive loads can lead to forgetting things, impaired decision making, and increased errors.

Cognitive Load can be split into three types:

  • Intrinsic load is the difficulty of a given topic (long multiplication causes a higher load then simple addition)
  • Extraneous load is about the way information is presented, and also about the wider environment that someone is in (noisy, distracting, etc)
  • Germane load is associated with moving things out of short term working memory and into longer term memory by creating schemas

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is used to develop training materials and courses, if we accept that people only have a finite amount of processing capacity then by limiting Intrinsic and Extraneous load, and focussing on Germaine load, people can be helped to learn more effectively.

However, a lot of the theory around Cognitive Load can be applied to the new world that we have all found ourselves in.

If you’ve been feeling that your head is just full and that you can’t keep track of any more stuff, or your struggling with switching constantly from parent to teacher to professional, or you’ve been finding yourself overloaded with open windows and a never ending list of things to do, then you’ve probably been experience a high, or extreme, Cognitive Load.

Continually sitting at these high loads will lead to errors creeping in to everything that you’re trying to do, errors create rework, rework slows you down, work piles up, stress increases, you try to do more, and so a negative loop ensues.

This can lead to everything from irritability to burnout.

So how to we relieve the load?

Or better yet, how can we stop it from getting out of hand in the first place?

How do we keep our cognitive load at the lower level that enables us to work better, deliver right first time, and move easily from the work context to the home context (without leaving the chair)?

To start to answer, let’s look at what we can do about each type of load:

  • We have to accept that there is only so much we can do about Intrinsic load (the difficulty of a task), but if we can think about what we’re working on and when then we can manage it to some degree.

    We don’t have to go from one high difficulty task to the next, we can add some easy stuff in there.
  • We need to limit Extraneous Load as much as possible, we can make sure we’re getting information in a way that works for us, and that it’s not coming in from every direction at once, we can also remove distractions from our environment.
  • Germaine load is actually where we want to be, even if we’re not “learning”, the easier it is for us to move things from our working memory over to longer term memory and back again, the smoother things will flow, the easier it will be for us to get things right.

OK, we know what it is, we know why we want to manage it, and we know what we want to manage, so; what can we actually do?

How can I limit or reduce my Cognitive Load?

One of the best ways to limit Extraneous Load is to make sure we’re not loading ourselves up with a load of stuff we don’t need, either through dividing our attention, or through our environment.

We need to give ourselves space to focus on one thing, and we need to make sure that we’re getting the information that we need to focus on in a way that works for us.

  • Get granular on your notifications, or turn them off for a focus period: Every time a notification pops up on your desktop, you’re focus is split, you look at it, and you add another item to those 5 to 9 things you can keep in your head at any one time.

    Even if you don’t act on it, it’s there.

    Use Do Not Disturb on your devices liberally; if you need to focus then switch your phone and your laptop to DND for the period that you want to stay in the zone. However you should also be constantly fine tuning your notifications, especially on your phone.

    Notifications preferences on iPhone can be set on an app by app basis; and can range from nothing at all, to a notification delivered quietly, to a full banner and chime. You can also pick and choose individual elements of all of these features to really customise your notifications app by app.

    While that may sound like a huge pain in the ass, it is time well spent to make sure that the things you need to know about right now make their way through to you, while the things that can wait, wait; clearing your plate and limiting your load.
  • Automation: This can look like email rules, it can look like If This Then That, it can look like Power Automate or AppleScript; I don’t care. The things you don’t need to get involved in doing manually need to go away, it’s that simple.

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I have over 30 rules that run on my mailbox, and I’m constantly refining these. One of the most powerful is the one that takes any email that I’m on the cc line of, and puts it in a folder marked “Review”, which I look at once a week or so. I’m open with people and tell them that if the cc me then I probably won’t see their email, if they want action then put me in the To line; which should be basic etiquette anyway.
  • Breaks: Take breaks. From everyone and everything, get 20/60 minutes to yourself every day in order to deload an do something at you don’t really have to think about; meditation, running, training, yoga, whatever works for you, but do it by yourself.

Through these actions we can work to limit or relieve our Extraneous Load, giving us more space to think, improving our recall and reducing errors. Through these actions we can start to build a virtuous loop to counter the negative loop that I mentioned earlier.

On top of all of this we can manage our Intrinsic Load be not always choosing the difficult task; flex how difficult each task you want to do in a day is, don’t overload yourself with difficult or mentally challenging tasks, give yourself the occasional easy one.

As knowledge workers our concentration, our focus and our ability think clearly are at the very heart of the value that we add, we should all work to make sure that we are operating in the best place possible, and that means not overloading ourselves.

Protect the greatest asset you have; yourself.

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