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One of the ten future work skills listed as necessary for success in the 21st century in the Future Work Skills 2020 document is cognitive load management.

While that all sounds rather grand, or even worrying – i.e. do we all need this rather unpleasant sounding condition that requires careful management? Fear not, all it is, is a rather fancy new term for keeping the lid on what we allow to bombard our brain.

It relates to the idea that we are in danger of being swamped by the amount of information we have access to in any given moment. What matters is knowing how to filter out what is needed, and toss the rest.

It’s become an issue because of our fear of fear missing out and because it’s leading to higher stress levels. Knowing how to think well and clearly is essential in the modern workplace.

What is meant by cognitive load?

Wikipedia defines cognitive load as the amount of mental energy imposed on our working memory.

It’s been estimated that we have around 11 million bits of information to potentially deal with at one time, but the human brain is only capable of handling around forty. Worse still we can only hold between 2-3 items, front of mind, in our working memory and the more complex the items, the smaller the capacity. Hence the need for aggressive filtering.

There’s a theory about this.

Of course, there is. The Cognitive Load Theory (now there’s an exciting name for you) was first published By Richards Atkinson and Shiffrin back in 1968 and later developed by John Sweller in 1988. Clearly some folk thought cognitive load was an issue back then.

I don’t know what you were up to in 1968 (assuming you had been born), but some were happily listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, a whopping 19 million people in the UK were now proud owners of televisions and the first automated teller machine (ATM) was installed by the First Philadelphia Bank.

The theory helps us to understand the way we process information and remains little changed today.

The problem is the limited holding capacity of the working memory. Call it a design flaw if you like, this leads to a mental bottleneck of ideas waiting to be sorted. We’ve probably all sat in one of those classes where either too much information has been presented, or it’s a bit complicated making it hard to follow. Either way, your brain can only take in so much before you reach your cognitive limit and you’ve already realised that much of what you wanted to take in and remember has already gone.

When cognitive load reaches the red zone

Ned Hallowell explained this beautifully in his HBR article ‘Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform’.  He uses the term Attention Deficit Disorder. I call it Busy Brain Syndrome. Either way it’s not a good place to be for any period of time as it is associated with higher levels of anxiety, irritability and reduced performance.

Is there an antidote?

Fortunately, yes. Quick pass me the vial of anti-CO now.

I’ve talked about this a lot and I’ll talk about it again now because sometimes it can help just to have that little reminder to:

  • KISS and Chunk
  • Choose to be less busy. Now there’s a notion.
  • Monotask (such a lovely thing to do)
  • Triple filter, more if you can, to sift out the golden nuggets of information you want to keep and discard the tailings.
  • Use technology to help. While this might seem like asking you arch-nemesis in for a nice cup of tea and a McVitie’s biscuit, adaptive interfaces are being designed by researchers at Tufts University and elsewhere as an aid in reducing detail and simplifying data being presented.
  • Take time out. Yes, I mean that. 55% of Americans failed to take their vacations in 2015. Did they just forget or did they succumb to that nasty virus of #workaddiction?
  • Lastly, stop working so hard. Yes, it’s great doing work you love, but not at the expense of your brain, your sanity and your relationships. (Note to self – this includes you.)

Cognitive overload is a reality and yes it does require our management. However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. We are all unique; we all have different coping mechanisms. The trick is to have a broad enough array so that when required it’s just a short hop, skip and a jump to your wardrobe to pick out which strategy would best suit.

Mmm, the pink “not busy” t-shirt looks nice; I might try that one today.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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