Cognitive Load - Next Action Associates

Over the past few years, I’ve become aware of the idea of “cognitive load”. This refers to the extent to which your working memory is occupied by things your brain is processing. It has been a subject of study in the last 20 years or so, particularly with reference to education, (both in schools and also when determining ways to optimise training processes) and also for understanding the challenges old people face as their cognitive capacity declines.

Many of us may not be aware of the magnitude of cognitive load we are under at any given moment, until it gets close to our maximum capacity – but nobody can fail to notice once that happens. Complex tasks become disproportionately difficult, creative tasks almost impossible. Elderly people may even suffer a deterioration in their balance. It’s often described as feeling “overwhelmed”.

It’s analogous to when your computer has so many different things running at once that it runs out of available memory. For this reason, we sometimes refer to this as “running out of psychic RAM”.

There are several ways you might experience this. You might be driving on a straight, uneventful road with the radio on and family members chatting in the car, feeling quite relaxed. You’re doing a few things at once but most of them are on autopilot. But then the traffic ahead becomes more challenging, and you start to feel a sense of mental overwhelm, or you feel rushed. You feel you need to reduce the number of stimuli, so you might turn the radio off or politely excuse yourself from the ongoing conversation. Then after the complex junction has passed, you feel able to re-engage with the conversation, turn the radio back on, or whatever. (Some people deal with this differently and are able to consciously shut out all extraneous inputs to focus on the most crucial task).

You may experience a similar situation when a lot of things land on your plate in work over a short period and you go from feeling busy but OK to feeling psychologically overwhelmed.

In an extreme case, you may find it almost impossible to start on any action due to the sense of there being so many different things that all need to be done at once.

Different people experience this in different ways – many describe it as if their mind is like a room full of people all talking (or even shouting) at once. The debilitating effect of high cognitive load has been referred to frequently in research in recent years. Research at MIT highlighted the cognitive load of being financially challenged (highly intelligent students taking part in an experiment that forced them to experience poverty for a period started to make poor decisions about simple things in day to day life). Children exposed to bullying at school may suffer a deficit in academic achievement compared to their potential, and people suffering from chronic illnesses (such as being on dialysis) may experience a debilitating effect that means they struggle to work when in purely physical terms they seem quite capable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research also shows higher multi-tasking and social media use to be correlated with higher cognitive load compared with lower use in control groups.

One thing that we can generally all agree on is that if you find yourself running at very high cognitive load, it’s not a pleasant feeling or a situation you want to remain in. You wouldn’t want to go to bed at night in that state (you probably wouldn’t sleep) and you certainly wouldn’t expect to be able to perform well in any creative tasks.

If this was your computer running out of memory, the sensible next step would be to close a few things down, to free up some space. But your computer might helpfully insist that various bits of work were saved first. Simply turning the computer off without saving would probably cause you more problems in the not-too-distant future.

If you’re curious, you might open up “Task Manager” (or your computer’s equivalent) to see just what it is that has used up all your memory. This is sometimes a less than satisfactory experience, because although you were hoping to find one or two big culprits that could completely explain the problem, you instead find a large number of small things that, though apparently not that important in their own right, combine to create a large total load.

The computer memory analogy is quite useful in thinking about what goes on in our minds. Sometimes your high cognitive load is actually down to a small number of big things but just as often it can be explained by a large number of small things you’re keeping track of. And if you are able to sit down and make a list of all those things (an activity we call a Mindsweep), you are doing the equivalent of saving your work and then shutting down each individual program, freeing up psychic RAM. (Many people keep a notepad at the bedside for this reason).

Unlike a computer, however, your mind has the facility to reload all of those items back into memory by itself if it doesn’t trust that you’re going to do something meaningful with the list you just wrote.

That’s why simply “writing a list” is not sufficient. You need a list (or lists) that your subconscious mind trusts. What that means in practice is that you need a set of consistent habits or behaviours for dealing with the lists once you’ve written them.

That is precisely what GTD® is. A set of simple but well thought out behaviours that ensure that from the moment you capture a thought, or a piece if external information arrives, it’s safely handled, processed and routed to the place where you next need to see it. Until then, your external system keeps track of it, and you’re free of the cognitive load of worrying about it.

Unlike psychic RAM, your external system scales easily, so if your world gets busier, your lists grow, but there’s still no need to carry any more around in your head.

This is why GTD protects you from the sense of overwhelm. It also explains why so many creative people swear by it. They have discovered that having their psychic RAM free from niggling details, they have more space to come up with new ideas and to be creative.

What’s not to like about that?

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