Effectiveness requires efficiency.
In today’s world, where it often seems 24 hours are insufficient and there are innumerable distractions competing for your attention, intentionally managing your cognitive load is more important than ever.
Whether you run a Fortune 500 company or are simply mentally exhausted at the end of a busy day, the new 21st century skill is being able to maximize the effort exuded in learning, decision-making and performing mental exercises.
What is Cognitive Load?
Cognitive load theory was first proposed in 1988 by John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales. Although he was focused on the educational end of the spectrum, his cognitive load theory can be applied to many industries – indeed, many aspects of life.
The working memory has a finite capacity every day. Working memory is the process through which the brain evaluates, analyzes, decides, and then chooses what to store long-term or discard.
This finite capacity is known as the cognitive load… what can your brain successfully process today?
The fantastic thing about cognitive load is that it resets every night as you sleep. Cognitive load does have limits, in not only the amount of data it can handle, but also attention span and duration for each decision or project.
How Can I Manage Cognitive Load?
Managing your cognitive load is important to making good decisions throughout the day. The phrase “decision fatigue” is sometimes used to describe cognitive overload. Take a page from some of the brilliant minds of the last few decades and you’ll find there are a few ways to manage your cognitive load.
- Limit Unimportant Options. Steve Jobs wore black turtlenecks. Mark Zuckerberg wears gray t-shirts or hooded sweatshirts. It’s not about what you wear; the point is to not expend your cognitive load on insignificant decisions. Dress or pants? Jeans or slacks? Long or short sleeve? Polo or button up? Whew! I’m exhausted already and I’m not even dressed! Take note from these brilliant thinkers and limit the unimportant options. Many successful people do this with clothes, breakfast, lunch, etc. If you need to expend time considering your wardrobe, make it the night before.
- Make the Most Important Decisions Early in the Day. Researchers from Ben Gurion University and Columbia University analyzed 1,100 decisions made by judges in Israeli prisoner parole hearings. The biggest factor in determining whether a prisoner was granted parole was actually what time of day they appeared before the judge. Judges, like all of us, tended to give more analysis to the earliest cases. Prisoners seen later in the day were more likely to be denied, probably because the judge’s cognitive load was spent. If it’s important, give it your attention early in the day. Save the less critical decisions for afternoon or evening.
- Minimize Distractions. Whether at work or at home, distractions seem to be constant. Tune them out to focus on the task or decision at hand. Turn off the ringer, ignore the incoming emails, shut the door if necessary. The texts, emails and social media will all still be there once the task has been accomplished. Set aside time to tend to those distractions. If they are getting proper attention, they won’t distract you when you’re focused on other issues. You can manage your cognitive load by allocating time to the things that require your attention for a specific period. Once that time is up, move to the next task.
- Don’t Decide While Hungry. Eating gives your cognitive load a boost. Making important decisions, especially later in the day while hungry, often sets you up for poor decisions. Take the time to feed your body and mind. Have brain-centric snacks handy that can help sate the hunger. These include almonds, apples, avocados and more.
- Make Decisions for YOUR To-Do List. It’s so easy and tempting to make decisions for others, or even for ourselves that other people have deemed important. But is that really where you want to spend your cognitive load? Instead, focus on what you have made a priority for today’s to-do list. This may require you to empower other people to make their own decisions. And even harder, it may mean you say “no” to something. Don’t let your fear of missing out force you into a “yes” that distracts from the task at hand.
Optimize Cognitive Load Theory for YOUR Life
Instead of allowing decisions to be forced upon you, choose where you exert your mental energies. Take control of your working memory and allocate the finite daily resources you have to the task you have given priority.
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