Heads Up, Here’s How to Deal With Cognitive Overload at Work

  • September 27, 2019

The office doorbell is ringing. To your left, three colleagues are reviewing a file. Behind you, someone else is mid-conversation on the phone. You receive a message on Whatsapp while trying to re-read an email that you don’t understand.

Does this sound familiar? Over the past few years, the workplace has experienced a real, fast-paced revolution due to a rise in digital technology, open-plan offices and the abundance of fast and instant communication tools at our disposal. You are expected to evolve in a highly stimulating environment, where you have to take in, process and produce an endless amount of information. This constant stream of information puts our minds under a lot of strain, leaving our brains to deal with this neverending stimulation. Sometimes this massive mental effort leads to what scientists call “cognitive overload”. So, how can you avoid an overload and preserve some sort of cognitive balance under such circumstances? Let’s answer that question and look at how the brain works, with Marie Lacroix, a neuroscientist, and co-founder of the agency Cog’X.

The scientific definition

Marie Lacroix defines a mental burden, or a cognitive load, as “the cost of processing information in most given circumstances for an individual”. Contrary to popular belief, cognitive load is normal; it occurs as soon as you engage your cognitive abilities and it is not actually a bad thing in itself. It is regular cognitive overload that can be bad for you. This means, during the course of a day, trying to grasp more information than your working memory can handle. Often called short-term memory, its storage is limited to roughly 10 pieces of information that can be held for a short period of time (typically a few seconds). To understand its capacity, Lacroix suggests solving the following sums using mental arithmetic: 2 x 2 + 1 and then 22 x 15 + 3. “It is clear that the amount of mental effort required, and the resulting cognitive load, is larger for the second calculation,” she says.

“Mental load is the cost of processing information in most given circumstances for an individual.”

Misuse of the term

Psychologist John Sweller formalized the cognitive load theory in the late 1980s. As part of his research on instructional design, or the design of teaching, he tried to identify techniques that facilitate learning while keeping cognitive load to a minimum.

Taken out of the context of its scientific origins, the term “mental load” has since become common in everyday language. It is now associated with the idea of “thinking about everything, all the time”, and in particular with the mental load of running a household. This idea came from Nicole Brais, a researcher at Laval University in Quebec. Brais defines mental load as “the task of managing, organizing and planning, which is at the same time intangible, essential, and constant, and aims to meet the needs of others and to run the household smoothly”. The constant need to ensure that everything is functioning properly at home is still often considered a woman’s responsibility. The term “mental burden” became popular through artist Emma Clit’s comic strip, You Should’ve Asked, published in 2017, which humorously dissects life’s constraints on women.

However, as Lacroix points out, we have to distinguish between the colloquial use of the term“the day-to-day issues and worries of everyday life, and every single task that an individual must think about all day long”—and the scientific definition of cognitive load. She says, “There is still a link between the two concepts because our limited cognitive resources can only deal with a certain number of tasks at the same time without running into some difficulty. Therefore, our everyday worries, and the multitude of unforgettable things that we have to fit into each day, actually take up a lot of ‘mental space’ that cannot be dealt with elsewhere, plus there’s the stress it can cause in its own right.”

“Our limited cognitive resources can only deal with a certain number of tasks at the same time without running into some difficulty.”

A quick lesson on brain mechanics

If cognitive load is a natural phenomenon—it takes place from the moment we engage our brains—cognitive overload, especially on a professional level, takes place when things get excessive. Lacroix recommends analysing three major factors to identify and manage cognitive overload:

1. The nature of the task and/or you level of expertise with respect to the information provided

“Cognitive overload generally occurs when a task is too complex, either because the information itself is too difficult to process, or because we do not have the knowledge or the know-how to process it. This is especially true when we are new to a task or in the learning phase.”

2.The physical or digital work environment

“An overload can also happen when there is too much information to take into consideration, even if each individual piece is not that complex in itself. That is why overstretching yourself, or a set-up that requires doing several things at the same time, can overwhelm people.” For example, a work environment that is too stimulating—constant noise, conversations, telephone calls, streaming, and so on—such as an open-plan office, can interfere with our cognitive balance.

3.Our emotional and physical well-being

“Additionally, our internal state—especially our tiredness levels, stress, or a lack of motivation—can increase the amount of effort required to solve a task. After a bad night’s sleep, you can really see and feel how difficult it can be to carry out a task that you normally do efficiently.”

The collateral damage

What really happens when our brains go into overload? “In the brain, the overload state is associated with a change in activity in the prefrontal cortex, from where the working memory and the so-called executive functions are carried out . It’s basically the control tower of our brain,” explains Lacroix. “In cognitive overload, we increase our chances of making errors and of having memory problems, plus it can reduce our ability to plan, to deal with our emotions, and so on. Signs of a cognitive overload include making mistakes, having to start thought processes over and over again, not paying attention to others, or regularly forgetting important things.” Cognitive overload can therefore directly and indirectly reduce general well-being and performance at work.

“In cognitive overload, we increase our chances of making errors and of having memory problems, plus it can reduce our ability to plan, and to deal with our emotions.”

Is it a modern problem?

Lacroix emphasizes that cognitive overload is not a new problem. Nevertheless, it has intensified with the expansion of both information and communication technology.“The risk of cognitive overload is much higher now due to the speed of our exchanges and the constant flow of information that we have to manage. Our cognitive abilities are being stretched to the limit in this digital era,” says the neurologist.
Keeping a clear mind and calmly dealing with a dozen emails a day, endless notifications, requests, messages and reminders on multiple channels (Slack, Whatsapp, other chat groups, Google calendar, and so on) can feel like a combat sport. We can use an ergonomic concept here to discuss “cognitive overflow” and describe this idea of overload, according to Lacroix. “You feel as if you are being inundated with information to the point where you feel overwhelmed and urgent things take precedence over important things.”

“The risk of cognitive overload is much higher now due to the speed of our exchanges and the constant flow of information we have to manage. Our cognitive abilities are being stretched to the limit in this digital era.”

Could it happen to you?

Are there any professions in which you are more likely to experience cognitive overload? According to Lacroix, it’s not necessarily linked to individuals. She urges us not to confuse cognitive overload with a burn-out, which is definitely seen more frequently in certain professions (the police force, firefighters, hospital staff, and so on) due to overwork, heavy emotional involvement and a lack of recognition for the job they do. Nevertheless, it is possible to reduce the risk of cognitive overload by taking certain precautions. “This is particularly the case for airline pilots, air traffic controllers and power plant employees, who have procedures in place that are designed to bypass our natural mental capacity, such as checklists and double-checking, to reduce the risk of error,” explains Lacroix.

Be careful, your brain’s fragile, so how can you protect it?

Lacroix urges you to become aware of how your brain functions, so you can apply the best individual and collective procedures to look after it. She says, “Our attention span is a natural filter against cognitive overload. It allows us to select relevant information according to the task we would like to perform and leave the rest out of our working memory. However, this attention span is sensitive and it can easily get absorbed by other external demands, whether they are physical, such as in an open-plan office environment, or digital, through notifications.” Your workspace, work and methods of connecting play an important role in regulating your daily cognitive load.

“Your attention span is sensitive and it can easily get absorbed by other external demands.”

How can you deal with the multitude of factors that affect your cognitive load? According to Lacroix, to lower your mental load you have to reduce the amount of information that needs to be processed, or at least reduce its complexity. Here is an overview of the best methods to adopt, according to your needs:

On a personal level

  • List or outline all the tasks that you have to carry out
    To understand and plan tasks better, prioritize them. That is what to-do lists are for.
  • Let go of non-essential tasks
    To limit frustration, write down the tasks that you have performed and how long they took. This allows you to give value to your work—and it makes you realize that the time you spent on them didn’t vanish into thin air. It will also enable you to plan better in the future.
  • Approach a task with specific short-term objectives
    It is always more efficient to split up a task into short-term goals of 15 to 20 minutes, for example.
  • Stop multitasking
    Rather than juggling two or more tasks at the same time, such as responding to an email while you are in a meeting, it’s more efficient to do things sequentially, one task after another.
  • Reduce interruptions to improve your efficiency and lower stress levels
    It’s better to check your inbox intermittently; every hour, perhaps, or if you’re worried about not responding quickly enough, every 30 minutes. But avoid constantly hovering over it. You should also limit visual and sound prompts such as pop-ups and notifications and choose specific times to view them.
  • Adapt your breaks to the task at hand
    In order to effectively regulate your mental load, a break is supposed to be a change from the task at hand, so you can be active in a different way. If you are spending the day conducting a workshop and interacting with people, the right break would be to read, listen to calming music, or go for a walk. If you are staring at a screen all day, the right kind of break would involve moving your body and interacting with others.
  • Always give yourself proper recovery time
    Sports, meditation, reading, or even just doing nothing all have a profound effect on your mental and physical well-being. If you don’t give yourself enough recovery time, you end up producing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to compensate, which can have a detrimental effect on your health.

On a collective, organizational level

  • Offer flexible working spaces, which allow employees to work in an environment that meets the needs of their tasks, such as a quiet room or a collaborative space.
  • Work on managerial practice, especially on the idea of false urgency, an increasingly common workplace trend, according to Lacroix. “Encourage managers to distinguish the difference between what is ‘urgent’ and what is ‘important’ for their teams, which will help them with organizing and prioritizing.”
  • Be aware of your demands on others. Be careful about when you send an email, a text or a Whatsapp message, or when you bring up an important subject. This avoids causing any unnecessary agitation or giving someone the impression that you are challenging them at an inappropriate moment. It ensures that you are respecting their recovery time.

If cognitive load is normal, the feeling of mental overload is not. As Lacroix points out, “It means that we need to question our individual practices, change the way tasks are being done, facilitate certain processes, reorganize the steps involved using available resources, and so on.”

While the problem needs to be dealt with collectively, and even at an organizational level, you have some flexibility in how you work. You have to actively want to get away from speed, quantity and responding instantly—concepts that are associated to productivity. What if all you needed to be calmer, more efficient and more effective at work was to learn how to say “no” and to take your time?

“We need to question our individual practices, change the way tasks are being done, facilitate certain processes…”

Photo: WTTJ

Translated by Mildred Dauvin

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Elsa Sayagh

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