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Strategies for Managing Cognitive Overload

Picture this: you're sitting at your desk, staring at a mountain of work you must complete before the day's end. You take a deep breath and dive in, but once you’ve tackled the first big task, your brain starts to feel like it's running on fumes. You can almost hear the gears grinding to a halt as your cognitive load reaches its breaking point. We've all been there, and it's not a fun place to be. But the good news is that there are ways to reduce cognitive load and increase productivity. Let's explore some tips and tricks for lightening the mental load and getting more done in less time.

What is cognitive load?

Cognitive load is the mental effort your brain requires to understand and complete a task. If the cognitive load is too high, it can lead to confusion and frustration as your brain struggles to process everything at once.

Let's say you're learning a new software program for your job. The first time you use it, your brain has to work hard to understand the interface, commands, and features. This can be overwhelming and lead to a mishmash of confusing movements or actions.

However, as you become more familiar with the program and develop a mental model of how it works, the cognitive load will decrease. You'll execute tasks more smoothly and efficiently, and you may even start to notice patterns or shortcuts that make the process easier. That's because your brain is used to it and doesn't have to work as hard.

The same is true for other tasks in life. Lowering cognitive load aids the learning process, problem-solving, and decision-making. 

What is cognitive load theory?

Cognitive load theory (CLT) is a framework that describes how the human brain processes information and learns new things. It is used in instructional design to create effective learning experiences that maximize learning and minimize cognitive overload.

Cognitive load theory is based on the idea that the brain has a limited short-term memory or working memory capacity. Learners can become overwhelmed if they are presented with too much information. 

The brain has a limited capacity for processing information. When the brain is presented with new information, it must use cognitive resources to process and store it. If the information is presented in a way that exceeds the brain's capacity, the learner may experience cognitive overload, resulting in frustration, confusion, and decreased learning outcomes.

The theory is rooted in cognitive architecture, which refers to the structure and organization of the brain's cognitive processes. 

It’s helpful to incorporate auditory and visual information into instructional design. Adding different types of information prevents the split attention effect, which occurs when learners try to process multiple streams of information simultaneously.

What are the three types of cognitive load?

The three types of cognitive load iare intrinsic, extraneous, and germane.

  • Intrinsic cognitive load: This refers to the inherent complexity of a learning task and the mental effort required to understand and complete it. For example, a software tutorial would have an inherently high intrinsic cognitive load compared to casually reading a novel.

  • Extraneous cognitive load: This type of cognitive load is caused by external factors, such as poorly designed interfaces, confusing instructions, and distractions. For example, if the software tutorial you’re trying to learn has poor usability or visuals, it may increase your extraneous cognitive load.

  • Germane cognitive load: This type of cognitive load refers to the mental effort required to store and retrieve information from long-term memory and is related to learning and the development of schemas. The more prior knowledge you have about something, the easier it becomes and the less mental effort your brain has to use to complete it.

What happens when cognitive load is too high?

If your cognitive load is too high, it can be like carrying too many bags of groceries at once—everything starts to feel heavy and overwhelming. When you're trying to process too much information at once, it can be difficult to focus on any one thing, and you might feel mentally exhausted. 

Here are some consequences of a high cognitive load:

  • Decreased ability to focus: An exhausted brain finds it difficult to focus on any task. That's because you struggle to keep track of all the different tasks and pieces of information swirling around in your head. 
  • Decreased motivation: Your brain tires from trying to keep up with everything. You might find yourself procrastinating or avoiding tasks that require mental effort. For example, if you have a deadline looming and your cognitive load is too high, you might find yourself putting it off.
  • Lower creativity: The effort of processing a high amount of information can prevent you from accessing the creative part of your brain. You won't be able to come up with original ideas or think outside the box when your brain is taxed by cognitive load.
  • Reduced working memory capacity: Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in the short term. When cognitive load is too high, working memory can become overwhelmed, making it harder to remember and process information.
  • Mental fatigue: Just like any other muscle, the brain can become fatigued with overuse. High cognitive load can lead to mental exhaustion, making it difficult to maintain concentration and motivation.

What is context switching and how does it affect cognitive load?

Context switching happens when you're working on one task and suddenly have to switch to something else. 

For example, imagine you're working on a report, and your coworker asks you to review a presentation. 

You have to stop what you're doing, review the presentation, and then switch back to the report. This can be mentally exhausting and cause a spike in cognitive load, as you have to shift focus and adjust to a new set of information and rules.

Context switching can be a real productivity killer because it takes your brain time to get into a new mindset. This can cause a spike in cognitive load as your brain adjusts to a new set of rules and information.

5 ways to manage your cognitive load at work [+ the tools that’ll help]

Pair tried and tested strategies with the right tools, and you’ll soon find that cognitive load no longer has to be a drag on your productivity. Here are five strategies for managing cognitive load at work:

Automate note-taking during meetings with Supernormal

Supernormal automates note-taking during meetings so you can focus on the discussion instead of frantically jotting down notes.

Meetings often involve too much talking and not enough listening, making it hard to keep track of important points or decisions. You look down into your notebook and realize you missed half of what was said. This constant back and forth makes you miss critical points and even makes it challenging for your brain to process information.

This is where Supernormal comes in. Supernormal's AI-powered note-taking system uses natural language processing to take notes in real time. It can transcribe the conversation, highlight key takeaways, and create meeting minutes so you can easily focus on and remember what was discussed.

Supernormal also helps with collaborative decision-making, as it stores all notes in an organized and searchable format that anyone on your team can access. Nothing gets lost in translation, and you can contribute to the conversation as much as you want.

Supernormal saves time and keeps you organized so you can make the most of your meetings and collaborate efficiently with other team members.

Top Features:

  • Integrations with Slack, Google, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other enterprise apps allow you to get the best out of your meetings
  • Transcriptions in multiple languages including Spanish, German, and Portuguese
  • Share notes easily with anyone in the conversation

Pros:

  • AI-powered assistant (named Norm) captures key takeaways and meeting notes
  • Share links with anyone in the conversation
  • Seamless syncing with any HR tools

Pricing:

The Starter plan is free for Google Meet users and includes 20 meetings per month. The Pro plan starts at $13 per month.

Prioritize tasks with Todoist

Todoist is a task management tool that can prioritize and manage workloads, making it easier to stay on top of responsibilities.

Research shows nearly 50% of people regularly have problems focusing and concentrating. To stay on top of your workload, start by prioritizing tasks based on importance and difficulty.

Top Features:

  • User-friendly task management with due dates, labels, and priorities
  • Cross-platform accessibility to access and sync tasks seamlessly across devices
  • Share tasks, assign, and receive real-time updates for effective teamwork

Pros:

  • Intelligent reminders and notifications to help users stay on track and never miss important deadlines or tasks
  • Productivity stats and visualizations to allow to monitor task completion rates, set goals, and analyze productivity over time
  • Integration with popular apps, such as Google Calendar, Dropbox, and Slack

Cons:

  • Advanced features and customization options may require a learning curve
  • Absence of a native calendar view within the app

Pricing:

A free plan is available. The Pro plan starts at $4 per month, and the Business plan starts at $6 per month.

Break down complex tasks with Trello

Trello is a project management tool that helps break down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable parts, allowing you to focus on one thing at a time and collaborate with team members.

Breaking tasks into small chunks is a great way to reduce cognitive load because it allows you to focus on one thing at a time instead of trying to process too much information simultaneously. 

Top Features:

  • Organize tasks and projects into customizable boards and lists
  • Assign tasks, add comments, attachments, and due dates, and track progress in real-time
  • Integrates with various apps and offers power-ups to extend functionality

Pros:

  • Comprehensive activity log and history of all actions taken on boards and cardsto provide transparency and accountability 
  • Vibrant community of users who share their templates and best practices
  • Built around the popular Kanban methodology which promotes visualizing work, limiting work in progress, and improving workflow efficiency

Cons:

  • Organizational structure is based on boards, lists, and cards, which may not provide sufficient depth for users who require complex task hierarchies or subtasks
  • Lacks in-depth reporting and analytics features

Pricing:

Free plan available. Standard plan starts at $5 per user monthly, Premium plan starts at $10 per user monthly, and Enterprise plan starts at $17.50 per user monthly.

Avoid unnecessary distractions with Freedom

Minimize distractions by turning off notifications and avoiding multitasking with Freedom.

The constant pings of Slack, WhatsApp, and Instagram can be distracting. One minute you're analyzing data on Excel, and the next you're scrolling through Instagram. 

Freedom is a tool that can help you block websites and apps so you can focus on the task at hand. You can customize your block list and set rules, and set up recurring sessions to block the sites automatically during work hours. 

Top Features:

  • Create categories of websites you want to keep off-limits during work hours
  • Set a timer to restrict access for a certain period of time
  • Track time you spend on distracting activities

Pros:

  • Schedule focused sessions and allocate specific time blocks for work without interruptions
  • Syncs preferences and session data across devices to maintain consistent distraction-blocking settings
  • Insights and reporting features that offer a visual overview of productivity patterns

Cons: 

  • Possibility of overblocking where certain websites or apps actually necessary for work may be mistakenly blocked
  • May lack specific features or options for scheduling designated break times

Pricing:

Free trial available. Premium plan starting at $3.33 per month and a one-time cost Forever plan is also available.

Meditate with Headspace

Use Headspace during work breaks to meditate and refocus your mind.

Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention on one thing and letting go of distracting thoughts. It can help reduce stress, increase clarity, and improve focus. Studies suggest it also improves your working memory—the ability to remember and process new information—and regulate emotions. 

Top Features:

  • Tailor-made programs for different goals such as productivity, creativity, or sleep
  • Short animations explain the basics of meditation
  • Personalized recommendations based on user preferences and goals

Pros:

  • Beginner-friendly approach to meditation makes it accessible to individuals new to mindfulness practices
  • Structured meditation programs providing users with a step-by-step progression to develop mindfulness skills
  • Intuitive and user-friendly interface makes it easy to navigate, discover content, and track progress

Cons:

  • Limitations in offering in-depth exploration of advanced meditation techniques
  • Some features or content such as specific sleep sounds or stories, may be limited to certain subscription tiers

Pricing:

Free trial available. Annual and monthly subscriptions starting at $12.99 per month.

Reduce your cognitive load for maximum productivity

Your cognitive load affects your productivity and how efficiently you can process and store information. Take active measures to optimize your productivity by managing distractions and reducing cognitive load.

Remember, tools like Supernormal are your partners. With a note-taking assistant, you can focus on the discussion without worrying about missing any important points. And when it's time to relax, turn to Headspace for a few minutes of guided meditation. 

Reduce your cognitive load during important meetings and get 20 free meetings per month of AI notetaking with Supernormal. Your productivity will thank you.

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