Why the shift?
We keep hearing that our world is becoming more complex and cycling faster and faster. That’s true. And it means the need to be able to focus our attention is becoming greater and greater. Brain fact – attention is fleeting!
For many of us, this means it’s no longer enough to attempt to scrupulously manage our time. Even doing that, I’ve had a number of conversations with people who are feeling overloaded and under pressure. The constant toggling between emails, phone calls, meetings and the need to drive outcomes and deliver results is exhausting to the brain and body.
By being brain savvy, we can more consciously optimise our cognitive load and be more productive. Our brains don’t cope well being constantly bombarded with information and stimulus. It depletes the brain capacities particularly related to flexibility, inhibition and the very important ‘executive director’ function of the brain. This impacts our decision making, creative thinking ability and our memory, specifically working memory.
Different tasks require different ‘loads’. Activities we do frequently and don’t have to spend much time thinking about don’t have much load. These don’t tax working memory too much. Activities that we do less frequently, or that we need to concentrate on have a greater ‘load’. These do require more effort and resource from working memory. And we can’t hold very many things in working memory for very long. Current research indicates about 7 things at any one time!
And, as much as we like to think that we multi-task, it’s not how the brain works! Instead, what happens when we are toggling between activities is very fast serial processing in the brain. A mix, if you like, of the different ‘loads’. That all uses up precious limited resources. It helps to explain why we might start the day being able to focus and feel productive. Yet as the day progresses, our ability to focus our attention, manage those interruptions or feel that creative spark decreases. Ever experienced that dreaded 3 o’clock in the afternoon hump?
What can I do?
Here are some tips to help you start to work in a more brain savvy way across the entire day:
- Make deliberate decisions – this aids in focussing attention
- Separate analytical and creative tasks – this helps to reduce brain resource sapping toggling
- Oscillate tasks – this helps to consciously alternate between activities requiring different ‘loads’
- Eliminate things that distract, but don’t worry if your mind wanders – aids in optimising focus and reducing stress
What do you do to manage your cognitive load?