Bearing the Burden: Five Tips for Handling Your Cognitive Load

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

Even after more than a century of R&D, the human brain is the still the most efficient computer on the planet. That’s likely to remain true until we invent quantum computers, assuming that’s even possible. Pound for pound, nothing beats the brain’s processing and command-and-control ability. It finds patterns where mechanical and digital computers don’t, can make intuitive leaps, holds astounding amounts of information, and to some extent can even fix itself when damaged. Its only limiting factors are the speed of synaptic connections, and how fast the body can respond to its commands.

That said, your brain has limitations. The old saw about using only 10% of your brain is a myth; you may use only 10% of your brain consciously at any time, but the rest is busy processing stimuli, translating sensory input into useful meaning, and running a complex meat machine without your direct intervention. Then there’s the issue of cognitive load: you can only keep so much information in your working memory before you run out of space or get confused. Think of working memory as a computer’s RAM; long-term memory is your version of the hard drive.

Unfortunately, you can’t add more RAM to your brain. You can, however, manage your cognitive load to boost your productivity. It mostly boils down to one word: simplify.


  1. Improve your signal-to-noise ratio. You want the important information, the signal, to get through a clearly as possible, while everything else is minimized. So, get rid of as much “noise” as possible. Block unnecessary information, clarify details, unclutter, and generally weed anything blocking effective communication and progress on what you’re trying to do.


  1. Use cognitive aids. Remember how “every good boy does fine”? Or when “King Phillip came over for green stamps”? Both are mnemonics, cognitive aids that let you clear some of your working memory. Once you learn a mnemonic, you can use it jog your memory: in these cases, for the lines of the musical treble clef (E, G, B, D, and F), and biology’s Linnaean classification system (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species). You can create your own personal mnemonics to help you remember the basics as you work through a task or project, especially when learning something new. They can be either phrases, as in the above, or an easily remembered acronym, such as the term S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), used for achieving goals. Flow charts, decision trees, and checklists also come in handy.


  1. Avoid social media and news during work time. Both distract you from your job in the here and now. You can live without social media until you are off the clock; and if a piece of news is crucial, someone will let you know.


  1. Eliminate all the other distractions. Close your door, ask people not to have conversations outside your office, listen to ambient sound or soft music while wearing noise-cancelling headphones, or simply move somewhere quiet to work. Close all unneeded applications, stop checking email more than a few times a day, turn off your phone ringer, and disable visual and audible notifications.


  1. Maintain documentation for everything. Compile documentation for every aspect of the task or project you’re on, tighten it up, and make it as simple as possible. This should include everything from white papers to step-by-step instructions for specific processes. Even if you only have to do a particular task once, documenting it will help any co-workers who may do the same or a similar task in the future.

Fool hearted Memory

Few of us have infallible memories, but most of us can maintain an astonishing amount of temporary working memory—or organic RAM, if you will. But we’re not really machines; there are limits to what we can have open at once, and we have to eventually store it to our mental hard drives. Nor can we truly expand our “RAM,” so we have to manage our working memory carefully. The tips I’ve included in this blog will help you get started on managing your cognitive load effectively.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.