How To Manage Your Cognitive Load

How To Manage Your Cognitive Load

What does a typical day look like for you? Are you caught in a cycle of perpetual multi tasking? Constantly in fire fighting mode? If you’re mentally and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day you could benefit from managing your cognitive load using a tool developed with astronauts. Optimise your performance and maintain mental energy by mastering your cognitive load. Here’s how.

Inefficient Cognitive Load 

Multi tasking is one of the most inefficient ways to manage our mental and emotional energy. Instead of leaving us ahead of the game, it reduces our performance. Stress levels increase, activating the amygdala. Once that fight, flight or freeze area of the brain is switched on, it creates an internal stress response. That’s why we feel so emotionally drained when we mistakenly believe that we’re doing everything we can to use our time efficiently. We’re inadvertently creating cognitive overload.

Switch Tasking & Cognitive Task Load

We’re not multi tasking we’re actually switch tasking, jumping from one task to another, rapidly decreasing performance. Researchers have found that multi tasking negatively affects cognitive load resulting in multiple mistakes along with increased stress.

Switch tasking slows us down, makes us less accurate and leaves us feeling mentally exhausted. When we pile on the pressure with multiple tasks, we’re feeding into the feeling that there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Multitasking depletes our mental energy along with our resilience. It’s a game of constant catch up that we just can’t win. René Marois (2005) at Vanderbilt University discovered that the brain responds to multiple tasks with a “response selection bottleneck” slowing us down even further as it attempts to prioritise tasks. Think of this as circuit overload.

Cognitive Task Load & Space Flight

Researchers working with the Mars 500 crew created a simple heuristic tool to measure cognitive task load. Using 3 dimensions their cognitive task load tool (CTLT) provided a deceptively simple way to assess cognitive load and optimise performance. Accompanying each dimension is a simple question to help you assess the cognitive load of each task.

  • Dimension 1: Time Pressure. How long we spend on each task will impact cognitive load. Perceived time pressure increases our load.

Question: How much of the available time are you focused on your work? Have you allocated enough time for specific tasks?


  • Dimension 2: Switching. The number of times we jump from task to task increases our cognitive load.

Question: How often are you switching from one process to the other?


  • Dimenstion 3: Complexity. The more we have to focus on a task, the more complex we perceive it to be, the more our cognitive load increases.

Question: How complex, or routine, are the tasks that you’re engaged in?

The Mars 500 crew were asked to assess tasks using the three dimensions. Each task could then be graded by the space crew as low, medium or high in terms of cognitive load. Working with the tool allows you to manage tasks according to their cognitive load. It also provides an opportunity for cognitive load architecture.

Using the Cognitive Load Tool

1. Order tasks according to cognitive load. Group tasks together into low load, medium load and high load categories. Create blocks of time in the day for high focus tasks of at least 60 minutes, creating a space where you won’t be interrupted.

2. Circadian Rhythm. Identify the time of day when you experience peak energy. This is the ideal time to tackle high focus tasks with the greatest cognitive load. Identify times when your energy typically slumps and schedule in the tasks with a low cognitive load that allow you to fall back into a mode that requires less focus.

3. Limit Distractions. Dial down your use of tech to minimise distractions. Create periods in your day when you turn off your alerts, reduce social media and unplug. To reduce your cognitive load, you’ll need to minimise distractions and create pauses along with true downtime.

4. Cognitive Load Architecture. Curate your day according to cognitive load. Organise your schedule so that you’re able to prioritise tasks, working with your cognitive load and your energy levels. You won’t gain by ploughing through your workload, you’ll just get slower and slower. Working with your cognitive load, including plenty of scheduled breaks and mindful pauses will keep your energy levels constant.

5. Stop Switch Tasking. This is really about re-training your brain to focus. Designate 30 minute segments to each batch of cognitive load compartmentalised tasks. If you’re struggling, use an alarm, an app or egg timer and don’t budge until times up.

Want to know more about managing your cognitive load and performance? Take a look at our free Mindfulness at Work Toolkit or any of our free tools in the resources section.

We work with individuals, leaders and Fortune 100 companies to improve performance, build resilience and embed sustainable performance in teams. We provide a training courses, coaching and consultancy. Want to know more? Get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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