No matter who you are or where you work, you’ve probably experienced cognitive overload and felt mentally exhausted at some point over the past two and a half years.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, even the simplest day-to-day interactions and tasks like taking meeting notes during a Zoom call felt novel and hard to complete.
People have mostly adapted to these new ways of working. But employees continue to quit, switch jobs, and struggle with symptoms of burnout at historically high rates (according to Google Trends research by Quartz, the search term “burnout from work” reached a new high in 2022).
Many factors—such as the rising cost of living, more job opportunities, increased workloads and meetings, and being forced to return to in-person work—are influencing people to leave their jobs and impacting their ability to work at pre-pandemic levels of efficiency.
But there’s another reason: we’re dealing with too much information and doing too many tasks at once.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon
In the late 1980s, Australian psychologist John Sweller coined the term cognitive load theory to refer to the inherent limitations and weight placed on working memory.
These days, cognitive load theory is usually discussed in educational settings, but the same theory applies to the workplace.
According to cognitive load theory, there are three types of cognitive loads:
Intrinsic load refers to the inherent difficulty of processing a specific topic or learning a new task, regardless of how it’s presented, depending on its complexity and the expertise and working memory of the person it’s being presented to.
Extraneous load refers to the way a topic or information is presented. For instance, reading a poorly worded how-to guide will have a higher extraneous load than watching a 2-minute explainer video, especially if you’re a visual learner. Similarly, if a colleague assigned you a task with little-to-no information or described it in an overly complicated way, the extraneous load would be higher.
Germane load refers to how people use their memory and intelligence to take new information and associate it with or adapt it to existing mental schemas in their long-term memory.
Basically, anytime we encounter new information, our brains either discard it or classify and store it in our long-term memory, creating schemas to organize information and guide future cognitive processes.
Here’s a video that does a good job of illustrating it:
Cognitive overload occurs when all three of these loads begin to overwhelm a person to the point that they’re unable to process any new information or complete cognitive processes as efficiently.
All this can lead to higher levels of burnout, lower levels of performance in the workplace, increase stress-related problems, like headaches, irritability, sleeplessness, and weakened immune systems, and impact people’s ability to focus.
If so, there are many reasons why you may have experienced cognitive overload over the past two and a half years, including learning a new skill, taking on a new role, joining a new team, or simply experiencing higher levels of work and longer hours than you’re used to
But cognitive overload can also occur because we’re simply too distracted and scattered at work. And, as previously explored, our apps may be to blame.
According to BBC Worklife, basic secondary tasks—like checking Slack notifications, responding to emails, or digging up important documents or notes for a colleague ahead of a meeting—can add to your extraneous load, making it harder to focus on important tasks.
Additionally, in a recent survey Asana found that 19% of people felt switching between apps was tanking their productivity and making it take longer to complete tasks. 42% were spending more time on emails. And 52% were multi-tasking during video conferencing calls, leading to higher levels of cognitive overload (especially among Millennials and Gen-Zers, with 34% saying they consistently struggled to respond to important messages in 2022).
But reducing cognitive overload doesn’t have to be difficult
Just start by simplifying how you capture and categorize information during meetings.
In her recent HBR Ascend article, futurist Lynne Cazaly offers some practical tips for managing your brain better at work, which we’ve built off of below:
First, pay attention during meetings and presentations. Easier said than done, right? But rather than frantically dividing your time between the speaker and your notes (p.s., we’re working on a new app that will change the way you capture, store, and resurface your notes at work), focus on what’s being said and distill the main points later on.
Similarly, if a close colleague is presenting or leading the conversation, they probably have all of their main points already written down. Ask for them to share the information with you afterward, and provide any additional context by jotting additional notes down in your words.
Rather than using a paper notebook, use technology to capture important information—it’ll be easier to reference and share down the road.
Finally, reduce task-switching by focusing on one task at a time, whether taking notes during a meeting or working on a project. Silence notifications or update your status on Slack to show you’re busy and focusing on deep work. And resist the urge to multi-task during video calls by closing your email inbox and adjusting your settings, so you don’t receive as many notifications.
Focus on what’s in your control, and you won’t feel as weighed down by cognitive overload at work.