What is Cognitive Overload and Why It’s Ruining Your Productivity

Feeling weighed down by too much information and too many tasks at once? You're probably suffering from cognitive overload. Here's how to fix it.
Matthew Ritchie
Insights
August 10, 2022
7 minute read

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.

Things are different now. What once seemed foreign—like scheduling meetings remotely, running a team meeting over Zoom, or communicating with new colleagues over Slack—is now familiar.

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Sign up to try the new Nook app and visit our blog to learn more ways to combat cognitive overload and other productivity problems.

Whether you’re a sales superstar, in-demand consultant, busy recruiter, or someone who simply needs to schedule a lot of meetings, one thing’s for sure—you’ve probably booked a lot of them over the past two years.

Hybrid work has forced the majority of our meetings online, and while we appreciate being able to wear sweatpants during normal work hours, the time-consuming ballet that is sharing your availability, finding a time to meet, and adding it to your calendar isn’t quite as enjoyable. 

Speaking with everyone from solopreneurs to seasoned professionals, it seems like a lot of people find meeting scheduling software either costly, impersonal, or just plain boring. And Calendly and other alternatives don’t always cut it.

We hear you. 

Everyone is different, and so is how they work. Making good first impressions is important, and you shouldn’t have to pay a premium for them or basic customizations and integrations with your meeting booking system.

Nook Calendar’s meeting proposal feature is already used by tons of high-performing teams for selecting and proposing meeting times outside of their organization. 

Now, we’re making things even easier by letting you build personal pages with shareable calendar-booking links, right in Nook Calendar. Add them to your LinkedIn profile, email signature, website, or messages when finding a time to meet.

We think it’s the best meeting scheduling software out there, and we’re excited for you to give it a try, so let’s get started.

Here’s How to Set Up a Personal Booking Page in Nook Calendar

First off, if you’re new to Nook Calendar—hello! (If you’re already a Nook user, you can skip ahead.)

You’re going to start by syncing your calendar—either from Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook—and entering your work email address.

Once you approve any necessary permissions, you’ll set up your People Bar. Search for any connections and add the people you interact with the most when scheduling meetings.

From there, you can add any additional calendars you want to see (add your personal one, if you like, to further prevent any overlaps when scheduling meetings), integrate with Zoom (so you can launch calls straight from your calendar), and choose your preferred display setting—select Match OS, Light Mode, or Dark Mode.

Launch Nook Calendar, and you’re ready to set up your online meeting scheduler.

Now, the fun begins

You’re going to start by claiming your unique URL for sharing your meeting availability page. 

Your first name appears by default, but really, it can be anything. We recommend using your full name (e.g., /john-smith).

(You can always change your URL in the future, as long as it’s still available.)

From there, you want to complete your profile. 

Your profile pic is automatically pulled in from your Microsoft or GCal account.

But you can add your name, job title, welcome message, and links to social media profiles or professional website, so guests know a bit more about you when booking a meeting. 

Then, you can start setting your weekly availability.

Nook Calendar defaults to traditional time blocks—9–12 a.m. and 1–5 p.m. These are the hours someone can book a meeting from your personal page. Adjust them based on your availability. 

Your timezone is automatically set to your local time, but you can change it if you primarily work with people in a different timezone and it’s better to visualize that when setting your availability.

Choose which calendar you want to accept meetings in—it can only be booked in one, but Nook Calendar will automatically reference your availability in other calendars you’ve synced to prevent double-bookings when someone schedules a meeting.

Now, it’s time to set up some paramaters. 

You can set up your preferred meeting duration in either 15, 30, 45-minute or one-hour increments (or a custom time).

You can also add buffer time to give yourself a break between meetings, or set a lead time of up to 24 hours, so no one can book any last-minute meetings.

And you’re all set! You can preview what the page will look like, then share it with contacts or add it to your LinkedIn profile (we suggest adding it as a secondary URL), email signature, and anywhere else you do business.

Once someone books time in your calendar, you’ll receive an email and get a notification in the Pulse.

If you ever need to make any changes, you can access your personal meeting page in the bottom of the Magic Panel and make any adjustments—either to your weekly availability or personal information.

You can also remove your availability by simply creating events in Nook Calendar and marking them as Busy to block off time and prevent any bookings.

Nook Calendar’s new personal pages for sharing meeting availability are available on Web, iOS, and Android. 
If you have any questions or thoughts, we’d love to hear them. Hit us up in our Slack Community or contact us through Support.  
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