Thinking Efficiently: How to deal with Cognitive overload

We live in a world of constant stimulation. Where data is pumped to us through multiple channels both in real time and asynchronously. Our primary place of work is no longer just our physical locale but an ever expanding virtual realm of shifting workspaces with differing workflows.

This unprecedented level of knowledge and connectedness has led to productivity gains at work and home. However, one consequence of immersing ourselves in this environment is the risk of Cognitive overload. 

Cognitive Load is the demand on our working memory which, unlike short term memory, holds information in the short term for processing and reasoning. Where short term memory would be used to store a phone number until you can record it; working memory is the repository of relevant information to help in making a decision.

We have inherent limits on our working memory. Every input of information we are exposed to places a load on our ability to process simultaneously and denying us the ability to focus or perform deep work.

Cognitive load is a normal part of being conscious. Your mind is always coming up with ideas and part of it wants to be distracted. It’s that primordial lump of your brain that Harvard-trained psychologist Daniel Goleman calls the “Bottom Up mind” in his 2013 book; “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence”.

The Bottom Up mind is the reptilian brain that’s intuitive, impulsive, but also driven by habits and filled with biases. It multi tasks all the time in the background and selects what it sees relevant based on short term urges. Great for survival in our ancestral past but not always appropriate in the workplace.

I find it hard to focus when my brain keeps bubbling up random thoughts like “Must remember to collect the laundry.” when trying to get things done and needed to find solutions.

When does Cognitive Overload happen?

Identifying when it’s likely to happen will help manage cognitive load. There are three types of cognitive load;

  1. Intrinsic – the difficulty and complexity of the demand. 
    1. The harder the task, the more working memory resources it requires. Give yourself the time needed to deal with the demand.
  2. Extraneous – how the information is presented artificially creates cognitive load. 
    1. An icon on a street sign conveys information that’s easier to process than if the sign described it in a block of text.
    2. Use products that are minimal in design and make it easy to digest the information being presented. 
    3. Reducing incidental processing through what Mayer & Moreno called “Weeding” out extraneous interface constructs enhanced comprehension speed.
  3. Germane – the creation of frameworks (schemas) that convert your reasoning into more permanent knowledge and learning. 
    1. The closer the new information is to your existing worldview, the easier it is to organise and process.
    2. Instructors using generative strategies such as “Elaboration” techniques increase the efficiency of learning. Using your own words to summarise and relate the concept to your own experiences can accelerate understanding and learning.

Other factors are significant to our ability to manage cognitive load. Our mental and physical well being affects our ability to process just as much as how stimulating the work environment is.

How to deal with Cognitive load

Understanding the drivers of cognitive load, we can now look at ways to manage it. Here are some tips I found helpful;

  1. Reduce Distractions
    1. Shut down unnecessary applications to the task at hand.
    2. Defer notifications on those you need to reduce on-screen distractions.
    3. Dedicate specific times to respond to email.
    4. Keep your desk and digital desktop free of clutter.
  2. Organise and Document
    1. List and prioritise tasks both in preparation and as you go about your day. To do lists help me let go of non essential demands without worrying about forgetting them entirely.
    2. I talked about the productivity benefits of determining what’s urgent versus important and the art of task management in a previous post.
    3. Minimise multi tasking. Prioritising will help in deciding on what sequence to deal with the jobs at hand.
    4. Break down complex tasks into manageable components with specific goals. Don’t underestimate the power of small wins.
  3. Take notes as you work
    1. Avoid creating the burden of catch up work at the end of the day. 
    2. The sooner you act on decisions, the less cognitive load is incurred.
    3. When you record information, you mentally dump it from needing to retain it in the short term, freeing your memory to process new demands and worrying about losing it.
  4. Give yourself regular breaks
    1. Adapt the breaks to give your brain a shift in activity to promote processing.
    2. If the task demanded solo deep work then a break might be to get up, move around and have a chat. 
    3. Conversely, taking a break from a workshop might mean quiet time with music and going away for a walk.
  5. Manage your environment
    1. Open plan work spaces add environmental distractions whether it be the distracting phone call of your colleague nearby or the loud standup meeting by another team.
    2. Work from home, move to a quieter part of the office or book a room when you need to focus.

Decision Fatigue

I’ve tried to implement these tips around my work style however one of the biggest impacts has been one final tip. Reducing the number of decisions one makes. When I’m faced with making lots of challenging decisions throughout the day, I find I’m prone to making bad or at least lazy choices at the end of the day. It doesn’t help if I’m hungry too as a recent study showed.

Queensland psychology professor, Roy F. Baumeister coined the term “Decision fatigue” when discussing the effect on willpower and motivation. As mental energy is depleted, the ability and motivation to identify and negotiate optimal outcomes deteriorates. At other times, you may be better avoiding decision making when tired.

Notable people such as Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have mentioned they minimise decision making in everyday things such as reducing the choices of clothing at the start of the day to the same few outfits or choosing the same few meal options regularly.

Here are some quick ideas to manage Decision Fatigue;

  1. Be Minimalist where it doesn’t matter
    1. Consider a mindset where you are extravagant in the things you love and ruthlessly cut back on everything else.
  2. Make your most important decisions at the start of the day
  3. Build routines to automate your life and reduce choices
  4. Accept “Good Enough”
    1. Perfectionism leads to Procrastination and paralysis. I’ve talked about my battle with each of these challenges here.


This barrage of tips all serve to give you some options to see what works and hopefully build some good habits. We can expect to be inundated with ever more information at home and work going into the future and using the right tools and frameworks will help us navigate and grow in what otherwise would be an increasingly stressful environment.


  • Mayer & Moreno (2003). Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43–52.
  • Cuevas & Fiore (2014). Enhancing learning outcomes in computer-based training via self-generated elaboration. Instructional Science; Vol. 42 Issue 6, p839-859.
  • Jordan Skrynka, Benjamin T. Vincent. (2019). Hunger increases delay discounting of food and non-food rewards. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-019-01655-0
  • Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., Twenge, J.M., Schmeichel, B.J., Tice, D.M. and Crocker, J. (2005). Decision fatigue exhausts self-regulatory resources—But so does accommodating to unchosen alternatives.
  • Oto, Brandon. (2012). When thinking is hard: managing decision fatigue… EMS world. 41. 46-50.

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