Combat Unproductivity: 10 Tips for Managing Cognitive Load

Learn everything you need to know about your working memory and managing your cognitive load at work here!

A cognitive overload is a situation in which one is given too much information at once, resulting in the individual not being able to perform or process the information that is needed to complete the task at hand. Cognitive load is typically increased when too many demands are imposed on a learner at one time. If the information had been reduced to a sustainable amount, the learner would instead be able to process the information or complete the task with ease. 

To combat unproductivity, it’s important that you learn how to manage cognitive load—not only for yourself, but also for those you manage or lead. In this article, we’ll teach you about the three main types of cognitive load while diving into tips and tricks you can leverage to manage your cognitive load at work. 

What is cognitive load theory (CTL)? 

Cognitive load theory (CLT) is an instructional design theory coined in 1988 by John Sweller. This theory reflects our cognitive architecture or the way we process information in an attempt to understand how information progresses from our working memory to our long-term memory. CLT states that our working memory can only hold a small amount of information at one time. To optimize the process of learning and retaining information, CLT states that we should avoid overloading the working memory until the information in question has been processed sufficiently. 

In addition, CLT outlines that when teaching new content or skills, teachers, mentors, and leaders are more effective when they provide guidance in addition to practice and feedback, as opposed to letting students, mentees, or employees learn by themselves. CLT can be used to create immersive environments where teaching and learning can occur more effectively. 

There are 3 types of cognitive load: 

1Intrinsic load 

Intrinsic cognitive load is the inevitable difficulty that is built into a topic and refers to the difficulty that comes with learning a new subject. Unfortunately, intrinsic load is inevitable and there isn’t anything you can do to reduce the effects of intrinsic load as they relate to learning. While you can’t reduce the effects of intrinsic load, you can implement training that helps support employees when they’re learning something with a lot of intrinsic cognitive load.  

2Extraneous load 

Extraneous load is bad and refers to anything that may happen that makes the learner actively process information that doesn’t contribute to learning. 

Extraneous cognitive load includes things like: 

  • Creating an e-learning course with a confusing user interface
  • Using big, unfamiliar words during training or teaching sessions
  • Conducting a training session in a crowded space with multiple distractions

3Germane load 

Germane cognitive load refers to the positive work people do during training or learning that helps those learning retain the topic or skill in question. These practices can be anything from announcing learning objectives, to providing feedback, or chunking learning sessions into more manageable blocks. In essence, germane cognitive load can be anything that makes the process of learning or absorbing information more manageable. 

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10 tips for managing cognitive load at work

1Improve your time management skills

Cognitive overload often happens as a result of poor planning. When you fail to plan your schedule effectively, you may end up with one too many tasks on your plate. Improved time management increases focus, builds confidence, and helps you plan your time more effectively so you don’t end up overwhelmed by the number of tasks on your to-do list. 

2Avoid multitasking

While multitasking does wonders for some, it can be detrimental to others. Multitasking splits your focus, meaning you end up working on multiple tasks at once, and not one has your undivided attention. When you avoid multitasking, you’re able to work more efficiently and focus intently on one specific task at a time, so you’ll be able to manage your cognitive load much more effectively. 

Using Fellow’s Companion mode, you can click “Join” and Fellow will open the video call, and the meeting note will automatically appear in a docked window on the side of your screen, giving you everything you need for your next meeting and helping you avoid multitasking between windows.

This helps you go from having multiple disorganized windows during meetings…

…To one organized window with everything in one place during meetings!

3Create and follow a schedule that works for you 

Success looks different for everyone, and no two people share the same path; so, just because something works for someone else, it doesn’t mean it will work for you. Creating a schedule that helps you prioritize pressing tasks will help you avoid cognitive overload. Take Steve Jobs, for example: To eliminate stress and focus his attention on more important aspects of his life, Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day. This simple practice meant the Apple aficionado was able to allocate more cognitive power to more impactful decisions. 

4Limit distractions in your workspace

Distractions can be quite overwhelming, especially when you’re on the clock or trying to wrap up a project. Constantly being overloaded with distractions means you can’t focus on carving out time for deep work. Taking the time to set up or secure a workspace with little to no distractions will do wonders for your focus and help you manage your cognitive load. 

5Write things down 

Trying to remember everything you have to do can feel overwhelming, but writing things down and crossing them off as you go will help your brain focus on one thing at a time. Luckily, tools like Fellow make keeping track of important details a breeze. Similar to the way in which you can share notes with your colleagues, Fellow houses a private Streams feature that makes it possible for you to keep track of important notes. You can then choose to keep the details private or share them with your teammates to help keep everyone accountable. 

6Leverage microlearning 

Microlearning is a learning technique that emphasizes short, bite-sized lessons as opposed to lengthy training sessions that may encompass too much information. Microlearning is an excellent way to avoid cognitive overload as this method is structured around breaking complex subjects into micro-lessons that are easier to learn and absorb. 

7Understand when you have the highest energy

Matching your energy levels is a major life hack. Some people perform better at night, whereas others are at their peak first thing in the morning. Understanding when you’re most efficient will help you maximize your time so you can get as much done as possible. Maximizing your time will ensure you don’t feel overwhelmed or bombarded by incoming tasks. 

8Use the time blocking method

Time blocking is an excellent time and energy saver. By dedicating specific blocks of time to certain tasks, you’ll be able to focus on deep work and on specific tasks without distractions. Focusing on specific tasks will not only help you check more items off your to-do list, but your work will also be better quality. Time blocking makes it possible for you to focus without losing time or energy to multitasking or procrastinating, so you don’t run the risk of cognitive overload.

9Ask questions to ensure you understand your tasks

Not understanding your tasks is one of the quickest ways to get overwhelmed. A simple solution is to prioritize communication and speak up when you don’t understand something. Speaking up and asking for help when you need it will ensure you have what you need to get your tasks done so you can continue to progress and take on more as needed. 

10Delegate tasks to lighten your workload

Cognitive overload often happens when you have too much on your plate. While you may feel as though you need to take on everything on your own, you don’t. Delegation is a powerful tool that can be used for a number of reasons, with one of the most beneficial being to lighten your workload. Lightening your workload will help free up your schedule so you can focus on your most pressing tasks without worrying about conflicting priorities.

Managing cognitive load 

While managing cognitive load may not be something you think about every day, it’s incredibly important. Learning to manage your cognitive load will help you perform and excel in the workplace. If you don’t feel overwhelmed, and instead feel equipped and empowered to take on your workload with ease, you’ll lead a happier and more fulfilled life at work. 


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About the author

Hannah Ross

Hannah Ross is an experienced content creator and digital strategist with a demonstrated history of working with SaaS startups and technical founders to develop and manage scalable digital marketing campaigns. As a Social Media and Content Marketing Lead in the tech space, Hannah is incredibly passionate about solving complex marketing problems with innovative solutions.

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