Cognitive Load

There’s a detail in here that is important…

2020 feels like five years already and there are still months to go. One reason it has been a year of fatigue is the sense that there has been so much to process all the time. We are dealing with a feeling of cognitive load.

We started the year with monsters at the gates and we have dealt with a global pandemic and its losses, economic and social shocks in many and varied ways. Adaptability places a constant burden on our thinking. We need to remain alert to signals, to query the need for change, to decide and to act responsively.

For many our work has moved home. For others work has stopped entirely. Both bring new thoughts and attentions to our daily efforts. Finding space for presence and escape from this load can be well nigh impossible. Even our vacations are so circumscribed by anxieties and locational limits we just are us at home, working a little less.

Our experience of the year has then been overlaid with a gradual and at times dramatic loss of function in global political discourse. We have had to pay attention to the grandstanding, extraordinary behaviour, authoritarianism, populism, incompetence and lies in many corners of the globe. Worrying about the future of our society has at times been the lesser demand in 2020.

This cognitive load has real consequences. All the extra thinking, stress and concern helps explain our fatigue and the perception of the slow pace of the year. It help explains the anger. It is also a source of errors and failings. This morning I slept through an alarm. Yesterday I missed the start of a critical meeting. Things get missed. Messages are unanswered lost in the rush, the worry and the thinking.

The human brain is designed to filter out irrelevant details and focus our attention on the key risks that our ancient ancestors faced on the African savannah – sudden changes, occasional threats, the rise and fall of scarcity and abundance. We just aren’t built for a relentless overabundance of anxiety and inputs.

There’s no imminent change to our circumstances and these pressures. We will need self-care and community care to manage these challenges through the balance of this difficult year. We can all take steps to manage this cognitive load:

  • find time for presence
  • find time to create space
  • Make decisions to filter out some noise
  • focus on purposeful action over anxiety
  • reduce the load on others with simple communication and clear actions
  • reduce the noise for others
  • support people through their cognitive load
  • create community to provide comfort and counsel

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