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The World Feels Heavy: Reduce Cognitive Load

There are times in our lives when the weight of the world feels too heavy to bear. 

Things seem to be going wrong…

The world’s problems seem so large…

Right now, in the U.S., we’re moving toward one of the most dramatic and volatile and tense elections in our nation’s recent history.

Across the globe, and in our own homes, we’re facing challenges like the ongoing pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, economic and educational disparity, and so many other big, important challenges.

It can all feel….HEAVY. 

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say that I feel overwhelmed at times. The weight of all of these challenges, coupled with the complexity and responsibility of my normal, day-to-day life can feel so tough to bear.

Today, I want to share a little formula I used just the other day, to help myself re-focus and regain a bit of mental balance in this complicated time.

You can’t focus on it all

Let’s begin with the reason WHY all of this feels so heavy: we are incredible human beings who are constrained by their own biology.

Our minds only have so much capacity.

When we simultaneously try to focus on too many things, solve too many problems, make too many decisions, our minds feel cluttered and overwhelmed.

The scientific term for this is ‘mental or cognitive load.’

We experience cognitive load when we exhaust the amount of working memory our minds have available at any given time.

It’s especially likely to happen when we’re already in a time of stress, when we’re tired, when we’re emotional, or when we’re not biologically taking care of ourselves.

We recently did a podcast episode on this very topic and included some tips for combatting cognitive load in your day-to-day life. You might want to check it out. (Episode 0196 | “How to create a more spacious mind”)

2 Questions

Today, I want to offer you the formula I used in the form of 2 questions that can help you move through complex and heavy times. This really helped me the other day, and it might just help you too.

When things start to feel too heavy to bear, I want you to ask yourself 2 questions:

First, ask yourself, out of everything that’s going on right now, which of it truly matters to me? 

Don’t think about what should matter to you or what matters to other people. If you’re being 100% honest with yourself, which of the challenges truly matter to you?

Second, ask yourself, out of everything that’s going on right now, which of these things are inside of my direct control?

Don’t worry about what you wish you could control. Similarly, don’t worry about what you think you could control if you worked hard to convince someone else to change their behavior.

Focus on what is inside of your direct control.

You basically end up with 4 boxes:

Narrow your focus

Because you are an incredible human being who is constrained by biology (working memory, in this case), the biggest thing you can do to lessen the overwhelm you’re feeling is to narrow your focus to the things that:

  • Truly matter to you
  • That you can directly control

If you look at the 4 boxes that result from asking yourself those 2 questions, the bottom 2 boxes are truly wasted energy. If it doesn’t matter to you, regardless of whether it’s under your direct control or not, let’s not waste any more precious energy worrying about it.

Consider this your permission to just let it go.

However, if it’s something that does truly matter to you and is inside of your direct control, here’s where your attention, focus, and effort belongs.

Your limited cognitive and personal effort will go much further if you’re focusing it on the things that fall in that upper-right quadrant.

Acceptance

I’m also going to invite you to ‘let go’ of the things that fall in that upper-left quadrant….but it’s likely to be a challenge.

You see, many of us have that list of things that truly matter to us, but they just aren’t inside of our direct control. 

Outcomes and challenges that are governed by other people’s actions frequently fall into this category.

Sure, we might be able to argue, bargain, and debate with that other person in order to try to influence their behavior, but the ultimate outcome isn’t inside of our direct control.

That’s tough.

In this case, your best bet is to practice acceptance. 

Acceptance means acknowledging the situation for what it is, without trying to fight against it or change it.

It doesn’t mean you agree with it, endorse it, like it, etc. It simply means, you acknowledge it.

On the surface, this seems like the dumbest concept. I know. But, when you unpack it, it really is powerful.

Acceptance is the opposite of avoidance. Acknowledging a situation means staring it right in the eye. Seeing it for what it is. Turning toward it for a moment to face it head-on. 

Psychological research tells us we have better outcomes when we face a situation, rather than avoiding it.

Acceptance also removes our involvement from a situation we can’t control.

Remember that limited amount of capacity each of us has, practicing acceptance helps us save our precious, limited energy for the things we can directly control, rather than wasting it on things we can’t.

Take care of yourself

Do what you can to protect your energy and your capacity. The world needs you, but you can’t solve it all or do it all alone. Self-care, REAL, effective self-care, is needed now more than ever. Self-care [by Design] is designed to help you take care of yourself so that you can be the best, most effective form of YOU, each and every day.

Focus on the areas in that upper-right quadrant. Protect yourself and your capacity by narrowing your focus.

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Feeling Fuzzy or Forgetful? A Lesson About Cognitive Load

I’m going to cut right to the chase today – we’ve been hearing from many people that they’re feeling foggy, forgetful, or absent-minded; these are symptoms of significant cognitive load.

You know, when you walk into a room and totally forget to do the ONE THING you went into the room to do?!

If you’re a mom, you’ve likely experienced it and had people say, “Oh, you’ve got ‘mom brain.'” 

As it turns out, “mom brain” is something much more pervasive, it has a scientific name: cognitive load and many people are experiencing it right now.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load refers to a state that we experience when our finite amount of working memory is used up by the current mental tasks we’re trying to accomplish. 

Quick background, “working memory” is our quick-access memory system that is used for things that we’re currently working on. Extraneous cognitive load greatly inhibits our abilities to recall even basic elements of our tasks.

The good thing about working memory is that we have quick access to it. The bad thing is that it’s not reliable. Information isn’t even really encoded there. You have to work hard to keep information in working memory, like reciting your shopping list over and over in your mind, and the second you stop reciting it over and over, it’s lost.

It’s that resource-intensive repetition that causes cognitive load.

The only other option is to commit the information to long-term memory, but that takes hundreds of repetitions over the course of days or weeks. Not realistic for day-to-day tasks.

In our normal lives, this looks more like:

  • Attempting to work while being interrupted by kids or others
  • Trying to remember that long list of items you still need to accomplish (appointments, email replies, items to buy, phone calls to make, what food is in the fridge, etc.)

By simultaneously holding “mental space” for all of these ongoing things, we deplete our working memory down to zero. Just like a computer out of memory, our information processing system has shut down. This example is just one of many types of cognitive load issues we might face.

There’s nothing left to help us remember that we went into the other room to grab our cell phone charger, for example.

And, as a result, we call our kids by the wrong name, lose our car keys, make errors at work, forget important items on the shopping list, forget an important family member’s birthday, the list goes on.

Who cares?

If you’re a well-intentioned, empathetic person who’s honestly trying to do a good job, you likely beat yourself up for being stupid or lazy or forgetful when this happens.

But, like so many of the topics we cover at Peak Mind, intrinsic cognitive load is just something that happens to humans who have brains.

If you are a human with a brain, you will experience cognitive load at some point, and if you’re taking on more than others around you, you’re likely to experience it more often. You’ve got more on your mind. Our cognitive architecture can be adjusted through neuroplasticity efforts, but require effort.

The good news is, you can increase cognitive load, but it’s even easier to reduce the cognitive load. If you are struggling with your working long or short-term memory capacity or your processing capacity, you are likely struggling with cognitive load malfunctions. It’s important to reduce your load on working memory capacity, especially when dealing with complex tasks. But, there are a few tips and tricks from the field of Life Design that can help you minimize it.

Minimizing Cognitive Load

STEP 1: Brain dump

The problem that’s causing your cognitive load is that you’re trying to hold too much stuff in working memory at the same time.

To get it out of your working memory, sit down, and write down everything going on in your mind. There are likely quite a few categories of things, such as:

  • Important, upcoming dates, deadlines, and responsibilities
  • Daily, mundane tasks you need to do
  • Shopping lists
  • Other family members’ / people’s needs
  • Things you’re particularly worried about right now

Brain dump them all onto a piece of paper, and add to it over the course of the day. Anytime a thought pops up that you feel like you have to remember, write it down.

STEP 2: Organize

Start to clump those categories and the items underneath them into broader groups, like:

  • Running lists (e.g., shopping, to-do lists, etc)
  • Dates & deadlines
  • Feelings & emotions

STEP 3: Create a System

Chances are you can’t eliminate many of these items from your list. It’s not realistic.

However, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HOLD THESE ITEMS IN MEMORY! Tools exist specifically for things like this!

The goal of this step is to make a system that you can use to handle the items that normally are in your mind, opening you up to have less memory problems, better mental clarity, and a better ability to problem solve. 

Here are my favorite tips:

  • Every single date and deadline gets scheduled on a calendar. And, I mean ALL OF THEM. If it involves other people, it goes on a shared calendar that notifies them 1 week, 1 day, and 1 hour before the event.
  • Every to-do list item that requires time to accomplish either gets put on the same calendar or it gets put on a back-log list (my list is in my iPhone). 
  • Create a running shopping list on your phone or in a common place in the house where everyone who needs to access it can access it. 

There are probably other bullets that you need to employ to take care of your unique situation, but the general concept is to account for all of the “stuff” clouding up your mind by putting it in a reliable, safe place so that you don’t have to remember it.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Chances are, you’ll falter at first. You’ll forget to add items, or you’ll revert back to your old habit of just mentally reciting everything.

Adjust, go back to your system, and review it regularly to remind yourself that you’ve got everything accounted for. 

Over time, the anxiety associated with being afraid you might drop a ball will lessen as your mind catches on that it doesn’t have to take on so much anymore.

This system is one of the core elements of my self-care routine. I have a daily, weekly, and monthly task on my calendar to review this system, add to it, make adjustments, reprioritize, etc. It keeps my mind clear and my anxiety level down. 

If you want to develop your own blockbuster self-care routine, you can follow the method I use in Self-Care [by Design].

But, for now, be kind to yourself. If you’re feeling forgetful or frazzled, know that it’s simply cognitive load theory because you’re human and taking on more than one human being’s worth of stuff right now. No need to lose hours of sleep worrying this is Alzheimer’s disease or simply a part of aging, but that this is simply a side effect of your busy life! 

“Be kind to your body, gentle with your mind, and patient with your heart. You are still becoming, my love, and there is no one more deserving of the nurturing grace of your love.”
 – Becca Lee