CXO

15 ways to combat cognitive overload

​The explosion of data in consumer and business spaces can place our productivity at risk. There are ways you can resist drowning in data.

The pace of data creation steadily increases as technology becomes more and more ingrained in people's lives and continues to evolve.

According to Forbes.com last May, "there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Over the last two years alone 90 percent of the data in the world was generated."

While technology should make our lives easier, the information it provides can negatively impact our mental function by overwhelming us with too much input.

However, don't confuse cognitive overload with work overload. Whereby work overload is simply having too much to do and not enough time to complete it, cognitive overload refers to having too much information to process at once.

SEE: Leadership spotlight: How to make meetings worthwhile (Tech Pro Research)

Fouad ElNaggar, co-founder and CEO of Sapho, an employee experience software provider based in San Bruno, Calif., is passionate about cognitive overload. Together we developed some tips for workers on how to fix the problem.

1. Close/shut off distracting applications

The irony of productivity applications is that they can actually make you less productive. Microsoft Office includes Outlook, an email application, which can "helpfully" notify you when new email arrives.

Sadly, this can also contribute to your information overload if you're in the middle of a task, and you switch to Outlook to read an email. You might even forget about the current task you're working on. Instant messaging apps, or frankly, anything that dings or pops up an alert are just as distracting. When trying to stay focused on a task, close or shut off any applications which could serve as potential distractions. Oh, and silence your phone, too.

2. Switch off push notifications

If you can't close a potentially distracting application because you need it available, you can still quiet it down. Between Slack, Gchat, calendar, email and text messages, it probably seems like those tiny dialog boxes pop up on your screen all day long. Take a few minutes to evaluate which push notifications actually help you get work done, and turn off the rest.

SEE: Project prioritization tool: An automated workbook (Tech Pro Research)

3. Bucket your email correspondence

Constantly checking and responding to email is a major time drain. Set aside two times a day to answer emails, and do not check it any other time. Put your phone on "Do Not Disturb," and make it a point to not let notifications interrupt you during that time.

4. Stay off personal social media/news sites/other temptations

It's easy and tempting to check social media, or your favorite news outlet while working, especially if you're waiting for a task to finish before you proceed (such as rebooting a server or uploading a file). However, this just puts more data into your current memory banks, so to speak, so that instead of thinking about that server patching project now you're also thinking about the NFL draft or how many people "like" your funny Facebook meme. Save social media for lunch time or after work. It'll be more meaningful, and you can keep your work and recreation separate, as it should be.

5. Utilize minimalism

I keep a very minimalistic workspace: a family picture, a Rick Grimes (from "The Walking Dead," which contains many parallels to IT life) keychain figure, and a calendar. No fancy furniture, no posters, no inspiring slogans, and no clutter. This helps me stay oriented to what I need to do without the sensory overload.

I also apply the same principles to my computer: I only keep programs running which I need, and even close unnecessary browser tabs, SSH sessions, and Windows explorer windows so that I'm only concentrating at the task at hand.

SEE: IT jobs 2018: Hiring priorities, growth areas, and strategies to fill open roles (Tech Pro Research)

6. Avoid multitasking

You may not have a choice, but avoiding to multitask is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain from being overwhelmed. Dividing your attention into four or five parallel tasks is a sure-fire way to ensure that those tasks take longer or end up being completed less efficiently than if you accomplished these things one at at time. Worse, it's all too easy to drop tasks entirely as your attention span shifts, resulting in uncompleted work.

7. Utilize documentation

Document your to-do lists, operational processes, and daily procedures you need to follow (building a new server, for instance) so that you don't rely on memory and can quickly handle tasks—or better yet—refer them to someone else. Anytime I discover how something works or what I can improve upon I update the related electronic documentation so I don't have to comb through old emails, leaf through handwritten notes, or worse, ask coworkers or fellow employees to fill in missing details that I should have recorded.

8. Take notes as you go

In addition to relying upon established documentation to make your efforts more productive, take notes during difficult operations such as a server recovery effort or network troubleshooting endeavor. It helps to serve as a "brain dump" of your activities so that you can purge them from memory and refer to this information later, if needed.

Believe me, there's nothing more challenging then sorting through a complex series of tasks during an outage post-mortem to recall what you did to fix the problem. A written record can save your brain.

SEE: Comparison chart: Enterprise collaboration tools (Tech Pro Research)

9. Take routine breaks

This should be a no-brainer, yet too many people consider themselves too busy to take a break, when doing so allows you to step away from work and hit the "pause" button. It's not just about relaxing your brain so that you return to work with a more productive mindset, but a quick walk around the building might be beneficial in allowing you to think and come up with new ideas or solutions to problems you're facing, thereby eliminating one more area of information overload.

10. Avoid open space seating areas

I've written about some of the problems of the infamous (and unfortunately common) open-seating plan in companies. In a nutshell, having no privacy and sitting in close physical and audial proximity even to individuals considered close friends strains working relationships and breeds frustration.

Avoiding cognitive overload isn't just about not taking on or dealing with too much at once, but it's also about not letting other people's activities intrude upon your own productivity. Whether it's an annoying personal phone call, playing music or even just chewing loudly, other people's nearby activity can be a source of unwanted details, which reduces your capacity to do your job. You may not have a choice about sitting in an assigned open space seat, but take advantage of opportunities such as working from home, using an available conference room, or moving to an empty part of the office when you really need to focus.

11. Break projects down into chunks

Facing the entirety of a complex project is a daunting mission. It's better and more effective to break a project down into subcomponents, and then focus on these separately, one at a time.

For instance, say you want to migrate users, computers, and services from one Active Directory domain to another. This would be overwhelming to focus on at once, so the best way to proceed is to divide the project into tasks. One task could be migrating user accounts and permissions. The next task could be migrating computer accounts, and the task after that could be addressing DNS changes, and so on. Plan it out in advance, and then tackle it piece-by-piece.

12. Control your calendar

Don't let colleagues fill in your day with meaningless meetings. Have a conversation with your coworkers about which meetings are absolutely necessary for you to participate in and skip the rest. If you are a manager or leader, encourage your employees to schedule in-person meetings only when they are absolutely necessary.

13. Don't take your phone into your bedroom

You spend enough time on screens during the day. The simple act of charging your phone in another room gives you time to really disconnect. It also gives you a chance to wake up refreshed, and think about the day ahead before reactively reaching for your device and checking social media or email.

SEE: Research: The evolution of enterprise software UX (Tech Pro Research)

Reducing team cognitive overload

ElNaggar and I also thought of a couple of tips for business leaders on ways to reduce cognitive overload for their team. These tips include:

14. Invest in the right technology

Take the time to learn what processes or tools are pain points for your employees' productivity. Research which solutions can automate certain tasks or limit daily distractions and implement them across your workforce.

15. Embrace employee-centric workflows

ElNaggar says that leaders "embrace the idea that employee experience matters, which will have a ripple effect in their organization." He recommends that leaders start to develop more employee-centric workflows that reduce interruptions for their employees to help them focus on priorities and accomplish more work.

An example of an employee-centric workflow would be a business application or web portal, which gives employees a single, actionable view into all of their systems and breaks down complex processes into single-purpose, streamlined workflows, allowing employees to be more productive.

"Without leadership teams championing an employee-centric mindset, nothing will really change in the mid and lower levels of a company. Business leaders must start thinking about the impact their employees' digital experience has on their work performance and overall satisfaction, and support the idea that investing in employee experience will drive employee engagement and productivity," ElNaggar concluded.

Also see

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Image: SIphotography, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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