A Guide to Preventing Cognitive Overload

Power-Down, Relax and unwind: A Guide to Preventing Cognitive Overload

Powering-down is all about knowing the amount of hours you need to work (especially if you’re working for an organisation and need to put in at least eight-hour days), taking into consideration your age, and taking rests throughout that time – all to stop yourself going into  cognitive impairment territory.

It’s about really spreading out that time, and giving your brain a break. When I say break I mean a real break… this is not about switching from work tasks to something else that also uses your brain power, AKA a consumption habit – something else you are consuming. Consumption habits are things like listening to podcasts, watching or reading the news, social media scrolling, anything that involves you taking in and having to process additional data, which can lead to information overload. You might think you’re taking a break from work (and technically you are), but you’re still consuming and using up that precious daily cognitive function allowance.

Busy Dave

There is a tsunami of research on the benefits of powering down. But while we recognise the value of powering down, most professionals do not know where to start to get the best results immediately. I have personally road tested a lot of powering down concepts, and road tested them on a broad range of professionals and the following consistently produce the best results.

Let’s look at the most effective powering-down hacks:

  • Blocks & Breaks
  • Single-Tasking
  • Buffers
  • Power Naps
  • Devices Off
  • Sleep

Blocks & Breaks

There’s been a lot of research on this and there are loads of theories on what the ideal blocks and breaks timings and ratios are. By all means read all you want about it, and I know time is short so I would say to start with working in blocks of an hour, followed by a ten minute break. That’s my version, and that’s what typically works for me, and some people like longer, shorter, or both – depending on the task at hand.

The important thing is, it’s just got to be what works for you, but try it out and feel into what works best for your brain, and the task in hand. When you’re having your break, spend it making a coffee, sitting outside, walking around the block, listening to some music, maybe chatting to a friend (but not speaking to a colleague about a work issue). Just don’t fill it with one of your go-to consumption habits, otherwise your brain will not get any true rest.

Busy Dial

Also, when you’re working in those blocks, minimise distractions and work on only one kind of thing. If you’re having calls, do calls, if you’ve got to write up a report, just do report writing work. Because if you’re flitting between many things and different types of tasks, that actually uses up cognitive function and energy, as well. Which brings us nicely onto…

Single-Tasking

Remembering Dave with his notifications pinging off all over the place – every time that happens, and you’re having to switch your focus, you’re again, using up valuable cognitive energy. Therefore, when multitasking, you are forcing your brain to do something it wasn’t designed for. It then becomes less efficient in the moment, and is much less able to engage working memory, even when you’re not multitasking. Our brains are actually designed to be ‘monotaskers’, that is, to focus on and complete one task at a time.

When you’re multitasking, you’re exerting unnecessary mental effort, which directly increases stress levels and depletes your cognitive resources, raising your blood pressure and your heart rate. Multitasking is also linked to the symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as all other cognitive overload symptoms. Single-tasking, therefore, is a really great way of conserving cognitive function, consolidating knowledge and reducing stress levels all in one.

Buffers

Another thing I noticed when I first started working with Dave, was that he would always be having our sessions back to back with other meetings, he always had a ‘Hard Out’. There was literally no break in between meetings. What that does, again, is it puts your brain into stress, pushing you into cognitive impairment. Studies have shown that when you do go directly from meeting to meeting, levels of stress from those meeting builds up in the brain – it has that cumulative effect. 

A study done by Microsoft even showed the difference in brain activity in those who took breaks compared to those who didn’t take breaks. Studies have also shown that back-to-back meetings decrease your ability to focus and engage when you’re in those meetings, and that the transitioning between meetings itself causes additional spikes of stress – because you’re coming to the end of the meeting knowing you have another one coming right up, and need to switch gear.

As with all of these hacks, find out what works best for you, but start small, and increase incrementally. The research tells us small baby steps works best for making any sustainable change. I personally like thirty minute buffers between appointments, but I also understand that may not be immediately possible for you. I have clients who start out with ten minutes, then, feeling the benefits, and depending on their diary restraints, increase that incrementally.

Devices Off

Remember Dave – when we first met he was worried things would go wrong if he wasn’t there? He would also fret if his phone was getting low on power. He would also check his emails first thing in the mornings, even when he was on holiday with his family, and get anxious if he was anywhere with a bad Wi-Fi signal.

Women in particular (I’m afraid to say), are even more prone to doing something called ‘triple-shifting’ – working a full day in the office, coming home to make tea and look after the kids, then putting in a late shift before going to bed. Being this attached to your phone or laptop means you’re never able to switch off, fully relax, or rest and recharge your cognitive batteries. Then there’s the issue of using devices in bed when you finally do get there – and this further disrupts your sleep.

I also introduced, and we’ve kept to, the house rule of no phones in the living room in the evenings – which has been a great one in helping my teenage daughter get used to being without her phone for hours on end too.

So, turn your devices off – and give your brain a decent rest. This is a major game changer for my clients. I cannot emphasise this hack enough. When I work with a client I am simply trying to get them to consciously become aware of just how much time they spend on devices. And once again, like me, they gradually wean themselves off excessive use.

Dave

Devices are so immediately immersive that you can easily park the ability to discern how much time you are spending. If you have ever said, ‘I’ll just check my email… or social media…’ only to discover you’ve been scrolling for an hour, then you will understand what I am saying. That said, once you start to exercise some discernment, you will be stunned at the immediate benefits.

Power Naps

Power naps have been shown to have a ton of mental health benefits including better memory, improved learning, more creativity, stronger logical reasoning and decision making, and all-round improved cognitive performance and productivity.

Power Naps Vs Meditation

Even though they’re quite different, napping and meditation seem to have some of the same benefits and effects on the brain. While you’re obviously conscious when you’re meditating, and unconscious when you’re asleep, both activities give you an improved mental state afterwards, along with lower blood pressure and lower levels of stress and anxiety (I know which one I prefer).

Different experts say different things when it comes to the ideal duration, with some saying ninety minutes, to others saying ten minutes is the best length. I say again, you need to find what works for you and experiment to find that. Your sweet-spot being you wake up feeling refreshed (not groggy), and you feel a definitive lift in your mood and cognitive energy levels (my ideal seems to be anything between thirty to forty-five minutes, and practically, it’s whatever I can manage to fit in that day).

Sleep

The next big thing to take care of in terms of literally powering down, is sleep. Sleep is unequivocally linked to stress levels and cognitive function, with a lack of sleep being known to cause higher levels of stress, frustration, depression and anxiety. (It’s also a bit of a vicious cycle, as when you are stressed, you are much more likely to find it harder to either go to sleep, or you’re much more likely to wake in the early hours, mind racing, thinking of all the things you need to do.)

Sleep deprivation also has a massive effect on your cognitive function – think about it – if you only have five to six hours of cognitive function a day and you start that day sleep deprived, you are already starting in deficit. It has been linked with all cognitive overload symptoms; it’s been shown to lower your thinking and problem-solving skills, attention span, memory, patience, and ability to have empathy for and connect with others.

So, getting at least six (but ideally seven to nine) hours a night, will have a huge effect on you being able to switch off and be more productive to boot.

There’s no silver bullet solution (and all of these tips take consistent doing), but if you put in the effort, you will start getting more sleep:

  • Have a consistent sleep schedule – going to bed and waking up at the same time (going to bed any time between 10pm and 11pm is the recommended time for getting the best quality sleep)
  • Make your bedroom as sleep-conducive as possible – comfortable mattress and bedding, temperature, with as much quiet and darkness as possible.
  • Switch off and remove all devices from your bedroom at least thirty minutes (preferably an hour) before you want to go to sleep
  • Read or listen to relaxing music instead
  • Eliminate other sleep-disruptors: alcohol, caffeine, even exercise too near to bedtime.

Now that we’ve looked at ways of helping your busy brain switch off and be more productive, let’s look at the fun stuff – how to also enjoy it all more too!

SCREW MEDITATION – Your Success Blueprint

The above article is an extract from my best-selling book Screw Meditation! How to Switch Off a Busy Brain and Enjoy Life!.

Read it for all you need to know about preventing cognitive overload and how to be more strategic and effective as a leader.