Learning expert Sarah Ratcliff addresses how to avoid cognitive overload


Having started a new role just 3 months ago, it would be fair to say that cognitive overload has been at play. January is a time when many people start new roles and may just be starting to feel the impact of this.

The best way to describe it is having too many tabs open in your brain. We know when we do this on a computer, the whole thing starts to slow down and work less effectively. As a human being the impact of this is feeling slightly fuzzy-headed, lacking clarity, and then on top of those impacts, then feeling frustrated that you feel this way. Oh, and did I mention that frustration sets off a wave of thinking in, yes, you’ve guessed it, another open tab.

At its very worst, cognitive overload can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, depression and breakdown. Ultimately the human brain can only take so much.

What causes it…

Cognitive overload can be caused by a number of different factors. But for me, just being in a new job can be overwhelming. There are so many new things to learn, names, directions, processes, ways of working, new systems, oh and of course those things on the job description.

When you think of cognitive overload or cognitive fatigue, your mind might go straight to work-related stress. But simply having a fast pace of life can lead to information overload. In today’s modern world, we’re surrounded by technology. And with easy access to phones, tablets, laptops, and social media, it’s no surprise that it can trigger the effects of overload.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin associated information overload with the amount of multitasking we do in today’s digital world. He explained that information excess is down to the inability to decide what activities are important. “This uncertainty wreaks havoc with our rapid perceptual categorization system, causes stress, and leads to decision overload.”

John Medina, a molecular biologist, wrote in his book Brain Rules “It is literally impossible for our brains to multitask when it comes to paying attention. We have created high stress office environments even though a stressed brain is significantly less productive than a non-stressed brain.”

The human brain is about survival, and it reacts to stress in the same way as somebody chasing us. That’s what the brain is paying attention to even when we’re not, which is why unrecognized stress can impact our health.

How can we avoid it or manage it?

For me, it’s a case of slowing down and recognizing that it's happening. If you’re in a new job, accept that cognitive overload may slow you down for a little while, and that’s ok. Everyone knows you’re still in the early stages, and you have a lot to learn.

I know full well that I work better in the mornings and can often feel burned out by 4pm, so I make sure that tasks that require more brain power are completed towards the start of the day. Prioritisation is key for me to manage my workload and avoid cognitive fatigue. It’s all about where we put our attention and focusing on singular things and not multi-tasking.

According to John Medina, “exercise boosts brain power”, and there is a clear link between exercise and improved cognition. So, by heading to the gym, or simply going for a walk, you can give your brain a workout too. He also stresses the importance of sleep as it’s when our brains recuperate and process everything we’ve got going on. As well as playing music as it’s been found to boost cognition.

Researcher Amelia Haynes suggests that mindfulness practices reduce cognitive load. Simple things like taking a break when you feel stressed or overwhelmed or spending a few minutes focussing on your five senses can do the world of good. A stressed brain can wake people up in the night because their brain is trying to file it. So, try these tips for yourself and find out what works best for you.

How does this apply to how we learn?

As this subject is one close to my heart, I have to finish off on how this works when we’re learning. Particularly when it comes to virtual classrooms. Distractions come at us from every direction. So many things to look at, or maybe do in the background.

There are plenty of wonderfully interactive tools that can be used like: slides, voices, cameras, chats and polls. But the key here is not to use them all at once and remember to keep the focus on the areas that matter.

At Cegos we design our courses in a way that takes cognitive overload into account. We use lots of visuals because we think in pictures, we dream in pictures. We make sure that there’s not too much text on your screen, because as human beings we cannot read and listen at the same time. And we don’t stuff our learning with loads of facts, as nobody will remember it. Instead, we provide easy access to documents and tools in our LearningHub, so they know that they easily find that information when they need it.

As John Medina puts it, “vision trumps all of the other senses”. When my son was first starting to read, he worked very hard to get to the point where he started to enjoy it and then it clicked one day. He started reading Harry Potter and he went mum, reading is brilliant, he said it’s like a movie but it’s in your brain.

At the end of the day, the brain will not listen to anything that is boring. So, we make it very personal by telling stories to help people connect with something they already know about. Attention span isn’t a number, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to binge watch Netflix for hours. If it’s got an emotional connection, I’m bought in.

So, what have we learnt? That it’s there, it happens, it’s really prevalent if you’re in a new job. So, take the pressure off yourself. Accept that it’s happening and put on your own life jacket first. Look after yourself and then you will be more effective in your new job, and you will feel some of those stresses and strains melt away as you close the tabs that you don’t need today.

At Cegos we provide learning solutions that consider the effects of cognitive overload. Click here to find out more and get in touch.