by Rob Joseph, Director, BeaconCFO Plus

You sit down at your desk with a fresh cup of coffee and every intention of tackling a complex task.

Then your phone buzzes with a new text message.
You glance at the growing total of unread emails in your inbox.
A reminder for a Zoom call in 30 minutes pops up on your computer screen.

All of us are susceptible to these digital distractions every minute of the day. We have grown accustomed to always being available, which makes it hard to put our phone away or close the inbox. This can lead to cognitive overload.

In the 1980s, an Australian psychologist named John Sweller first coined the term cognitive load. He talked about three activity spaces in a person’s memory:

  • Intrinsic load: The fundamental difficulty of a specific topic, like physics or calculus
  • Extraneous load: The way information is being presented (visual, auditory, etc.)
  • Germane load: How the brain assimilates new information to solve a problem

Cognitive overload can occur when all three of these systems overwhelm an individual. How can we ever clear that important task off our desk if we are constantly being distracted? And what impact does this have on our mental health? 

If we don’t take steps to relieve our cognitive load, we can become mentally exhausted, which can lead to burnout. This is especially true for CFOs and other C-suite executives: We are expected to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, strategists, and decision makers—but our brains can become strained.

We also must be mindful of cognitive load when it comes to our team. For example, are your accountants as productive as they could be, or are they losing productivity due to cognitive strain? Joseph Freed, writing for Forbes, cited cognitive load as the most important employee experience metric in the coming decade.


What can we do to manage cognitive load?

  • Don’t try to multitask. Try setting timers for completing tasks instead.
  • Eliminate distractions. Consider silencing your phone for blocks of time to help you focus all of your mental energy where it is needed.
  • Adopt a “one thing at a time” mentality. Many of us are guilty of working on one thing while already thinking about the next—make an effort to focus on one thing at a time.
  • If at all possible, complete each task once started. The fewer tasks that remain in “I’ll get back to this later” status, the clearer your mind will be for new work.
  • Take meditation breaks, walk-around breaks, even just a minute or two to create a buffer between finishing a task and beginning a new one. This can have an enormous effect on lowering stress.
  • Before beginning a new task, take a moment to ask, “Is this task really necessary?” Strive to reduce busy-work where possible.

Between ever-changing technology and so many of us working remotely, this is not an issue that is going away. The first step is to be more mindful of digital distractions and make small changes to ease the load.

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