Cognitive Load Theory: Why Your Brain Needs a ‘Desktop Cleanup’

A few years back, on Mother’s Day morning, I decided to prepare breakfast in bed for my wife. I chose Eggs Benedict for the recipe. It required poaching eggs and whipping up a smooth hollandaise, neither of which I had ever attempted. As I whisked the sauce and eyed the boiling pot of water, I started to sweat. My wife called out that she was hungry. My kids called to me from the living room, asking if I’d play outside with them. The weekend news blared on the radio. My sauce never emulsified and the eggs were overpoached. (My wife, ever a good sport, said it was great anyway.) My kitchen conundrum was a prime example of cognitive overload.

Cognitive load theory says that optimal learning occurs when your working memory, which deals with new information and has a limited capacity, is not overly taxed. We have trouble learning and performing new tasks if our minds are trying to process too much information at once. For example, if you’re trying to master a new recipe while surrounded by distractions.

In today’s hyper-connected, information-flooded world — where research shows that people have an average of over 80 apps on their devices and spend an average of three hours and ten minutes on their smartphones — becoming cognitively overloaded is increasingly hard to avoid. As CEO of Jotform, I believe that automation is key. If your mind is like a desktop, then automation is a reliable method for decluttering and optimizing both learning and performance. Here, a closer look at various ways in which automation can prevent cognitive overload.

Adding extra hard drive to your memory

When working on a task, the brain toggles between the “working” memory and the long-term memory, where things are stored once you master them. If cognitive load theory says that we perform and learn best when our working memory is unburdened, automation can help.

Automated tools can serve as extra memory when your brain has had enough. Rather than having to memorize every incoming piece of information, you can find a tool to effortlessly store it for you. Take meetings: instead of engaging my working memory and scrambling to take careful notes, I use an AI-backed speech recognition app to automatically record and convert speech into written text. Or emails: instead of spending hours sifting through my inbox for an important attachment, I use Zapier to automatically save every attachment — without having to think about it.

Consider all the day-to-day tasks that might be depleting your memory, and in all likelihood, there’s a tool to take care of it for you. That way, you can save your brain space for the “big stuff.”

Automate your peace of mind

Research on cognitive load theory has found that emotions can interfere with information processing. Being stressed or anxious limits the capacity of your working memory, which in turn, makes learning or performing a new task more difficult.

The antidote? For starters, I’d recommend exercise, a healthy diet, and a good night’s sleep (plus power naps, as needed). Then, I’d suggest finding tools to eliminate the stressors that nag you throughout the day and keep you up at night. Will my marketing campaign go out on time? Did I remember to pay that last invoice? Automation is like knowing that the stove was turned off when you left home. You don’t have to check.

For example, say your company regularly has to monitor for security issues and breaches. Automation can help you scan legal documents for specific phrasing and stay compliant with industry regulations.

Automated tools can lend a hand in so many ways to ensure your data, projects, and systems stay safe and protected — and you stay calm and collected.

Eliminate over-communication

Everyday distractions can also chip away at our cognitive resources. With so many forms of connection — Slack, emails, messenger, project management platforms, phone calls, meetings, and more — communication can begin to distract us more than it helps.

Automation is a powerful antidote to overcommunication. You can use automated tools and apps to streamline your daily communications, rather than allowing your days to be swallowed up by hundreds of check-ins, circle-backs, status updates, and all the ways we poke and prod each other at work.

For example, rather than emailing back and forth a dozen times to confirm meetings and share video links, you can use a Zapier integration that automatically emails a Zoom link when you create a new meeting. Or, rather than having employees handle common questions via a chat application, you can use a no-code automation tool like Landbot to add a customer service chatbot to your website and field the FAQs (while delivering quick and efficient customer service).

Final thoughts

As humans, we have limited resources for storing information for later use. Automation can help ease the burden on your working memory and free your mind to conquer new tasks — the kinds of things that will facilitate growth for your company and your career over the long term.

As CEO of my company, automation helps me to save precious cognitive resources for the stuff that matters — including weekend culinary projects with my family.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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