3 Tips for Reducing Cognitive Load

reducing cognitive load


Have you heard the term cognitive load? “Cognitive load” is the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. The term is often used in the learning environment. However, we have an ever-increasing amount of cognitive load, especially since the pandemic. We are holding a lot of information in our heads, often novel information that is being processed. The information in working memory is more and more complex. Because we are incorporating and processing the information, it feels unwieldy to think.  Happily, there are a variety of tools to help us reduce that load.


Use a reliable, easy-to-use capture tool.

Write stuff down. Use an app to capture information. The less we keep in our heads the more we free up the cognitive load. First capture, then prioritize the information. By capturing information it is no longer in working memory. By evaluating you shorten your list of tasks.

  • Be intentional about your paper capture tool. A notebook keeps all the information together. A disk binder system creatively gives you the opportunity to create sections for information. Your binder becomes a safe place for all information.
  • Use apps wisely. The Notes app is an easy-to-use system.
  • Use your system consistently for the best off-loading of cognitive load. That is to have a routine to add to, delete and review your information. GTD, Getting Stuff Done, uses a capture and review system with a weekly planning time.


Add routines to daily living.

Daily routines lighten your cognitive load by creating an auto-pilot for daily and weekly self-care. Routines add consistency which adds serenity.

  • Use a checklist for your daily routines. Dry erase board checklists can help start or end the day. Your family will benefit from this as well. No more yelling at your family to get stuff done too.
  • Create a parallel schedule for your day with getting up and going to bed at the same time. You will be sure to be well rested and better able to think.
  • Track your success with visual signs of success. Whether it is a checkmark on your planner or a habit tracker app, you will enjoy your success knowing this data.


Be intentional about new information, tasks, and projects.

Intention can lighten your cognitive load. Paying attention to the purpose and related actions that are behind a task brings clarity. Limit new projects to no more than 2 simultaneous projects and have pre-set rules for decisions as new information comes along. Remember that anxiety can affect your cognitive load and create stress and paralysis. When you give yourself time to process and create a plan, you gain control and create successful outcomes. Intentional actions include giving yourself time to plan, time to process information, and time to act on the plan. All of this can be accomplished with a fresh perspective and time blocking.


Remember the phrase, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Ultimately, that is the remedy for reducing cognitive load.


4 replies
  1. Seana Turner
    Seana Turner says:

    My daughter introduced me to this term, and as soon as she told me about it, it resonated with me. We are totally cognitively overloaded. I think it not only makes functioning and productivity difficult, but also makes us feel anxious. There is always something swirling that makes me feel unsettled. It’s too much!

    I was working with someone today on trying to do your first step – capture. As we captured more and more that he has on his plate, it became evident why he is feeling overwhelmed. I love your suggestion of having only 2 new projects. This isn’t always possible, but it helps you realize that you might need to start offloading, delegating, and more aggressively protecting your time.

  2. Linda Samuels
    Linda Samuels says:

    I’ve heard the term “cognitive overload,” but not “cognitive load.” It all makes sense what you’re saying. Our capacity for what we can hold in our working memory is limited, so having a good system to do a brain dump or download is essential.

    It’s so funny because this week I wrote about mindfulness and how being on auto-pilot can remove us from engaging in mindful moments. But I also believe, as you mentioned, it IS necessary to have certain routines and things we don’t have to think too hard about, as a way of lightening that cognitive load. Even so, we can bring an aspect of mindfulness to some of those things like brushing your teeth. It’s probably an ingrained routine. But when you brush, focus on the sensations in the mouth, the taste of the minty toothpaste, and the fresh, tingly feeling your mouth has after. We can engage in both the automation of the routine/habit and the presence of focus with what we’re doing.

  3. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I love the connection you are creating here! Mindfulness and cognitive load are both examples of how to be mindful of your capacity, your priorities and your engagement. Just the right amount of mindfulness can help you be aware of your cognitive overload.

  4. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Kudos to you for recognizing this client’s needs and offering tools for use in this situation. Rarely do people have 2 projects however it is helpful to be mindful of how many are possible.

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