Give Your Brain a Break

Feb 09, 2024

Cognitive load is a real problem for most of us.

Think about how many things we expect our brain to be responsible for handling, managing, deciding, deleting, and storing on a daily basis. Some studies say we make as many as 32,000 decisions a day-- consciously and subconsciously. It's exhausting to even process that concept. We also check emails 100+ times a day. And I won't mention the hundreds of times we check texts. Then there's Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Teams, Slack and TikTok.

Clearly, there's no shortage of stimulation and information coming at us all day long. 

The real problem: In the midst of all those distractions, we are expected to concentrate on building financial plans, reviewing portfolios, making presentations, and analyzing client's personal and business data to make sound recommendations. Every day.

For most of us, we are doing our work while also task switching. Notice I said task-switching. That's because there is no such thing as multi-tasking when it comes to our brains. You can only do one thing at a time. If you think you are listening to a podcast while simultaneously checking emails, you are not. Instead, you are task-switching from paying attention to the podcast, then switching back to reading the email, then pausing to listen to the podcast again. This is inefficient and frankly exhausting. Researchers say that it can take up to 11 seconds for our brains to switch from one task to the next. And we do it all day long. What a waste. 

But that's not the worst of it. We actually do this in our relationships. Sometimes to those people we love the most. Can you remember the last time you sat for dinner with your spouse or family and were totally present? Or are you the person who leaves your cell phone on the table "just in case" you get a call or a text? Your attention starts to task-switch between the conversation at hand, while checking on the possibility that someone else might need you.

Does this sound like you? I'm sad to admit it definitely sounds like me. 

Ask yourself: What's the message you are sending? When we are with someone we care about-- a partner, a client, a child-- but we are also checking emails, taking one quick call during dinner, or texting while talking-- what are we conveying?

Here's the truth: Without saying it, we are implying, "You are important, but hang on for just a sec because this call/text/email might be more important than you." 

It's a terrible message, yet we do it. All the time.

That's because we are dealing with cognitive load. All the time. 

We need to practice reducing cognitive load to give our brains a break. How are we supposed to learn new ideas, read books filled with new concepts, or relax and watch a movie, when our brains are so cluttered with distractions? 

Consider giving your brain a break. 

Here are some simple ideas to help you reduce cognitive load.

  • First and foremost, look around. Are you reading this while sitting at your desk? What else are you surrounded by? Junk? Piles of stuff? Post-its with to do items? Three open screens with different websites on each? Clear your space. Shut down all other monitors. Close out tabs. Just be focused on reading this post. Nothing else. Not easy, I know. But try it. 
  • Next, shut off all notifications. No pings, no dings. No email alerts. No Teams notifications. No looking at the Outlook icon telling you that you have 71 unread emails. Stop all reminders telling you that you have a ton of other things to think about. This is very hard. Do it anyway. Focus on one thing and one thing only. (It takes real practice to get good at this.)
  • Reduce "icon distraction." If you look at your desktop, do you have hundreds of files and shortcuts all over your screen, blocking that tranquil ocean picture from your last vacation. Clear your screen of 90% of those. Every time you look at all those icons, you create more cognitive load. Remove them so that all you can see is your ocean background picture. Even better: No background picture at all. A plain black screen is best for your eyes. It gives them a chance to rest, not scan. Try this. You'll be amazed at the simplicity of what's in front of you. Your brain gets a little break.
  • Same holds true for your phone. All those apps staring at you as you stare at them? Move them. Get them off your home screen. Put them to a later page where you'd have to swipe to see them. Even more evolved would be to move them off your home screen and put them into folders several swipe screens away. How incessantly would you check IG if you had to swipe to a third page, find the right folder, click on the folder, scan through the app its in, then open Instagram? Less incessantly, I promise you. Apps are distracting and they contribute to more cognitive load.
  • Stop the dopamine addiction. We are all looking for the text, the email, the DM notifying us that someone needs us. Every single time we get a notification, we also get a little shot of dopamine. And we like it. A lot. It's addictive. So we keep seeking it out. What we don't realize is that it's exhausting! And when we flip our phone over to see if anyone texted-- but no one did-- we get the opposite of dopamine. We feel disappointment. And we keep looking and looking and looking until someone reaches out-- then that boost of dopamine hits us again. What we don't realize is that this is terribly addictive and creates mini-mood swings. All day long. Reduce the dopamine hits. 

Without task-switching, it is possible to have clear focus. Our brain can be dialed into one topic. Like, laser focused. 

Without cognitive load, we have what's called flow. Flow is a free and clear state of mind where creativity is abundant. When you are in flow, you are dialed in. Time stands still. You have no interest in being anywhere else. Your brain is happy and productive, and you can generate ideas like you'd never be able to do in a distracted state.

It's magical to be in flow. Think of the last time you were doing a jigsaw puzzle and an hour went by-- but you didn't care because you were in full concentration. You may feel this high when you are lost in a project, or cooking all afternoon, or out for a long run in the woods.

Flow is a wonderful state to be in-- but we cannot possibly access it when our brains are cluttered with distraction.

Give your brain a break. Try the simple tips from above. It will be awkward at first. But then I hope you'll see what I mean. Your brain will thank you.

So will the people you love who'll begin to notice that you are finally, fully showing up. 

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