Business Is Personal

Raise Productivity By Lowering Cognitive Load

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? That's reduced cognitive load at work.

Are you trying to help your team become more productive? Traditional efforts to raise productivity will help, but are they enough? At some point, you’ll find that the law of diminishing returns will take over. Rather than give up, you & your team need to reassess the team’s workload and how it’s handled.

It’s important! It’s mandatory.

Traditional attempts at workload assessment usually include a re-prioritization of tasks. Regular priority assessment is a good thing, but not often a great thing. Sometimes it resembles “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. What takes a re-prioritization from good to great is leaving your team open to not assigning a priority to EVERYTHING – i.e.: giving permission to not do a task. It’s OK to identify work as “work we don’t need to do”, or “work we don’t want to do”. However, your team still has to do this work because “It’s important!” and/or “It’s mandatory”.

There’s “mandatory because the law requires it”, but there’s a second form of mandatory that’s rarely talked about: “mandatory because I said so”. Some tasks legitimately fit this criteria, but many shouldn’t. The quote “Mandatory is one of the crutches we use when we can’t lead people.” speaks to these tasks. I’ll bet we’ve all seen this type of mandatory task in the workplace.

Mandatory doesn’t mean a person has to do it

Mandatory workloads tend to be administrative and clerical work placed on non-admin / non-clerical team members. Sometimes, it even includes administrative and/or clerical work placed on admin / clerical folks. Some of this work is necessary and important, like timekeeping for employees whose time is billed out to a customer. The rest should be subject to re-prioritization.

Your team has to stop doing unimportant work so that they can focus on what IS important. I’m sure you’ve heard and thought that before. Even so, we continue to put more “administrivia” work on our people. Sometimes this work is important, but if you look a little harder at it, you’ll find that much of it can be delegated. My favorite team member to delegate this kind of work to is “systems”.

Why do you want to either stop doing this work or delegate it to someone other than an employee? Cognitive load.

Every task you give a person increases their cognitive load. Take a high-value employee who does focused work for you. If in addition to that work, they also have five or more daily administrative / clerical tasks on their plate, those things have to be remembered.

Why does cognitive load matter?

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? Those environments have a lower cognitive load.

Extra tasks competing for brain power create “rush hour traffic” for the brain. Driving a car full of kids in heavy, urban traffic is more mentally draining than driving them on the open road. The complexity of heavy traffic and urban roads make driving more challenging. Add a bunch of kids in the car and.. well, you’re probably all over what cognitive load means. Add darkness, rain, and fog. Each layer increases the cognitive load your brain must manage in order to drive.

New administrative and/or clerical work increase the total cognitive load for employees who do focus work, decreasing the importance of their “real work”. Are these admin tasks more important than the number one task any random team member is expected to complete that week? My guess is that they aren’t.

Lowering cognitive load via systems

Work that requires deep thought is sabotaged by interruptions. We “clump” meetings together in order to reduce interruptions and increase available focus time. We clean our office to reduce clutter – and thus visual “noise” / distractions. Unnecessary tasks, office clutter and interruptions all add to cognitive load.

People under high cognitive load don’t need darkness, fog, or rain (interruptions / clerical work) added to their “drive” (workload). While these tasks can’t always be eliminated, they can often be automated. If someone is making a phone call or checking a website multiple times per day to determine if an action should be taken, is there a way to automate that determination? If you have systems tracking various aspects of your business, is someone manually tabulating that info? Is there a way to automate that tabulation? What can you eliminate or reduce? What can you automate?

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on LinkedIn or Twitter, or email him at mriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.