What is Cognitive Load?

Cognitive load is a theory from John Sweller that’s known as “the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory.” This is often applied to an instructional context, but we see the term popping up outside of fancy pedagogical journals too. The BBC published an article last fall on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on cognitive load theory. They wrote:

It seems ages since we started referring to life in these “uncertain times”. For months now, our routines have been disrupted and we’ve been forced to adapt. Anecdotally, one major consequence is a state of mental fatigue. It feels hard to concentrate for any length of time, as if we’re in a collective state of near-constant distraction.

Cognitive Load Theory: Explaining our fight for focus, BBC

This “near-constant distraction” and collective brain fog comes from overloading one’s working memory. Instead of, for example, just showing up to a meeting, your working memory is distracted by other work-at-home thoughts like:

  • Is the door closed?
  • Is the WiFi working?
  • Where are my headphones? are they charged?
  • Will the Amazon delivery person hit the doorbell and interrupt the meeting?
  • Am I wearing pants?

But we’re not here to talk about working from home (though we do have a helpful blog if that’s up your alley). We’re here to talk about cognitive load, how it can affect your collaborative teams, and maybe offer some helpful tips for managing cognitive load.

Three Types of Cognitive Load

John Sweller identified three types of cognitive load. They are:

  1. Intrinsic
  2. Extraneous
  3. Germane

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

This type refers to information that must be learned in order for someone to understand the context of a task and to complete it. The goal is to minimize this type of cognitive load.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load refers to the technical information required to complete a task, the how-to’s of a process, so to speak. These tasks should ideally be automated or managed automatically. The goal is to eliminate this type of cognitive load.

Germane Cognitive Load

This last type refers to information and complex processes that should require the most attention. This is the bread and butter of a task, so to speak. Ideally, this is where most of your brainpower and mental effort should be occupying.

Instagram Post Example

In case that still didn’t make sense, we’re going to use an Instagram post to help clear things up. Say you’re assigning someone on your team (or even yourself) to create an Instagram post for a client. For this post, the person assigned must:

collective member smiling and laughing at her phone
  • Select a photo
  • Write copy
  • Research and collect curated hashtags for the post
  • Schedule the post
  • Confirm that it was posted

Now, you may not have one person do everything on the list for this single post, but this is generally what needs to happen. (We’re also going to ignore for right now all the hoops to jump through and sacrifices needed to be made for Insta’s algorithm.)This load should be minimized, but this process will always be a higher intrinsic cognitive load for newbies as they learn. Some examples include:

  • Where to find pictures (such as in an appropriate Google Drive file)
  • How to write copy in the brand voice
  • Best practices for hashtag curation
  • How to use a posting application (such as Sendible)

Examples of extraneous cognitive load in this situation could be:

  • Have we already used this image for a post?
  • Is my spelling and grammar correct?
  • What are our brand’s go-to hashtags?
  • When was this post supposed to go out again?
  • Am I supposed to confirm the post was sent or will someone else do it?

Minimizing intrinsic and eliminating extraneous cognitive load should leave room for germane cognitive load. Examples include:

  • Why is this picture better for this post than another?
  • How can I make the copy for this post stronger?
  • How can I prepare this post to encourage better engagement?

Tips for Managing Cognitive Load in Collaborative Workspaces

So, now that you understand cognitive load theory, we can apply this knowledge and make stronger teams.

Tip #1 – Cross-train Team Members

Our first tip in easing cognitive load is to cross-train your team members. It may seem easier to assign one person per client account, but that doesn’t mean that they should be the ONLY ones able to work in that space. When minimizing intrinsic cognitive load, cross-training can help. Familiarize your team members with various clients, brand voices, and protocols. Now, you’ve minimized the intrinsic load when your team needs to work in different spaces.

Tip #2 – Organize Your Workspaces

This is our best tip for eliminating extraneous cognitive load. By organizing your workspace, you can save time and frustration, whether it’s just you or a whole team. Think about the Instagram post example from before. Organizing your digital workspace eases the issues raised as extraneous cognitive load. We use ClickUp to keep our digital workspace organized, but you can use whatever works best for your business.

Tip #3 – Implement Sprint Planning/Story Points

Sprint planning, or story points, is a method often used by software development teams to quantify the time and effort needed to complete a task. Story points can help you visualize the amount of work you need to manage amongst your team. Story points can be assigned based on:

  • The amount of work a task requires
  • The complexity of the task to complete
  • The amount of uncertainty or risk associated with the task

Story points have relative value. A task given 2 points should be twice as “difficult” to complete as a task with 1 point. (A task with 2 million points should still be twice as difficult to complete a task with 1 million points.) This method can help ease the cognitive load by ensuring that your team members are assigned work that they can manage.

Assessing Your Team’s Workload

We’ve prepared a short Google Forms questionnaire that you can reference when trying to assess your team’s cognitive load.

What are some of YOUR tips and tricks for managing cognitive load?