Cognitive Load Theory: Why Automating Lower-Level Tasks Frees Up Your Brain

5 min read

Here’s the science behind the secret to higher productivity.

Productivity can be tricky. When you’re working in a knowledge industry like corporate law, estate planning, or real estate, your work output is dependent on something you can only partially control: Your brain.

That’s why understanding how your brain works – and working with it instead of against it – is one of the best ways to boost your productivity and accomplish more work in less time. 

So how can you harness your brainpower to get better results at work? Here’s what you need to know.

Cognitive Load Theory: How Your Brain Processes Information

Cognitive Load Theory came to prominence in the 1980s, when Australian psychologist John Sweller created the theory to explain findings from his experiments on problem solving. According to Cognitive Load Theory, there are three components to human memory: Sensory Memory, Working Memory, and Long-Term Memory. 

Sensory memory is the first stage of memory, where incoming information from the world around us is processed and filtered; irrelevant information is discarded. From there, whatever information survives is passed on to the working memory, which organizes information for proper long-term storage before passing it on to long-term memory. Your working memory is also responsible for everything from solving problems, to recalling information from long-term memory, to even organizing your thoughts.

The term cognitive load is a reference to the amount of working memory that the brain is using at any given time. In other words, cognitive load is a measure of how engaged your brain is and how hard it is working on the task at hand.

Working Memory is a Finite Resource

Working memory has limits. While long-term memory can hold a limitless amount of information for an indeterminate period of time, your working memory is essentially limited to what is right in front of you at any given time. 

In the 1950s, George A. Miller performed a series of experiments involving memory span – that is, how many numbers or letters someone can memorize and repeat back in the proper order. Miller’s research determined that most of his subjects could correctly recall about 5 to 9 items, leading him to publish his landmark paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”

Essentially, this means the finite capacity of working memory is approximately 7 items – the most a person can hold in their brain at the same time without forgetting anything is approximately 7 numbers, or letters, or shapes, or figures. This notion came to be known as Miller’s Law.

While Miller’s Law has been disputed in research over the years, and while Miller himself proposed the number 7 purely as a rhetorical device, the idea behind Miller’s Law – that working memory is a finite resource – has remained. Essentially, there’s only so much information the human brain can sort through at any given time before it becomes overwhelmed and starts producing errors.

Prioritize Tasks Based on Memory Usage

Given that working memory is limited, you’ll want to ensure you’re prioritizing your workload in a way that makes the most of what you have. When you start each day, your working memory is refreshed and ready to roll. That’s the best time to tackle mentally intense work that demands all of your attention or expertise. By prioritizing the heavy-lifting work first, you’ll ensure that the most critical tasks get done sooner.

In contrast, anything that doesn’t require intensive thought – responding to emails, for instance – should wait until the end of your day, so you can ensure you’ve left yourself adequate mental resources to accomplish your most critical tasks first.

American educator Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls this approach “Big Rocks First”. Imagine your work day as a bucket and your to-do list as a group of rocks of various sizes. The most important items on that list are the Big Rocks, and the less important tasks are the Small Rocks. In some cases, you may have medium-sized rocks, pebbles, or sand. If you fill your bucket with sand and pebbles and Small Rocks, you’ll have no room left for the Big Rocks. But if you start with your Big Rocks and then add sand and pebbles and Small Rocks, afterward, you’ll find that it all fits (meaning you accomplish more in that day).

Your working memory is much like a bucket. If you exhaust yourself working on smaller tasks, you’ll have no mental resources left for the most important items on your to-do list. But if you put your most significant tasks first, you’ll have given those critical to-do’s the very best of your skills, talents, and drive; and then, you can use the less important tasks as a reward or a break.

Automate Lower-Level Tasks

Of course, prioritizing more significant tasks above less significant ones is common sense. But what if you could free yourself of those tedious tasks entirely?

Automation is a little-thought-of but very useful strategy that you can use to not just get your work done faster, but also – in some cases – take work off your plate entirely. To use the rock analogy, it’s akin to having a second bucket dedicated entirely to sand and pebbles, so you can use your first bucket for your Big Rocks.

Automation does require some level of supervision, but it can free up more of your mental resources so that you can focus on higher-level tasks. For instance, when RDM Lawyers of Abbotsford, British Columbia became an Appara user, they were able to automate many of the document-related tasks they had previously performed manually. As a result, the firm was able to double the number of incorporations they can file per month while reducing the amount of time tasks take by 75%. But more importantly, the firm’s employees are now free to focus on the complex legal matters they got into law to solve.

No matter how great you may be at what you do, Cognitive Load Theory means that there’s a limit to how much work you can accomplish in a day. Quite simply, you only have so much brainpower to devote to tasks each day; that’s why prioritizing high-impact tasks and automating lower-level tasks can help you optimize your working memory and accomplish more in less time.

How are you leveraging your working memory? Are you prioritizing your Big Rocks first? What tasks can you automate with technology?

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