Contrary to popular ideas about multitasking, when we attempt to do too many things at one time, especially if we are trying to do complex tasks, we end up being less effective and less productive. This can result in something called cognitive overload. Basically, just like a computer crashes, our brain shuts down, drastically limiting our ability to process all that is coming in. We often speak about this as being, or feeling overwhelmed or anxious. It’s kind of like trying to take a drink from a firehose, for example—it’s not very effective and we end up feeling more frustrated and stressed than when we started.
How stress can get in the way.
When we are problem solving, our brains are doing three very important activities: 1) taking in information from both our internal and external environment; 2) attempting to hold onto and remember information that is required for solving a particular problem; and 3) logically organizing that information by either combining, adding, and/or subtracting information, in order to make sense of how all that information is linked. However, all of these tasks that the mind undertakes cannot be effectively done at the same time. This is especially true when we are under stress, as it becomes even harder to be an effective problem solver. For example, trying to remember a bunch of info can interfere with understanding how all the pieces fit together. Another example, would be fighting with a spouse, being laid off from a job, dealing with a chronic disease, etc. all of these stressors can cloud our minds or distort our view of our problems.
Dealing with cognitive overload: externalization
One tool we can use to combat cognitive overload is called externalization. Externalization involves putting to paper what is going on in our heads. This not only frees us from the difficult task of remembering all the different components of a problem, but more, allows us to begin the process of 1) better understanding and defining our problem and goal; 2) brainstorming possible solutions to solve our problem; 3) comparing each of the solutions in order to choose the one that has the highest probability of working; and 4) after testing out our solution, evaluating the outcome.
Dealing with cognitive overload: visualization
Another tool that proves useful in overcoming cognitive overload is Visualization. Visualization, as its name suggests, involves picturing a specific reality in our mind’s eye. This can help us better clarify a problem we are facing. That is, we can visualize each part of the problem we are facing and explore possible solutions. Eventually, this tool can help us identify the steps we need to get where we want to go.
For example, many professional athletes use this tool in order to enhance their success—from golfers visualizing their shot, to Olympic slalom skiers rehearsing each part of the course. Similarly, you can rehearse the steps you will take when deciding on how to solve a particular problem or issue you are facing.
Visualization is also a form of mindfulness which can help reduce our stress and anxiety. For example, some people during times of distress visualize a “safe place,” such as a favorite vacation spot, etc. to help calm themselves down. Other people use guided meditations as a way to change feeling states.
Dealing with cognitive overload: simplification.
A final tool to help when we are feeling overloaded is called simplification. Simplification involves breaking complex problems down into a series of manageable steps. That is, it helps us take vague problems or goals and make them more specific, so that they are easier to work on, thereby reducing stress of large overwhelming goals or problems. For example, if we were working on a long-term goal of completing a four-year degree, simplification would involve focusing only on what we need to get done for that particular semester. Again, this is a way to practice mindfulness, as we are focusing only on what we need to do in the present to get to the next step.