The countdown to the fourth meeting of the day has begun, with just eight minutes to spare. However, before diving into the meeting, there’s a short report and a couple of urgent emails awaiting your attention. As you present the hastily drafted plan during the meeting, beads of sweat form on your forehead, knowing it’ll fall short of expectations.
Although this story is purely fictional, the constant flood of stimuli is an all-too-real challenge for many knowledge workers. In today’s work culture, uninterrupted focus has become a luxury many can’t afford. A substantial portion of a knowledge worker’s day is consumed by various meetings, preparing for them, and dealing with fragmented tasks.
Yet cognitively demanding work necessitates unwavering concentration, quick thinking, and nimble responsiveness. Unfortunately, the omnipresence of modern instant messaging services, incessantly ringing phones, and constant email notifications present an immense challenge, making it arduous to maintain the required focus.
Moreover, the expectation for immediate responses, when one appears green online, exacerbates the situation even more.
Pay attention to the ways of doing things
A study published by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in August 2022 confirms that noise, interruptions, multitasking, and unclear instructions impose a burden on cognitive work. These factors increase cognitive load, leading to symptoms of fatigue that ultimately hinder work productivity and overall well-being (Kalakoski et al., 2022, 54).
Interestingly, the research also supports the idea that work productivity and well-being are not opposing goals but are in a symbiotic relationship and interdependent. Well-being enables effective work, and an effective worker, in turn, enhances and fosters well-being (ibid., 11).
In an interview with Yle News, Virpi Kalakoski, Research Manager at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, emphasizes the critical role of cognitive ergonomics in reducing work-related cognitive load. Cognitive ergonomics encompasses aspects such as perception, memory, and decision-making. By attentively considering work practices, unnecessary cognitive load can be mitigated, leading to smoother workflow processes (Hanhinen, 2022).
Excessive cognitive load often manifests as prolonged stress symptoms and may even necessitate sick leave. To combat this, Kalakoski suggests the adoption of regular breaks, creating dedicated time for concentration, and reflecting on optimal productivity periods throughout the day (Ibid., 2022).
Efficiency is between the ears
Additionally, it is a fallacy to presume that only those with light workloads can be efficient and productive. By prioritizing essential tasks, aligning them with overarching goals, proactive planning, and skillful self-management, individuals can substantially reduce the cognitive load associated with their work (Hermiö & Asikainen, 2022).
For tasks requiring concentration, allocating dedicated time in your calendar and marking yourself as busy can prove beneficial. Effective communication also plays a pivotal role in managing cognitive load. Consider raising pertinent issues in team meetings or proposing the establishment of common guidelines to delineate boundaries for additional communication.
Best practices often emerge through collaborative efforts.
Cultivating an environment of feedback and practicing clear communication significantly improves the overall atmosphere. Unclear communication easily leads to misunderstandings and unfulfilled requests (Asikainen, 2020). Addressing this issue becomes crucial as it directly exacerbates cognitive load.
Asikainen, M. 2020. Palaute ja keskustelu – työyhteisön parasta viestintää. Haaga-Helia eSignals 01.07.2020. Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved 30.11.2022.
Hanhinen, H. 2022. Monitekeminen ja keskeytykset kuormittavat työssä opa uupumukseen asti – ota talteen tutkijan kolme vinkkiä aivokuorman vähentämiseksi. Yle Uutiset 24.11.2022. Retrieved 30.11.2022.
Hermiö, A. & Asikainen, M. 2022. Kiire meidät periköön. Haaga-Helia eSignals 30.3.2022. Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved 30.11.2022.
Kalakoski, V., Lahti, H., Paajanen, T., Valtonen, T., Ahtinen, S., Kauppi, M., Turunen, J., Ojajärvi, A. & Luokkala, K. 2022. Viisi avausta aivotyöhön – Viisikko. Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. Helsinki.