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5 ways to cope when your brain is fried

‘Cognitive load coping’ is one of the top skills we need for times when dealing with brain overload. Source: Getty
‘Cognitive load coping’ is one of the top skills we need for times when dealing with brain overload. Source: Getty

The end of a meeting, the end of a day, the end of a week, we’ve all experienced that exhausted ‘zombie brain’ feeling. It’s been an even more familiar feeling since we’ve been working from home in COVID-19 times but it also happens in an office environment too.

The terms ‘information glut’, ‘infoxication’ or ‘data smog’ describe it even better. Our brain is full and we can’t take anymore.

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The fried brain feeling is ‘information overload’. The Information Overload Research Group says it happens when ‘the information available exceeds the processing abilities of the individual in the time available’. It impacts our productivity, quality of life and effectiveness.

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The Institute for the Future agree, saying that ‘cognitive load coping’ is one of the top skills we need for these overloaded times.

Here are five things you need to do:

1. Break or you’ll break

We bring zombie vibes on ourselves by not taking breaks.

Our brain wasn’t designed to handle a constant flow of information so we must let it consolidate and catch up and when we switch rapidly between information and don’t take a break we’re adding to the problem.

So what do you need to do?

Take a break.

Even a micro break of 90-seconds can release the cognitive load you’re carrying.

Step outside, walk around, stretch a little, grab a glass of water, pat the cat, unload the dishwasher. This break will help you feel better at the end of the meeting, the end of the day, and the end of the week.

2. Get it out of your head

Do you try and store everything in your brain? If you do, you’re more likely to ‘fill up’ sooner and reach cognitive overload.

Externalise more information; write it down, talk to text it, put it in a document, type it in a notes app. Getting one batch of information OUT of your head means some space becomes available to process the next batch of information that’s coming IN.

If you think you can carry everything in your head, you could be missing information and not even realise it.

This is the problem we have with ‘discernment’, being able to judge which information to take in and store. It’s greatly affected by information overload and we get worse at discernment the more overloaded we are.

3. Start fresh

Tomorrow is a new day. If today was tough or you felt like a zombie by 11am, you can try again tomorrow. Your brain loves to tidy things up while you’re asleep.

So call it a day, make some schedule changes, or do some different tasks and start afresh tomorrow.

Letting your brain do the housekeeping overnight while you sleep is smart stuff. It sorts through what you’ve been working on, takes out the trash, files everything away and cleans things up for a fresh start tomorrow.

No broom required.

4. Chunk everything

George Armitage Miller, American psychologist, coined the term ‘chunk’ for working with smaller pieces of information to remember them. It’s how telephone numbers are grouped so we remember them more easily.

For example, it’s easier to recall 37 24 06 rather than 372406. That’s three smaller chunks versus one big one.

So look at the information you’re working with: what can you chunk? Can you group things under three heading, six dot points, seven steps or 12 pieces? Our brain loves chunks rather than trying to sort an endless list of unsorted chaos.

5. Think of others

Whenever you present, share or explain information, consider the cognitive load it puts on others, act as if your audience is already like a zombie before they try to absorb your information; this should help you reduce waffle or sharing too much complex information at once.

And test your information out with some colleagues before sending it out. Ask ‘what would make this clearer?’ You’ll get great tips from real humans.

Don’t get a reputation for being ‘zoned out’ from zombie overload. It’s a career-killer. But equally, consider how you can help others cope with information and not make them a zombie either.

The load of information isn’t going to ease off; it’s only increasing. Knowing how to get the best from our brain will save us from being stressed, tired and part of a premature zombie apocalypse.

Written by Lynne Cazaly, author of ‘Argh! Too much information, not enough brain: A Practical Guide to Outsmarting Overwhelm’ ($29.95). She is a speaker and award-winning author on new ways of working. She helps individuals and organisations think and work in ways that a more productive, collaborative, creative and effective. Find out more at www.lynnecazaly.com

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