Think of your brain as a bucket – what is its capacity?
The Health & Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, providing guidelines and standards to ensure protection against dangers in the workplace (enter stage left Hi-Viz jackets on chairbacks and employees with lofty job titles ending in ‘Officer’). Tucked neatly away under Section 2 was the guideline that duty of care for welfare included employees’ mental health. Soon after, mental health in the workplace became an added data-point for analysing organisational performance (with the Equality Act of 2010 and the Mental Health Act of 2013 reinforcing the importance of employee welfare as a success lever for organisations).
Nowadays, business headlines are observing the detrimental effect of prolonged or excessive stress on both physical and mental wellbeing at work. With psychological safety taking centre-stage on the list of expectations of existing and future employees, we took some time to investigate why so many of us seem to be feeling stressed so often. And, crucially, what we can do as individuals to take ownership of our own personal welfare?
Stress – Real or Imagined?
Our brains produce stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) when we are feeling stressed or when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. However, the same hormones are also produced when we imagine a stressful (or anticipated stressful) situation (think nerves, worry, uncertainty, overwhelm). How often do we experience those feelings? Regardless of whether the scenario is real or imagined, our brain is processing this data and anticipating our response – plundering vital reserves from our cognitive ‘capacity bucket’….
The Capacity Bucket
Think of your brain as a vessel, ready to be filled with actions that require processing. What is the storage capacity of your vessel? Perhaps you subscribe to ‘heaped capacity’ – the amount inside your bucket plus the amount piled on top of it! One thing is for sure, whatever the vessel, there will be a capacity limit.
‘Cognitive capacity’ is the amount of thinking power we have available to apply to problem solving or decision making. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) refers to it as a reservoir of mental energy. Our mental capacity, it seems, is a finite resource dealing with potentially unlimited demand.
What affects how much resource is available and what can we do to keep our bucket from over-filling?
- Attention: if we are paying attention to multiple tasks, each activity is allocated part of the volume of our ‘bucket’ while also running the same degree of processing power, in parallel, for each task. When attention is spread across multiple tasks, capacity depletion is accelerated and stress is enhanced (due to ‘holding’ processing power simultaneously across each task)
- Working Memory: this is our instant memory, responsible for processing and responding to immediate scenarios and information. Working memory operates at very low capacity (7+/- 2 bits of information – Miller, 1956) with a working life of 7-15 seconds (our ability to recall information after this time drops off dramatically and is then replaced by new data)
- Major Processing Resources: these are called upon to process and complete a task (verbal, audio, visual). Invariably, it is almost impossible to concurrently complete two tasks from the same ‘resource’ e.g. two verbal tasks (laying down a voice note while holding a conversation), two audio tasks (hearing a voicemail while listening to a podcast), or two visual tasks (reading a proposal while watching a webinar)
A great example of the above depleting factors at work would be in the cockpit of a fighter jet: where the pilot is multi-tasking, deploying all major processing resources simultaneously, with their working memory in overdrive! In training, when a pilot reaches the limits of cognitive capacity, they experience ‘cognitive freeze’, unable to even respond to a straightforward question about the name of a family member.
How can we avoid filling our bucket unnecessarily to avoid reaching the capacity of our cognitive load?
- Attention: the preferred alternative is of course to focus on one task at a time, applying all of our attention to the activity at hand (creating efficiencies and enhancing our depth of processing – think Deep Work by Cal Newport). However, with today’s workplace calling for ‘hybrid competence’, what can we do to reduce stress and overwhelm filling our bucket? This would be the perfect time to deploy your ‘attention firewall’! Be disciplined about distractions, get comfortable with saying ‘no’, develop the skill of managing expectations, and structure your schedule to accommodate different attention modes according to task size
- Working Memory: now is the time to work on hard-wiring your learned skills – moving competencies from our working memory and laying them down in our long-term memory. Use the following four techniques to amplify your recall and allow for the resources to become highly automated, almost unconscious:
- Rehearsal – practise the skill in a non-live environment
- Repetition – consider the 10,000 hours theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers -rehearsing once is rarely enough
- Revision – revisit skills to keep them fresh and usable – use it or lose it
- Teaching – coach and train others to concrete the skills for yourself
- Major Processing Resources: make a note of how often you are attempting to combine your verbal, audio and visual resources when processing information. Each of us has a resource hierarchy, with visual usually winning (imagine listening to a partner’s description of their day while you are attempting to watch a movie, then try responding!). What can you do to alter your environment to avoid adding unnecessary processing resource stress to your capacity bucket?
Whether scenarios are real or imagined, your approaches and responses to work will most certainly manifest in how quickly your ‘capacity bucket’ is filled and how quickly you reach fighter-pilot levels of cognitive-load. Mental wellbeing at work starts with how we run our minds. It seems that it is not as simple as workload management. Sure, go on a time management programme and prioritise your to-do list, BUT finish the job! Fine-tune your cognitive supply by slowing down the flow into your bucket. And remember, it’s not just the real activity that needs prioritising but the imagined activity too.