Feeling Fuzzy, Forgetful, or Absent-Minded? A Lesson About Cognitive Load

Apr 20, 2020
cognitive load

I'm going to cut right to the chase today - we've been hearing from many people that they're feeling foggy, forgetful, or absent-minded.

You know, when you walk into a room and totally forget to do the ONE THING you went into the room to do?!

If you're a Mom, you've likely experienced it and had people say, "Oh, you've got 'mom brain.'" I'm sure some Dads experience it as well, but the point I'm making is that society waves it away as though it's just a funny little consequence of having a baby.

As it turns out, "mom brain" is something much more pervasive, it has a scientific name: cognitive load, and many people are experiencing it right now.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is a state that we experience when our finite amount of working memory is used up by the current mental tasks we're trying to accomplish. 

Quick background, "working memory" is our quick-access memory system that is used for things that we're currently working on. 

The good thing about working memory is that  we have quick access to it. The bad thing is that it's not reliable. Information isn't even really encoded there. You have to work hard to keep information in working memory, like reciting your shopping list over and over in your mind, and the second you stop reciting it over and over, it's lost.

It's that resource-intensive repetition that causes cognitive load.

The only other option is to commit the information to long-term memory, but that takes hundreds of repetitions over the course of days or weeks. Not realistic for day-to-day tasks.

Side note, when I was doing psychological research, we used to artificially induce this in my research subjects by asking them to simultaneously remember a 15-digit random number while completing a difficult cognitive task.

They couldn't do it. Well, not very successfully anyway. They'd get forgetful, they'd pause for a long time trying to remember what the next step was supposed to be, they'd use the wrong word for the wrong concept (calling a 'spatula' a 'spoon.')

In our normal lives, this looks more like:

  • Attempting to work
  • While being interrupted by kids / others
  • While trying to remember that long list of items you still need to accomplish (appointments, email replies, items to buy, phone calls to make, what food is in the fridge, what we're making for dinner, etc., etc., etc.,)

By simultaneously holding "mental space" for all of these ongoing things, we deplete our working memory down to zero.

There's nothing left to help us remember that we went into the other room to grab our cell phone charger, for example.

And, as a result, we call our kids by the wrong name, make errors at work, forget important items on the shopping list, completely forget that it's an important family member's birthday - the list goes on.

Who cares?

Now, here's why this is important. If you're a well-intentioned, empathetic person who's honestly trying to do a good job, you likely beat yourself up for being stupid or lazy or forgetful when this happens.

But, here's the thing, like so many of the topics we cover at Peak Mind, cognitive load is just something that happens to humans who have brains.

If you are a human with a brain, you will experience cognitive load at some point, and if you're taking on more than others around you, you're likely to experience it more often. You've got more on your mind.

Cognitive Psych research shows us that you can't "get good at" handling too much information. It's not a limitation of yours. It's a limitation every single human being has. 

But, there are a few tips and tricks from the field of Life Design that can help you minimize it. Let's dig in!

Minimizing Cognitive Load

I want to take you through a process that you can use to start to lighten the load you're placing on your working memory and free more of it up to be available for you when you need it.

STEP 1: Brain dump

The problem that's causing your cognitive load is that you're trying to hold too much stuff in working memory at the same time.

The antidote to that is to get it out of your working memory. 

Sit down, and write down everything going on in your mind. There are likely quite a few categories of things, such as:

  • Important, upcoming dates, deadlines, and responsibilities
  • Daily, mundane tasks you need to do
  • Shopping lists
  • Other family members' / people's needs
  • Things you're particularly worried about right now

There are likely others, but you get the idea. Brain dump them all onto a piece of paper, and add to it over the course of the day. Anytime a thought pops up that you feel like you have to remember, write it down.

STEP 2: Organize

Start to clump those categories and the items underneath them into broader groups.

These might be:

  • Running lists (e.g., shopping, to-do lists, etc)
  • Dates & deadlines
  • Feelings & emotions

STEP 3: Create a System

Chances are, you can't eliminate many of these items from your list. You likely can't just decide to not buy groceries or deal with dates and deadlines anymore. It's not realistic.

However, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HOLD THESE ITEMS IN MEMORY! Tools exist specifically for things like this!

The goal of this step is to make a system that you can use to handle the items that normally are in your mind. Things that are written down, sorted out, and planned for don't have to clutter up your mind.

Here are my favorite tips:

  • Every single date and deadline gets scheduled on a calendar. And, I mean ALL OF THEM. If it involves other people, it goes on a shared calendar that notifies them 1 week, 1 day, and 1 hour before the event.
  • Every to-do list item that requires time to accomplish either gets put on the same calendar or it gets put on a back-log list (my list is in my iPhone). 
  • Create a running shopping list on your phone or in a common place in the house where everyone who needs to access it can access it. 

There are probably other bullets that you need to employ to take care of your unique situation, but the general concept is to account for all of the "stuff" clouding up your mind by putting it in a reliable, safe place (with notifications, as needed) so that you don't have to remember it.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Chances are, you'll falter at first. You'll forget to add items, or you'll revert back to your old habit of just mentally reciting everything.

Adjust, go back to your system, and review it regularly to remind yourself that you've got everything accounted for. 

Over time, the anxiety associated with being afraid you might drop a ball will lessen as your mind catches on that it doesn't have to take on so much anymore.

Honestly, this system is one of the core elements of my self-care routine. I have a daily, weekly, and monthly task on my calendar to review this system, add to it, make adjustments, reprioritize, etc. It keeps my mind clear and my anxiety level down. 

If you want to develop your own blockbuster self-care routine, you can follow the method I use in Self-Care [by Design].

But, for now, be kind to yourself. If you're feeling frazzled or forgetful, know that it's because you're human and taking on more than 1 human being's worth of stuff right now.


“Be kind to your body, gentle with your mind, and patient with your heart. You are still becoming, my love, and there is no one more deserving of the nurturing grace of your love."
 - Becca Lee



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