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Lower Cognitive Load - Limit Everything In Progress

Published 7/22/2022

Cognitive load will destroy your productivity. In this mini-series, we talk about ways to reduce your cognitive load. In this episode we talk about limiting work, and everything else, in progress.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
We're talking about cognitive load in today's episode of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. We talked about cognitive load in our last episode as well. We specifically talked about the principle of least surprise. And in today's episode, I want to cover another angle on reducing your cognitive load. If the principle of least surprise is about avoiding creating new cognitive load, in today's episode, we're going to talk about a topic that allows us to avoid accepting cognitive load. This is a very simple topic. You've probably heard it, especially if you've ever done any kind of learning about con-bond or queuing systems, the idea is simple. Limiting your work in progress reduces your cycle time. If you've never heard these terms, we're going to define them very quickly. But first, I want to reinforce why cognitive load is so damaging to us. It's a very simple exercise. I want you to take out a piece of paper. Or if you're on your phone, you can do just a note, like a notepad note. And you can almost see the same effect. And we've done this exercise in the show before. But this is, once again, kind of underscoring how much cognitive load and task switching, how much that can affect us. So there's two versions of this exercise that I want you to try. The first is the simplest version. Write your name first and last, or alternatively, if you don't have a first and last name that you had identified by, then choose two words that you're very familiar with that are easy to spell. And I want you to do this in two rounds. The first round, just write the words. Write them sequentially in order and do one at a time. The second round, I want you to write them one letter at a time in an alternating fashion. Obviously, this context switching and the time that it takes your brain to go between these two things makes the second version significantly longer. The second exercise is similar. Normally, when you are focused on writing a word, you can kind of flow straight through that word. But I want you to try writing the word while also saying the alphabet. This one is especially good if you don't choose a word that you have kind of muscle memory writing. So your name may not be as useful for this because especially if you're literally writing or typing it with your fingers, you have some muscle memory there. So choosing another word would be the most effective version of this. So if you were to say the alphabet and write a word down while you're saying the alphabet or even better, write a sentence. Now, why are we doing these crazy exercises, writing down stuff that we're going to just toss away? Well, the whole point is to remind you that the significance of cognitive load in the smallest version of this, right? And in the most simple version of tasking produces a significant slowdown, a significant efficiency problem. And this doesn't go away at more complex versions of this. If we're trying to multitask, we're trying to decode too much information. For example, if you've ever tried to code, at least for me, and this may be true for you, if you have a similar kind of cognitive load response to music with lyrics, it's harder, it tends to be harder to code with music that has lyrics in it than to code in, you know, pure silence or music that doesn't have lyrics. So while we have tactical takeaways from this quick discussion on, you know, focusing on one thing at a time and reducing the kind of distracting input that your brain has around you, there's a larger discussion at play, not just when you're actually getting into the flow of your work, but also the philosophy that you use to manage the things that you're trying to do, not just in your work, not just in the moment to moment, but in your life. If you're listening to this podcast right now, it's probably because you have a constant drive to become better. If you're not here for that reason, then I'm not really sure why you would listen to this show. We're really about this constant drive to improve, but I want you to take a breath for a moment and recognize something that is deeply true about your life. You do not need to improve on every axis at the same time. You do not need to become better in every single area that you care about in your life, every single thing that you value. You don't have to perform that every single day. I want you to take a moment and really kind of accept this, this truth that your improvement in order to be sustainable must be focused. It's not that you don't have to improve on every axis. It's that if you try to, your overall improvement is going to be slim. We talk about limiting work in progress, not only to reduce cycle time, that is the amount of time between committing to do something, some piece of work, and actually finishing it, but specifically to reduce the cognitive overhead, the cognitive load, the difficulty that is presented when you have too many priorities. What this all really amounts to, what this really means is two things. I want you to practice this today and every day going forward because if you do this, not only are you going to see your improvement accelerate, but a lot of that stress that you probably are carrying from trying to improve on every axis all the time will just kind of evaporate. The first thing is limit everything in progress. Limit everything in progress. This isn't just about your work. This isn't just about your relationships. This is about everything you do. If you can't find proper limits for everything in your life, all of those negative effects of focus splitting are going to come true and you won't make any meaningful progress in any one area. You'll end up being spread far too thin. Limit everything in progress. One way to help you do this, and this is the second thing I want you to take away from this episode, is relentlessly remove things that you're considering committing to. Another way to say this is say no more often, but you don't even have to say no to just remove something from your consideration. There are a lot of things that we ourselves generate as potential pathways, potential activities, potential interests, efforts that we want to commit ourselves to. I want you to look at that list. If you're paying a lot of attention to the language that we're using, you might think about this as a backlog of items. I want you to relentlessly eliminate the items in your life's backlog. Here's why. Very often, we allow these items to implicitly make it into our in-progress work. What does this mean? It means that we start projects that we never intend to finish. You probably, like me, have a long list of domain names that have never become anything. These are items that in your mind, you imagined committing to. Instead of explicitly saying, I'm going to remove the items from my life backlog. I'm going to be relentless about saying no before something ever makes it into that headspace, never makes it to the stage where I can commit to it. Instead of being relentless, we've allowed these things to just take our time and attention and effort and they add to our stress. They add to our everything in progress. The trick here is that it's much more painful. It is much more painful to eliminate something that is already in progress than it is to eliminate it before we ever let it go into progress. In other words, releasing those domain names is a lot harder than never buying them in the first place. I want you to notice some nuance here. We're not just saying being relentless about the work that you do. Being relentless about saying no. We're adding a layer of context to this. When should you say no? Being relentless about saying no as early as possible. Having a very strict filter about what you'll even consider as a priority. This is the path to limiting everything in progress. You've probably seen prioritization systems that enable this. For example, Ben Franklin had 13 virtues, but he only practiced one per day intentionally. Intuitively, you can see how this would be much easier in any given situation. If he only had one virtue to try to employ, this would be much easier than trying to do the mental calculus on which virtues apply and which situations and how should I balance between them in each given situation. Instead, Benjamin Franklin chose one per day. This improvement on a single axis is a great example of limiting work in progress, limiting everything in progress. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developers. I hope it will encourage and inspire you to limit the things that you are doing to the most important things. This doesn't mean that you have to eliminate everything off of your list of things that you would like to accomplish. Instead, this is about what you are willing to give your time to in a given period of time. Limiting what you're focusing on is the goal. This limited focus will improve, importantly, lower your cognitive load. Thanks again for listening to today's episode. If you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe right now and leave us a review please. This is one of the most important things to help the podcast continue to reach engineers like you or if you're not an engineer, reach people like you who are looking to grow in their personal lives in their careers. And beyond leaving a review, beyond subscribing, the next thing you can do if you want to get more involved with this community is join the Developer Tea Discord. Head over to developertea.com slash discord that's totally free for you to join developertea.com slash discord. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.