« All Episodes

Lower Cognitive Load - Primary Activities, Modes, and Cues

Published 7/25/2022

Lower cognitive load by looking at your primary activities and modes, and creating cues that help you shortcut to those modes. This importantly gives you a better signal and a spike in cognitive load when something comes up that doesn't match your primary activities and modes.

📮 Ask a Question

If you enjoyed this episode and would like me to discuss a question that you have on the show, drop it over at: developertea.com.

📮 Join the Discord

If you want to be a part of a supportive community of engineers (non-engineers welcome!) working to improve their lives and careers, join us on the Developer Tea Discord community by visiting https://developertea.com/discord today!

🧡 Leave a Review

If you're enjoying the show and want to support the content head over to iTunes and leave a review! It helps other developers discover the show and keep us focused on what matters to you.

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
You're listening to Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and we're talking today about lowering cognitive load. We've been talking about this in the past two episodes of Developer Tea. I encourage you to go back and listen to them right now for you to lower your cognitive load. I encourage you to stop doing whatever it is you're doing, even if it's just for ten seconds. Take a few breaths and then refocus on whatever you're doing. If you're trying to listen to this podcast while you're doing something else, it's probably worth considering stopping listening to this and focusing entirely on what you're doing. Some things can be run at the same time. We have muscle memory for this stuff. We talked about that in the last episode. There's different ways of accessing this information or dealing with different kinds of inputs. For example, it's fairly easy to listen to music while you are exercising. It's not very easy to listen to music that has a lyrics in it while you're doing something like coding or writing an essay. On today's episode, I want to focus on a proactive step that you can take that's going to change the way you think about how you schedule your time. This may change the way you think about prioritizing your time. It's very simple. That is to look at your primary activities. This is a classification exercise. Look at the things that you're doing. If you have a calendar, this is a really good way to do this retrospectively and try to add to that calendar, combine it with your personal calendar. The idea here is to try to look at all of the kinds of events that you participate in. Not just the work ones, not just the ones that make it to your calendar, but everything that you do. I want you to identify primary activities. These primary activities might be something like focus time. It might be something like meetings. Maybe it's writing. Maybe it's scheduling. Maybe it's processing some information, some list of information. You can see these are intentionally vague or abstract. Use primary activities that you participate in every day. All of your activities should fit within one of these things. It's important to make space, by the way, for primary activities that may seem a little bit more fluid, like socializing, relaxing. Don't limit yourself to things that you think should be in this list of primary activities. This is your list of primary activities. And now, for each of your primary activities, you likely have two or three different modes for those primary activities. Sometimes they have one, but usually there's two or three. For example, you may have writing code as a primary activity, and then writing code for a new feature, writing code to fix a bug, or writing code as a proof of concept or a prototype. These are all different modes for that primary activity. You're going to think differently for each of those modes, even though the primary activity is the same. There are different kinds of meetings that you're going to attend. A stand-up is a different mode from a retrospective. A retrospective is a different mode from a one-on-one. These even carry over into those more fluid activities. For example, you may have a social mode with people that you're well acquainted with, or you may have a social mode where you're meeting new people. Now the goal here is not to create mechanics around every single thing you do in your life. Instead, it's to understand and apply this concept so that you can have a clear picture of what those primary activities are and the different modes. Now this may be a daunting exercise to try to do all of your activities all at once. Instead you can kind of stop for some of the activities that you don't necessarily want to create those mechanics around. Hopefully you can see that if you wanted to progress with all of them, you could, but focus on one or two primary activities, maybe three primary activities, that you care about improving in this particular area. Remember I said I'm going to reduce your cognitive load, and so far it may seem like I'm actually increasing your cognitive load. What we're actually doing is we're creating a schema. We're creating slots. These slots are going to essentially act like an index for your brain. We're going to get to that in a second. The science behind this is called queuing, and it's something that humans are actually pretty naturally good at. Caring is a version of symbology. If you think about a particular word, you associate a lot of feelings or emotions or pictures in your mind without word, you may associate experiences with it, and it can all be triggered off of a single word. This is an artifact of the way that our brains work. We tend to create associations with things. If we have a highly associative word, it can act as a pointer. When we use these pointers as reminders, then that's called a queue. We can use a pointer, a word, or a picture, an environment can do this. Certain kind of music can do this. Really any kind of sensory queue, you can use this as a trigger to remind yourself of a lot of things at once. This is essentially just a queue response cycle. We get some kind of sensory input, and we respond. We train ourselves to respond to that sensory input. Hopefully you can see what's coming next. What we want to do is evaluate all of these primary activities, and specifically the modes for those primary activities. Attach the kinds of context that we want in those modes. For example, if you're a manager and you have the one-on-one mode, you may want to use the one-on-one queue, right? Because the primary action or primary activity here is a meeting. The mode is a one-on-one. The queue might be, for example, going on a walk. I've had managers that do this, and I have done this before as a manager, going on a walk gives me a specific kind of undeniable sensory queue that reminds me that I'm in one-on-one mode. For each of these modes, it's worthwhile to spend some time, and again, we're talking about doing this over the course of, let's say, eight to twelve different modes that you might be working in in the given day, spend some time to specifically think about what makes that mode special, what makes it set apart from the other modes. If you're, for example, in the earlier coding example, where you're coding a feature or you're coding a proof of concept, these are two different modes. When you're working on a feature, you may be highly sensitive to bug, prone, or error-prone code. Whereas when you're working on a proof of concept, you may be able to reduce that sensitivity, and this is one of the things that sets these two things apart, right? It sets your mindset is a little bit different, so these are distinct from each other for that reason. It's worth considering what makes each of these modes distinct from each other, what makes a retrospective distinct from a sprint planning meeting. So this all ties together when you can effectively use the cues, whatever your chosen cues are for each of these modes, to remind you what are these distinct things. What are the distinct characteristics of this specific mode of this primary activity? Now here's where things get really interesting. And understanding that this may take time to adopt and understand how this fits into your workflow, this is definitely not a set of rules, so I don't want you to apply this as if it was kind of an all-encompassing framework or anything like that. This is just a way to try to lower some of your cognitive load. Now here's the important thing to recognize. When a new kind of event enters, when let's say you have somebody that invites you to a meeting, and you don't necessarily have a mode, they may fit in one of your primary activities, but it doesn't necessarily have a mode that you can readily identify. This is where your cognitive load will spike, and this is by design. If something goes outside of your normal primary activities, or of your normal modes for those primary activities, it probably is worth thinking about. Remember, cognitive load on its own is not necessarily a bad thing if it's used in the right places. Just don't want cognitive load to constantly be present when we're trying to understand our calendars. That's the whole goal of this exercise. To give you a set of tools that allow you to treat those activities as distinct, in other words, you don't treat every meeting the same, but also rely on your ability to associate those cues so you can shift modes effectively. It's very importantly, recognize when something is totally out of place, when it doesn't fit within your normal primary activities or modes for those activities. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope that you take away this idea of using cues, even if you don't apply every single bit of this categorization framework to your work, that you use cues to lower your cognitive load. That is the ultimate goal here for you to utilize cues to shift into different modes throughout your working day throughout your life. Thanks again for listening to this episode. If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to review us and rate us in iTunes. This is a huge help to the show because it gives others a chance to find the show a little bit easier. If you want to continue this conversation, join us on the Developer Tea. Discord, at over to developertea.com slash discord. Until next time, enjoy your tea.