On a good day, when we are well-rested, not distracted, emotionally grounded, healthy, and under low-stress conditions, our brains do amazing things. Before starting work on a task, our brains can choose which stimuli to pay attention to, set long-term goals which are consistent with our lives, prioritize which are important at the moment, and translate these priorities into work for the day. When we start to work on a task, our brains kick into gear. We select stimuli in our environment (words, images, and sounds), pay attention to the relevant stimuli, and place pieces of information into a mental workspace called working memory.
Much research exists on working memory — this term comes from psychology research in the 1960s. Interest in memory dates back to at least the 1800s. In experiments using simple stimuli, researchers estimated that working memory has a fixed capacity (of approximately three or four items’ worth of information) no matter how long participants have to encode those items (Brady 2016). This means our brains can work on only three to four pieces of information at a time! Between the time you look at a seven-digit phone number and turn to enter the numbers on your phone, you may forget the phone number.
To increase the amount of information in working memory, our brains have different ways to hack the information by linking it to other familiar information already encoded in our brains. For example, we might remember the phone number 555–1776 as three fives and the date of the American Revolution, thus converting seven digits into two pieces of information. These hacks happen in the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, as it connects at lightning speed with other parts of the brain, like the cingulate gyrus and the parietal cortices (Funahashi 2017; Chai 2018).
When we experience cognitive overload at work, our brain’s working memory is completely overwhelmed. We try to cram ten to twenty multitasking elements into a working memory space designed for three to four items. A good brain hack can increase my working memory capacity to ten to fifty items. However, on a typical morning, I might handle one hundred emails while five DMs are arriving at the same time, while the dog barks, while the phone alerts a meeting in ten minutes. You get the picture. Even the best brain hacks cannot handle a constant, uninterrupted stream of communication coming in from multiple channels throughout a typical workday.
Regardless of whether we work virtually or in person, we must decrease the amount of information coming into our working memory. We must learn how to close the loop for each communication. When I receive a communication, I must have the space to listen, process, and then act or respond before moving on to the next task.