How to beat cognitive fatigue to re-energise.
Author: Amy Bands
What is it about this time of the year that makes us feel so tired? Everyone you speak to, shocked that the year is nearing a close! Where did the year go? Time flies… when you’re having fun? We have not been having such a fun time as a nation or as a globe. Emerging from a more than two year unprecedented pandemic has fundamentally changed us as people. We are not the same people who left 2019 for the upheaval of 2020 and beyond. Many of us are struggling to recall when we last saw each other. Thinking back to ‘last year’ only to realise that was two years ago. The lockdown years are a blur. All melding into one.
Organisations are failing to notice that their people are fundamentally different. Re-looking at their lives, their work, their organisations, their priorities and their boundaries. Many organisations are doing a forced return to the office without consultation on what their people really want and need. The rationale behind the return to office is feeling weak for many. Organisations are finding tremendous push-back on their carrot and stick methods of ‘collaboration’.
Returning to the office has been a major shift for organisations and their people. Organisations are failing to notice the fundamental change in priorities and expectations of their people. This failing could cost organisations in the war for talent, where even South Africans are participating in the Great Resignation. Returning to the office comes with its peripheral challenges. Traffic, loadshedding battles making it worse where we are consulting multiple timetables of stages of loadshedding throughout the day, multiple areas on differing schedules along our routes and ever more agitated drivers on the road. The other planning that needs to take place is also reinstating childcare, transport for kids, and giving up the hours we have come to use productively, instead, for time spent in traffic. Not to mention how all of this hits our pockets, including the fuel and transport costs, temptation to buy food in the office, and the expenses to again manage our home lives while we are not there.
Locally and globally we are dealing with the fallout of the pandemic, economic woes, political upheaval, warring nations, radically different social norms, loss, grief, fear and worry over when it could all happen again. The loss we faced in Covid-19 violated our social ways of losing loved ones. Hospitals barred from visitors, funerals conducted online and guilt for those who survived. Some of us also faced our own mortality in contracting the virus and continue to experience health effects related to Covid-19.
Outlining all of this is important to highlight that we are carrying a lot at the moment. For us to realise the cognitive load we are dealing with. To pause and notice that we are in cognitive overload.
What is cognitive load and how have we been pushed into cognitive overload?
Cognitive load is the capacity we have for holding short-term and long-term information in our minds. The brain has a designated capacity to take in stimuli. There is only so much we can think about and focus on. We begin to feel a cognitive overload when we are over stimulated, That is more stimuli and information coming into our awareness and thinking than we can manage. Our cognition – as in our ability to take knowledge in and understand it, no longer functions optimally when we are in cognitive overload. Prolonged experience of this can lead us into cognitive fatigue. This is a constant and prolonged strain on our cognitive processing. All the stress and strain we are facing and trying to juggle mentally is causing us cognitive overload, putting us at risk of cognitive fatigue.
What cognitive fatigue can look like:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Simple tasks becoming a struggle
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, tension, and a racing heart
- Feeling disconnected from the world in a dreamlike or foggy state
- Experiencing a mental block – where you can’t engage in thinking
How do we regain our energy?
There are ways to tackle the cognitive overload and fatigue we are facing. Considering what is in and outside of our control will assist us in taking action where we can, and putting boundaries in place to help us say yes to more of what we enjoy and feel energised by and saying no to more cognitive load. This also allows us to use our energy productively on that which we can control. Letting go of unnecessary thoughts of what is outside our control.
Some further ways to re-energise include:
- Reduce the task load you are taking on – give yourself permission to tackle less while you are overloaded mentally
- Give yourself more time than usual to do the same tasks
- Let go of perfectionistic standards in favour of completing the task and receiving feedback to improve, that way you keep the flow of work moving
- Planning and scheduling tasks – compiling these plans and managing our schedule puts the load into our control
- Delegate tasks where possible
- Put boundaries in place and stick to them – saying no to more if we cannot realistically take more on
- Taking on enjoyable tasks will not increase your cognitive load
- Take responsibility for your wellbeing – eat well, put good sleep habits in place, ask for help when you need it
- Organisations can also put shorter work days in place, introduce flexi-time and encourage their people to take regular breaks.
Moving into the final stretch of a year where we are adjusting to life where hybrid work is taking shape, socialising is coming back, and where we are dealing with a lot mentally, we can start to re-energise by giving ourselves a break. It’s time to gear down for the end of the year in the ways that we can. Putting less pressure on ourselves to perform at a high level will give us a chance to take a breather before the festive season, allowing us to have the energy to tackle the change of pace coming our way. Gaining energy is not always about digging deep but also balancing our ‘doing’ with resting. If we do not make time for our wellness we will be forced to make time for our illness.
Allow me to leave you with this final thought: