Ever walk into a room and wonder what you went there for? Most of us have had that experience, some of us more often than others.
You may laugh it off as a senior moment, like when you blank on a friend’s name. Or, maybe you worry that you’re beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
But it may simply be that you’ve just strained your brain’s capacity at that moment to absorb information. Perhaps just prior to entering the room you were busy working away, multitasking on a number of items. The fact that you went to your bedroom to look for your keys was too many things for your short term memory to process. There was too much packed in there already.
Psychologists refer to this as cognitive load theory. Our short term, working memory can process anywhere from three to seven elements simultaneously. Mileage varies though. Some of us can handle more than others, and the degree to which we can handle multiple bits of information is greatly affected by our level of stress and fatigue.
A byproduct of cognitive overload is an increase in distractibility. On those occasions when you find yourself unusually distractible it may be that your brain is full and looking for relief.
Instructional designers are keenly aware of cognitive load and create learning systems using strategies that are careful not to overtax cognitive load. We can use these same strategies, too, to improve focus and reduce distraction.
Strategy 1: Reduce visual “noise.” Learning designers seek to minimize the number of elements that the student is exposed to by limiting the visual elements they need to take in at any one time. So too, we can reduce the “noise” in our work environment by removing workspace clutter that is not relevant to the task at hand, or alternatively, by working in another less distracting workspace (a conference room for instance). But take only what is needed for the task. No more.
Strategy 2: Chunk tasks. Effective learning systems present a learning sequence as bite size chunks so that comprehension increases. Our productivity increases as well when we can set aside all but one element of a project and just focus on that one task. Juggling too many simultaneous tasks on even the same project increases cognitive load, and with it, a tendency to distract ourselves to failure.
Strategy 3: Readily available info. Another strategy learning designers employ is to present information as it’s needed. Learners are more apt to recognize and utilize something at hand than recall something from memory. Likewise, having a dependable system to store and retrieve information increases our productivity. If the system (whether a paper-based filing system or a electronic one like Evernote) is well organized, we can add to it as we encounter useful information, freeing ourselves of the burden to remember what was stored away. In essence, our filing system becomes an extension of our memory.
The next time you find yourself in a room wondering why, ask yourself if you’ve recently taken in too much information. If so, perhaps you only went there to distract yourself.
What are some of the strategies you use to lower your distractibility?