How to reduce working memory overload and organise your mind

Do you always feel overwhelmed when trying to solve a problem or learn a new skill?

Our brains have a limited capacity to hold short-term information before we become overwhelmed and forgetful. At a certain point, if we want to add something new to our working memory, for example, more numbers in a complex problem, something has to give. This is known as our ‘cognitive load’.

Let’s explore how you can reduce your working memory overload and organise your mind to be more productive.

What is working memory?

It’s widely accepted that we have three types of memory: long-term memory, short-term memory and working memory. 

As Alan Baddeley points out, although working memory and short-term memory are often used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between the two. Short-term memory is simply the temporary storage of information, whereas your working memory involves a ‘combination of storage and manipulation’. In this way, working memory is linked with our ability to successfully complete a task or solve a problem.

Why is working memory important?

Improving our working memory strengthens our problem-solving abilities. With a less overloaded working memory, you’ll be able to cope with stressful situations better. It’s even helpful for simple tasks like note-taking, where you need to write down what’s been said whilst taking in what’s currently being said at the same time.

How can I stop becoming overloaded?

Dealing with too much information at once (that’s not committed to your long-term memory) makes it difficult to understand and solve problems. Here are four ways you can organise your mind.

Don’t try to do everything at once

For example, rather than learning the new skill all at once, can you break it down into sections? On a simplistic level, when we’re in school we learn the alphabet first, then words, then sentences and finally paragraphs. Once we start to put paragraphs together, we aren’t having to try as hard to remember separate letters or words. That’s because these aren’t in our working memory, but our long-term memory.

Reduce your anxiety

There has been some suggestion in studies that if your brain is occupied with anxious thoughts, this leaves less room for information relevant to the task at hand. Whilst this is still being researched, it’s easy to see how being overwhelmed with anxious thoughts can limit our ability to concentrate, leaving us with less mental space to process other information. 

Mindful meditation is an effective way to put your negative thoughts and worries to one side, allowing you to focus on what you need to do. 

Cut out the distractions

If you’re struggling to focus, it might be because your working memory is trying to take on too much at once. 

Let’s take the example of listening to music whilst you write a presentation. If the song has lyrics, your brain will be processing these in addition to the words you’re typing, even if you feel like you can work just fine with music. This hinders your ability to concentrate on writing, as listening to the lyrics takes up space in your working memory.

Multi-tasking is a myth

If we’re trying to do two completely different things at once, chances are we’ll do them less well than if we focused on one task at a time. As we’ve discovered, our cognitive load has a limit, so it can only give so much attention to each task. 

Try sticking to one task at a time and giving it your entire working memory’s attention, and see if it helps you to feel less overloaded. And, you might even complete the task sooner!

Work smarter, not harder

Do you find that whilst you have the best intentions of getting through that mountain of paperwork, or backlog of emails, you’re staring into space much of the day?

Would you like to learn how to channel your energy and complete tasks, listen to co-workers, and keep awake in meetings?

In this course, you’ll learn ways of improving your attention, activating to work, coping with mood interference, and managing your working memory.