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Understanding how our cognitive resources are being used up

Psychology and mental health issues are being discussed more now as our understanding improves. As awareness grows organisations are recognizing how the culture they create can directly impact the mental health of employees. Cognitive resources play an essential part of this and in our daily health, abuse of these resources could result in serious problems for the individual so an understanding is key. Starting with a definition, cognitive is:

Psychological processes involved in acquisition and understanding of knowledge, formation of beliefs and attitudes, and decision making and problem solving. They are distinct from emotional and volitional processes involved in wanting and intending.

Hopefully from that description we can understand how cognitive resources are used in everyday life – in and outside work! Decision making and problem solving are part of daily life. Look back on your last couple of days, you’ll probably remember exact points where you were interrupted while concentrating on some activity. It may bring back bad memories where you completely lost track and never found that same mental place as before. Annoying right?!

It was only through the video below by Kathy Sierra that got me thinking about cognitive resources, I got a greater appreciation for how the disruptions in our work lives impact our mental states. Whatever role we are in we get pulled in different directions throughout the day, if we’re unprepared for the distraction we usually lose any momentum we had. I recommend watching the video (23 mins):

Many points are covered in the video but as a manager I’m concerned about my impact on teams. Regular disruptions are never a good thing, not only for getting work done but for our health too! Stress is common in the IT industry and little thought or understanding is given to cognitive resources…as if I’m an expert!!

So what can we do about it?

The first is awareness. Recognising this is happening to ourselves and our team will help in identifying causes, then whether improvements can be made. We need to become detectives, tuning into every interruption and logging the causes. It’s frightening how many disruptions we have in our day, many of which we can reduce with simple changes. Let’s face it, when we look at some of the distractions it’s a miracle we get anything done!

  • meetings
  • phone calls
  • emails
  • chat clients (skype, HipChat, slack, etc., etc.)
  • people ‘popping by’ your desk
  • noisy environment

As managers we have to accept some of these are part of the job, being interrupted is something we learn to deal with. Of course we can change areas that are in our control to help us handle these situations better, but we’ll always have days were we wished we had stayed in bed! Creating stress is not good and never sustainable, this is why it’s essential to understand all the interactions with our teams too.

Our teams are our priority! Are we unknowingly creating needless distractions? Are we influencing how others interact with our teams to minimise interruptions? Managers can be the main cause to impacting a team’s productivity…I know I’m guilty at times!

It’s not easy! This is why it’s an area we should understand more, then we can discover that simple changes could make a world of difference to individuals. If we ignore it we could find team members blaming themselves as described in Peopleware:

The time wasted continually trying to get restarted is perceived only as frustration by the worker. You may never hear about it, because the people who suffer from this problem are all too likely to blame themselves.

For a manager it’s essential nobody blames themselves for interruptions out of their control! This frustration could lead workers to a downward spiral of despair! All the stopping and restarting work is tiring, it uses up mental energy that can eat away at someones health if left to continue.

Peopleware also says:

The point there was that fragmenting any knowledge worker’s time over many different tasks assures that he or she will be thrust into two or more different work groups, none of which is likely to jell into a real team

It’s the work environment we create as managers that can be the catalyst to glorious harmony or a perpetual nightmare. Of course these are extremes so it’s about finding a medium that allows space for teams to work effectively together.

I have no silver bullet, what works in one environment my not have the same affect in another. But here are few thoughts that could be considered:

  1. one thing at a time – having team members constantly juggling tasks is not healthy or productive, try to allow them to concentrate on one project until completion
  2. allow developers to get ‘in the zone’ – for certain times in the day don’t allow them to be interrupted…even by the manager! Be creative with a ‘do not disturb’ indicator
  3. keep meetings to a minimum – excessive meetings are real productivity killers, only have meetings that are necessary, if you can get the information another way….try it!
  4. limited invite list to meetings – don’t waste people’s time if you don’t need to
  5. maybe have a meeting day – keep all team meetings to one day, so people mentally prepare for it then the rest of the week can be mostly free (excluding daily agile meet ups)
  6. reduce constant interruptions – observing the interactions with the team, including your own, can show patterns. Aim to reduce these, that might involve creating awareness with people outside of the team or even adjusting your own habits!
  7. only check emails hourly – there are different techniques that can be adopted, if you observe constant emailing being a burden recommend trying one out
  8. time management techniques – not always easy in a office environment but they can work if given the right space (e.g. The Pomodoro Technique)

Do you have other ideas that have worked in your teams?

As I said, there is no silver bullet, it’s about understanding your teams and promoting a culture that is open to try things out. Don’t lose heart if they don’t work, try another one or make minor change, it’s all about continuous improvement. You’ll improve and learn over time.

It’s important your team has awareness of cognitive resources, don’t push through changes without them knowing the reasons. A passionate team will want to improve the work place, they will even start assessing their own working style while making suggestions to help the team. The bottom line is we don’t want to needlessly burn people’s cognitive resources, work together to create teams that are mentally charged for any challenge!






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