Manage cognitive load to build a productive startup
All startups are poorly resourced relative to their ambitions. This is why productivity is especially crucial to startups: a startup must punch above its weight to win. The negative impact of cognitive overload on productivity is well-established in research, but startup leaders rarely factor this into their strategy and operations.
Cognitive load refers to the mental effort expended when processing information or performing tasks. Simply put, it’s the amount of mental processing power used at any moment. Much like a computer with limited processing capacity, our brains can become overwhelmed when too much information or too many tasks are presented simultaneously, resulting in cognitive overload. This overload can hinder learning, performance, and productivity, making it a critical aspect of employee experience1.
Cognitive load is naturally high in the startup environment because:
- Startups often require employees to wear multiple hats and simultaneously juggle various roles and tasks.
- Startup roles often involve quickly learning new skills, systems, or markets.
- The decisions made in startups often have significant consequences, which can increase the cognitive load involved in making those decisions.
- The fast-paced, ever-evolving nature of startups requires constant adaptation and change.
- The inherent risk and uncertainty in startups can create stress, which increases cognitive load.
This environment means startup employees are prone to burnout and reduced productivity.
Reducing cognitive load
Roles, responsibilities, and tasks come with varying degrees of cognitive load:
- A task2 that requires multiple distinct decisions to be made has a high cognitive load.
- A responsibility3 that contains many distinct tasks has a high cognitive load.
- A role encompassing a diverse range of responsibilities has a high cognitive load.
The more information an employee must process at any given time, the less productive they will be. To lower the cognitive load in your organisation, make tasks, duties, and roles simpler for your employees:
- Break work into manageable chunks. The smaller a unit of work is, the easier it will be to deliver.
- Prioritise tasks and responsibilities. By clearly prioritising your work, you can focus on a few high-impact tasks simultaneously, reducing the cognitive load. This is one of the best things a leader can do for their team.
- Automate what you can. Automation is especially crucial to engineering teams.
- Standardise recurring tasks and responsibilities. By establishing a standard process for recurring tasks, you reduce the number of decisions an employee must make to complete their work. This standardisation allows them to concentrate their cognitive resources on the task rather than the process, leading to more efficient and higher-quality work.
- Clearly define roles and responsibilities. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities eliminate ambiguity, reduce decision fatigue, and focus cognitive resources on the task. When employees know what you expect from them, they can better manage their time and mental resources, improving productivity and job satisfaction.
- Clearly define desired outcomes. When you focus on outcomes rather than outputs, you prioritise real return on investment instead of superficial progress.
While it seems like an abstract concept, cognitive load is an essential factor affecting productivity in all startups. Startup leaders who manage cognitive load for their teams build stronger, more productive startups.
There is ample research on the impact of multitasking on learning in particular. ↩︎
Example tasks: resolve a support ticket, write code for a feature, and perform an outbound sales call. ↩︎
Example responsibilities: recruiting, professional development, scoping out technical solutions, closing sales. ↩︎
19 June, 2023
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