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:

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:

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:

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.

  1. There is ample research on the impact of multitasking on learning in particular. ↩︎

  2. Example tasks: resolve a support ticket, write code for a feature, and perform an outbound sales call. ↩︎

  3. Example responsibilities: recruiting, professional development, scoping out technical solutions, closing sales. ↩︎

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