When the Institute for the Future looked to identify the key skills for the future workplace, they knew those skills would not be technical, task-oriented skills – because those skills will become obsolete through automation and artificial intelligence. Instead, the most future-proof skills will be higher-order thinking skills.
One of their ten key skills is “cognitive load management”, which is a fancy name for time management (sort of!).
Cognitive load management is related to productivity, goal setting, stress management, work/life balance, and information overload. In our fast-changing world, it’s about managing large amounts of information, interruptions, and demands on our time and attention.
With so much information and so much change, how can we possibly expect to cope? Well, some people don’t! They get swamped, feel stressed, and struggle to just keep their head above water – let alone get ahead.
But others cope quite well – and not just survive, but thrive.
What makes the difference?
The key difference is that these people have mastered the skill of cognitive load management.
Our world has become more chaotic. In the past, you could manage the chaos by getting back control. But now you have to operate in the chaos, and channel it to your advantage.
This is not just a case of working faster, being more efficient, and blocking out all distractions. Those strategies used to work, but they don’t anymore. For most people, it’s no longer humanly possible to process all information, work fast enough, and tune out every distraction.
Instead of trying to do things faster, we need to do different things.
If you want to be better at cognitive load management, here are five things to change.
1. Energy, not Time
On a day-to-day basis, instead of trying to manage your time, think about how to manage your energy.
What are the things that give you energy? Do more of them.
What are the things that drain your energy? Find ways to reduce, eliminate, delegate or change them.
2. Filter, not Block
When we become overwhelmed with information overload, it’s tempting to call for a time-out and block everything. So you might have a technology-free day or work from home to try to catch up. The trouble with this is that information just piles up, so when you return there’s even more to process.
Instead of trying to block out this information, be more careful about what you let in. Do you really need to check Facebook regularly, read five news sources, subscribe to all those newsletters, or get cc’ed on every e-mail?
Filter carefully, choosing the things that move you towards your goal, and ruthlessly eliminating everything else.
3. Launch, not Plan
Planning is still important, but it’s much more important to test your plans in “the real world” as soon as possible. As boxer Mike Tyson said,
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Instead of creating a detailed plan for a project, plan just enough to launch the project, and then launch it.
4. Test, not Bounce
There’s a push towards building greater resilience and “bounce-backability”. I’m not against that entirely, but it puts the focus on setbacks, problems and obstacles.
That’s the wrong mindset.
Think like a scientist: Start with a hypothesis (a guess, if you like), and then do an experiment to test it. If the results don’t match the hypothesis, change the hypothesis and try again. It wasn’t a failure; it was just an experiment.
Yes, you should be persistent, determined, and gritty. But that’s not the same as constantly having to bounce back from a string of failures and setbacks.
5. Trust, not Control
Finally, when working with other people, build trust rather than trying to control them.
In the past, with clear hierarchies and responsibilities, you could use processes, procedures, checklists and other systems to control people. But that doesn’t work anymore. If you try, you will create so much extra work that the real work won’t get done. And worse, in our fast-changing world, these systems become obsolete fast anyway.
The solution is not more control but more trust. Work on your key relationships so you can operate them from trust rather than control. Build good judgement in your team members, set clear standards and expectations when dealing with suppliers, and involve customers and clients more in your business.
When you do this, you won’t need all the processes, checklists and other systems. The trust will set you free!
How can you use this in your professional life?
As we start a new year, commit to making these five changes in your work life. That’s how you channel chaos to get the most important things done!