Cognitive Contours

Exposing the Subtle Cognitive Demands of Work

Imagine you’re on a bicycle ride. The wind gently tickles your face and the crisp spring air awakens your lungs. Your heart pounds as you power up a hill, but it’s worth the exhilaration you feel when you coast down.

Your work is like this bicycle ride. There are elements that are very demanding, like pedaling up a hill; there are elements where you’re productive with ease, like coasting down a hill; and there is the stuff in between, like coasting on the flats.


You wouldn’t enjoy a bicycle ride if you suddenly rode off a cliff, only to immediately climb back up and ride off a cliff again. You wouldn’t even enjoy it if it were merely a very bumpy ride.

But the way most people do work today is like this nightmare bicycle “ride.” Just when you get coasting, you get a text message on your phone, you suddenly check Facebook, or you get a phone call on your computer.


The subtle contours of your work are obscured by the fog of information overload.

With practice, you can expose these contours, and ride them smoothly. Think of how much better a bike ride is when you can switch gears to tackle a hill, or coast into a flat after riding downhill. With awareness of your contours, you can take advantage of your momentum.


Some Cognitive Contours you may find in your work:

  • Prioritization: Think of Prioritization as like pedaling up a hill. It’s the most cognitively demanding work you do. But, when you get to the top of the hill, you can see all of the landscape, then coast downhill easily.
  • Generation: Generation is like coasting downhill. This is a time when you just want to be generating ideas. You aren’t worrying about details (that’s another Contour). For example, if you’re writing a draft, and want to look up a fact, [guess, and put it in brackets instead]. You can look it up later.
  • Detail: Think of Detail work as like navigating a series of tiny bends, dodging a tree here and there. You want to do this work at the peak of your energy, because you need to be accurate and alert.
  • Exploration: Exploration is like going off the path — maybe you’ll find a shortcut, maybe you won’t. It could be a coffee meeting with no objective, or reading a book that you’re simply curious about.
  • Administrative: Administrative work is work that has to be done, but that isn’t worthy of your best energy. You wouldn’t want to pedal as hard as you could on a flat, knowing you had to tackle a hill soon.
  • Recharge: Recharge is the time you spend not working. When you Recharge, you make it easier to tackle the hills on Monday. Sleep is especially critical to cognitively demanding work.

By building your awareness of these contours, you can manage your energy to do the right kind of work at the right time, and make your work like a nice, smooth, bicycle ride.


On my podcast, Love Your Work, I help you find the love in your work. If you liked this post, you’ll love my interview with cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios. Subscribe on iTunes.