2 Simple Ways to Hack Your Brain & Avoid Mental Overload

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Tomorrow is trash day. Before we became nomadic, this was something I went through nearly every week. On Wednesday morning I would remember. But nearly every Thursday morning I’d find myself racing to get the bins to the curb after hearing the truck go by. Thank goodness it had to pass us and turn around before picking ours up, or we’d have had rubbish overflowing.

What is it that makes these recurring tasks so difficult for our silly little brains to keep track of? It happens regularly, but not quite regularly enough, so it feels like it should be easy and yet it’s so frustrating. This, my friend, is the cost of mental load.

You see, it’s not just that one task we have to remember. It’s only one of thousands. There are quite literally thousands of things each and every day that our brain is tasked with remembering for at least some length of time. Many of these things are ingrained in us from sheer repetition — like making coffee and putting our glasses on each morning. Others only need to remembered for a few seconds, and then are useless — like the phone number for the mechanic you needed to remember just long enough to dial it.

Your initial short-term memory is only about 10 seconds long. In order to remember something for longer, you have to do a little work. Phone numbers are an excellent example here. We remember numbers we dial often (not that anyone does that anymore), we remember numbers with patterns, and we remember numbers like 1–800-CONTACTS. But to remember a number that’s just a number, we’ve got nothing. Our coping mechanism is to repeat the number to ourselves, which keeps resetting that 10-second clock. We rarely get to the point of adding an actual memory trigger for phone numbers since it’s rare that we need to remember them longer than dialing them in.

What happens with something like trash day that you need to remember a little while longer? Your brain goes on repeating it subconsciously and this is what actually makes up mental load. But throughout the day, you add more and more things to this loop: Remember to email that client back. Remember to look up that report. Remember to read that article. Remember to get milk and eggs. Remember to use your coupons. Remember you have that place to be at that time tonight. Eventually, you reach a level where things fall out of the loop because there is simply too much. You’ve reached mental overload.

Metaphorically speaking, you have too many tabs open and the browser has crashed.

So, back to trash day — say that when I remember on Wednesday morning, I mentioned something to my husband before he leaves for work. Tomorrow is trash day. Wonderful, now it’s on his loop, too. His loop gets cluttered throughout the day, and he probably won’t think about it again and off the loop, it falls. That is, until he pulls in the driveway, hits the garage button, and hey, look, the garbage bins! Pop! Tomorrow is trash day! You see, he had what I didn’t…something in his day worked as an anchor (or trigger) for that tiny little memory. Isn’t it magnificent how our brain works?

So how can we hack our brains and beat the system?

Don’t rely on your brain!

When your brain is so busy trying to keep the loop going with all of these little things, it’s a lot harder to shove more important thoughts through to our long-term memory. If your subconscious is busy juggling your grocery list, calendar, and a zillion other little things, you aren’t likely to retain much of that book you’re reading or course you’re taking. You can’t have a million browser tabs and apps open and then expect to open Photoshop without your computer whimpering, right?

The solution? Get it all out of your head. There are two simple tools that I recommend here:

The first is your digital calendar. Hold your horses before gushing at me how much you love your paper planner. I love mine, too, but here’s the simple truth: when you use paper, you’re depending on remembering to check the thing AND the clock. Your digital calendar has the power to automatically send you reminders, and that tiny little thing can give you a whole lot of wiggle room in the mental load department. “I can work on this project until my 5-minute reminder for this meeting” is much more productive than checking the clock every 90 seconds to see if that meeting is starting yet — especially if you’re working on something that will absorb you and then look, you’re late!

The second is a simple notebook. Small enough to carry in your pocket or purse, and nothing fancy. And no, you don’t need more than one — that just means you have to remember which one you wrote it down in and that defeats the purpose. This little guy is going to be your brain-outside-your-brain. It’s where you write down things like “Thursday is trash day — tell husband” and “call mechanic at 555–555–5555.” Now you just have to remember the notebook.

Action Step: Put time-dependent things like meetings and getting the trash out in the digital calendar the moment you know of them. Set a reminder for each task or event. Dump everything else in the notebook. Carry that notebook with your everywhere — don’t lose it. (And yes, you can totally use an app like Evernote or whatever, but only use ONE APP and for the love of everything, keep it simple!)

Develop routines and habits!

These are what works as those anchors/triggers, that we talked about earlier. Don’t worry, you already have some of these. You set your glasses on your nightstand each night and put them back on each morning, right? Or your shoes in the same place, or your purse, or your keys. (Uhm, if you’re constantly looking for these things, I suggest you start here with developing routines and habits. Please. Right now.) Figure out which ones you already have, and build into them.

Let’s talk about the notebook I mentioned above. I cautioned you against using a paper calendar because it still leaves you checking clocks and remembering those meetings. The notebook works a little differently, since these are items that are not time-sensitive (those go in your digital calendar). You look at the notebook when it’s relevant, just like you only look at your shopping list when you’re adding things to it, or you’re at the store. Your notebook is handy for when you need to add things to it, and it’s there when you need to do the tasks.

Action Step: Practice habit stacking. Already have a coffee habit in the morning? Add looking at your notebook to it — either while you wait for your coffee or when you sit down with it. I make my to-do list for the day while I wait for my coffee each morning. This involves looking at the items in my Action Catcher (notebook) and deciding exactly which ones are getting done that day. What about your evening routine? Find someplace to stack the habit of brain dumping anything left on your mental loop before going to bed. I bet you’ll sleep better.

Final Thoughts

Mental Load affects all of us, some of us are just more aware of the strain (entrepreneurs and women). The less compartmentalized your life, the more prone you are to mental overload. But it’s relatively simple to overcome by putting a few systems in place. But you have to keep it simple. If you try using too many tools and apps to get everything out of your head, you’re replacing the action items with the need to remember where you stored the information. All you need is one (digital) calendar, one notebook, and slowly built routines based on previously established habits.

You don’t need to be a browser with 1,298,345 tabs open. Your health, happiness, relationships, and productivity will thank you when you close the tabs and regain your ability to focus.