Reducing Mental Effort – Part 1

Cognitive load is the mental effort required to complete a task or project.

If you can reduce the average cognitive load of your days, your days will feel easier and less stressful, you can get more done, and you can end your days feeling less fatigued. You’ll also have extra mental resources to apply to your most difficult tasks.

Moreover, with a lower cognitive burden from your routine tasks, you’ll gain some excess mental capacity, which you can use to set and pursue more ambitious goals or tackle major transitions.

When your cognitive load is high, it’s difficult to add more to your plate without feeling overwhelmed. You may feel more stressed, frustrated, or burdened when your cognitive load gets too high. And when you’re dealing with too much pressure, it can made the problem even worse by causing you to fall out of sync with your best habits. Even tasks that you used to handle well begin to pile up, and now you have even more issues to deal with – and a reduced capacity to deal with them.

A good way to unbury yourself from mounting problems and a backlog of to-dos is to reduce the cognitive load you must deal with. Get your mind back to a place where you have excess capacity, and you feel that you can intelligently and reasonably handle everything you’re taking on.

Since this is such an important topic, I’m going to explore it through a series of posts over several days, so we can break this down into bite-sized pieces (which is also a way to reduce cognitive load).

Let’s begin with the most important item:

Cardio Exercise

If you only apply one idea from this series, adding regular cardio exercise to your life would be the most important, perhaps as important as all the other items combined.

The mental benefits of cardio exercise are profound. Think of cardio exercise as garbage collection and optimization for your brain – it rebalances hormones and neurotransmitters, cleans out dead cells, and strengthens existing cells. If you don’t do it, waste products build up and drag you down mentally and emotionally, thereby reducing the cognitive load you can handle. Cardio exercise is a highly effective anti-depressant as well – it’s one of the best mood boosters available.

What many people don’t realize is that cardio exercises the brain too. Your brain must work harder when you exercise to regulate your body’s systems as a faster pace. Your brain cells get a quality workout too, which makes them stronger and more efficient.

Not exercising is roughly equivalent to smoking in terms of the effects on health and longevity. So if you think that quitting smoking is wise, then quitting not-exercising is at least a wise too.

Know that if you’re not exercising, you’re a mental and emotional slug relative to where you could be if you made this an integral part of your life. The mental load you can handle is greatly diminished if you don’t give your brain what it needs to clean and rebalance itself. Give yourself the gift of a sharp, clear, focused mind – and a resilient emotional system that can handle whatever life dishes out.

I’ve long observed that any kind of mental task feels easier when I exercise regularly and more burdensome when I don’t. Whenever I want to make my life mentally and emotionally easier, I look to my exercise habits. When those habits are flowing well, so many other parts of my life flow well too.

Consider that if you’re dealing with a lot of issues across multiple areas of life – social problems, financial problems, business problems, etc – your capacity to intelligently solve any or all of them can be improved by elevating your mind and your mood, and cardio exercise does both beautifully. You could notice significant improvements after just one good workout, and the benefits are cumulative.

The ideal duration is about 45 minutes of cardio, which probably sounds like a lot if you’re not doing it. And if it does sound like a lot, that’s a hint that your cognitive capacity has gone downhill because 45 minutes really isn’t much at all relative to the impressive array of benefits. Ideally you should get to the point where 45 minutes feels normal, worthwhile, and engaging. But any amount is better than zero. If all you can do is a few minutes, then do that, and build up from there.

Getting your heart rate up is important for the neurological benefits, and many exercises can get you there, including weight training (if you do it circuit training style to keep your heart rate up) and yoga (if it’s strenuous enough like vinyasa, power yoga, or hot yoga). Use a heart monitor (like the Apple Watch) to make sure you’re getting into your aerobic range.

While walking is great, it normally doesn’t provide the same neurological benefits unless you walk fast enough (or do lots of hills) to get your heart rate higher.

If your workouts are more rest breaks than activity, the mental benefits may not be so great. Some workouts may actually increase your cognitive load if you have to spend extra effort thinking about the workouts while not gaining much of a mental capacity boost in return.

Since the benefits of exercise are systemic, this is the primary place to begin when you want to increase your mental capacity and reduce mental effort. A clear, stronger, more efficient brain makes so many other parts of life easier and less effortful. You’ll feel like you can handle more than you could before, and problems that used to phase you will finally start getting solved.

If this habit looks difficult, realize that the perceived difficulty is yet another symptom of a flabby brain that isn’t getting enough exercise. This habit only looks too difficult if your mental and emotional capacity has dropped to a level you ought to consider personally unacceptable. It may feel burdensome to raise your standards, but that feeling will pass once you get back in the flow of giving your brain what it needs.

Consider that if you continue the not-exercising habit, your brain will punish you for that habit the rest of your (shorter) life. You won’t feel as good emotionally. You won’t get as much done. You won’t be as confident. And you’ll feel more stressed, confused, and overwhelmed. That’s an awfully high price to pay.

We’ll continue this series tomorrow, so stay tuned. But please do at least one good workout before you read the next part. Your brain needs it.

Receive Steve's new articles by email.

Read Reducing Mental Effort – Part 1 by Steve Pavlina