How we manage the demands on us has been a pre-occupation since the day I came to the realisation that a lot of what runs through my own mind can be explained in terms of what psychologists call the management of ‘cognitive load’ or ‘mental workload’. We all, to some extent, ‘manage’ what we think about, but we rarely reflect on exactly how we do it.
Sometimes there are so many things that need to be thought about (and acted upon) that it is overwhelming, and some management of attention is needed, just to get through the day and maintain performance. If you need convincing that workload can affect performance then consider the research on distractions when driving. (A more comprehensive analysis on ‘the distracted mind’ can be found at the end of this posting).
YouTube Video, The distracted mind, TEDPartners, December 2013, 1:39 minutes
At other times you find yourself twiddling your thumbs, as if waiting for something to happen, or a thought to occur that will trigger action. We sometimes cease to be in the grip of circumstances and our minds can run free.
If you keep asking the question ‘why?’ about anything that you do, you eventually arrive at a small number of answers. If we leave aside metaphysical answers like ‘because it is the will of God’ for the moment, these are generally ‘to keep safe’ or ‘to be efficient’. On the way to these fundamental, and intimately related to them, is ‘to optimize cognitive load’. Not to do so, compromises both safety and efficiency.
To be overwhelmed with the need to act and, therefore, the thinking this necessitates in the evaluation of choices that are the precursors of action, leads to anxiety and anxiety interferes with the capacity to make good choices. To be under-whelmed leads to boredom and lethargy, a lack of caring about choice and the tendency to procrastinate.
It seems that to perform well we need an optimal level of arousal or stimulation.
Youtube Video, Performance and Arousal – Part 1of 3: Inverted U Hypothesis, HumberEDU, January 2015, 5:05 minutes
In the longer term, to be ‘psychologically healthy’ we need optimal levels of arousal ‘on average’ over a period of time.
Being constantly overwhelmed leads from stress, to anxiety and onwards to depression. It can even lead to an early death.
TED Video, The science of cells that never get old’ – Elizabeth Blackburn, TED, April 2017, 18:46 minutes
Being constantly underwhelmed also leads to depression via a different route. How much load we can take depends on our resources – both cognitive and otherwise. We can draw on reserves of energy and a stock of strategies, such as prioritizing, for managing mental workload. If the demands on us are too great and we have some external resources, like somebody else that can provide advice or direction, or the money to pay for it, then we can use those to lessen the load. Whenever we draw on our own capacities and resources we can both enhance and deplete them. Like exercising a muscle, regular and moderate use can strengthen but prolonged and heavy use will tire or deplete them. When we draw on external resources, like money or favours, their use tends to deplete them.
Measurement of Load
So how can we measure the amount of load a person is carrying. This is going to be tricky as some people have more resource and capacity (both internal and external) than others, so observing their activity may not be a very accurate measure of load. If you are very practiced or skilled at something it is much easier to do than if you are learning it for the first time. Also, some people are simply less bothered about whether they achieve what they have to do (or want to do) than others. Even the same person can ‘re-calibrate’, so for example, if pressure of work is causing stress, they can re-assess how much it matters that they get the job done. Some capacities replenish with rest, so something may be easy at one time but harder, say at the end of a long day.
In fact, there are so many factors, some interacting, that any measure, say of stress, through looking at the chemicals in the blood or the amount of sweating on the skin is difficult to attribute to a particular cause.
The capacity of our thinking processes is limited. We can really only focus on one difficult task at once. We even stop doing whatever we were doing (even an automatic task like walking) when formulating the response to a difficult question.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo, Series 1 Episode 1, First Broadcast about 2014, 28 minutes
We can use our thinking capacity to further our intentions but we so often get caught up in the distractions of everyday life that none is left for addressing the important issues.
The Personal Agenda
Another way of looking at it is to consider it from the point of view of each person’s agenda and how they deal with it. This is as if you ask a person to write down a ‘to do’ list which has everything they could think of on it. We all do this from time to time, especially when there is too much going on in our heads and we need to set everything out and see what is important.
I will construct such a list for myself now:
- Continue with what I am writing
- Get ready for my friend who is coming for coffee
- Figure out how to pay my bills this month
- Check with my son that he has chosen his GCSE options
- Tell my other friends what time I will meet them tonight
- Check that everything is OK with my house at home (as I am away at the moment)
Each of these agenda items is a demand on my attention. It is as if each intention competes with the others to get my focus. They each shout their demands, and whichever is shouting loudest at the time, wins. Maybe not for long. If I realise that I can put something off until later, it can quickly be dismissed and slip back down the agenda.
But the above list is a particular type that is just concerned with a few short-term goals – it’s the things that are on my mind today. I could add:
- Progress my project to landscape the garden
- Think through how to handle a difficult relationship
Or some even longer term, more aspirational and less defined goals
- Work out how I will help starving children in Africa
- Maintain and enhance my wellbeing
The extended agenda still misses out a whole host of things that ‘go without saying’ such as looking after my children, activities that are defined during the course of going to work, making sure I eat and sleep regularly, and all tasks that are performed on ‘autopilot’ such as changing gear when driving. It also misses out things that I would do ‘if the opportunity arose’ but which I do not explicitly set out to do.
What characterizes the items that form the agenda? They are all intentions of one sort or another but they can be classified in various ways. Many concern obligations – either to family, friends, employers or society more generally. Some are entirely self-motivated. Some have significant consequences if they are not acted upon, especially the obligations, whereas others matter less. Some need immediate attention while others are not so time critical. Some are easy to implement while others require some considerable training, preparation or the sustained execution of a detailed plan. Some are one-offs while others are recurring, either regularly or in response to circumstances. This variation tends to mask the common characteristic that they are all drivers of thought and behaviour.
Intentions bridge between and include both motives and goals. Generally we can think of motives as the inputs and goals as the outputs (although either can be either). Both the motives and the goals of an intention can be vague. In fact, an intention can exist without you knowing either why or what it is to achieve. You can copy somebody else’s intention in ignorance of motive and goal. In the sense of intention as only a pre-disposition to act, you need not be aware of an intention. Often you don’t know how you will act until the occasion demands.
Given that there are perhaps hundreds or even thousands of intentions large or small, all subsisting in the same individual, what determines what a person does at any particular point in time. It all depends on priority and circumstance. Priority will push items to the top of the list and circumstance often determines when and how they drive thought and behaviour.
Priority itself is not a simple idea. There are many factors affecting priority including emotion, certainty of outcome and timing. These factors tend to interact. I may feel strongly that I must help starving children in Africa and although I know that every moment I delay may mean a life lost, I cannot be certain that my actions will make a difference or that I may think of a more effective plan at a later time. When I have just seen a programme on TV about Africa I may be highly motivated, but a day later, I may have become distracted by the need to deal with what now appear to be more urgent issues where I can be more certain of the outcome.
Priority and Emotion
It is as if my emotional reaction to the current content of my experience is constantly jiggling the priorities on my agenda of intentions. As the time approaches for my friend to arrive I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable that I have not cleared up. Events may occur that ‘grab’ my attention and shoot priorities to the top of the agenda. If I am surprised by something I turn my attention to it. Similarly, if I feel threatened. Whereas, when I am relaxed my mind can wander to matters inside my head – perhaps my personal agenda. If I am depressed my overall capacity to attend to and progress intentions is reduced.
Emotions steer our attention. They determine priority. Attention is focused on the highest priority item. Emotion, priority, and attentions are intimately related. Changing emotions continuously wash across intentions, reordering their priority. They modulate the priorities of the intentions of the now.
Emotion provides the motive force that drives attention to whatever it is that you are attending to. If you are working out something complicated in your head, it is the emotion associated with wanting to know the answer that provides the motive force to turn the cogs. This applies even when the intention is to think through something rationally. When in the flow of rational thought (say in doing a mental arithmetic problem) it is emotion that motivates it.
There is a host of literature on emotional memory (i.e. how emotions, especially traumatic ones, are laid down in memory). There is also a large literature on how memories may be re-constructed, often inaccurately, rather than retrieved. The following illustrates both emotional memory of traumatic events and the frequent inaccuracies of re-construction:
TED Video, Emotional Memory: Shawn Hayes at TEDxSacramento 2012, TEDx Talks, March 2013, 8:10 minutes
It is well established that the context in which a memory is laid down effects the circumstances in which the memory is retried. For example, being in a particular place, or experiencing a particular smell or taste may trigger the retrieval of memories specific to the place and smell. The context supplies the cue or key to ’unlocking’ the memory. However, there is comparatively little literature on how emotions trigger memories although there has been research on ‘mood-dependent memory’ (MDM) e.g.
Eric Eich, Dawn Macaulay, and Lee Ryan (1994), Mood Dependent Memory for Events of the Personal Past, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1994, Vol. 123, No. 2, 201-215
It seems plausible that emotions act as keys or triggers that prime particular memories, thoughts and intentions. In fact, the research indicates that mood dependent memory is more salient in relation to internal phenomena (e.g. thoughts) than external ones (such as place). Sadness steers my attention to sad things and the intentions I associate with the object(s) of my sadness. Indifference will steer my attention away from whatever I am indifferent about and release attention for something more emotionally charged. Love and hate might equally steer attention to its objects. Injustice will steer attention to ascertaining blame. The task of identifying who or what to blame can be as much an intention as any other.
Priority and Time – The Significance of Now
Intentions formulated and executable in ‘the now’, assume greater priority than those formulated in the past, or those that may only have consequences in the future.
The now is of special significance because that is where attention is focused. Past intentions slip down the list like old messages in an email inbox. You focus on the latest delivery – the now.
The special significance of ‘the now’ is increasingly recognised, not just as a fact of life but as something to become increasingly conscious of and savoured.
Youtube Video, The Enjoyment of Being with Eckhart Tolle author of THE POWER OF NOW, New World Library, July 2013, 4:35 minutes
Indeed the whole movement of mindfulness, with its focus on ‘the now’ and conscious experience, has grown up as approach to the management of stress and the development of mental strategies.
Youtube Video, The Science of Mindfulness, Professor Mark Williams, OxfordMindfulness, December 2011, 3:34 minutes
Priority and Time in Agenda Management
If I am angry now then my propensity will be high to act on that anger now if I am able to. Tomorrow I will have cooled off and other intentions will have assumed priority. Tomorrow I may not have ready access to the object of my anger. On the other hand, if tomorrow an opportunity arises by chance (without me having created it), then perhaps I will seize it and act on the anger then. As in crime, we are driven by the motive, the means and the opportunity.
Many intentions recur – the intentions to eat, drink, sleep, and seek social interaction all have a cyclical pattern and act to maintain a steady state or a state that falls within certain boundaries (homeostasis). It may be that you need to revive an old intention whether or not it is cyclically recurring. Revival of an intention pushes it back up the list (towards the now) and when some homeostatic system (like hunger and eating) get out of balance a recurring intention is pushed back up the list.
Intentions that impact the near future also take priority over intentions that affect the far future. So, it is easier to make a cup of tea than sit down and write your will (except when death is in the near future). We exponentially discount the future. 1 minute, 1 hour and 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 season and 1 year are equally far apart. What happens in the next minute is as important as what will happen in the next year.
However, from the point of view of establishing the principles of a control mechanism that determines our actions at any point there are other complications and considerations. Often our intentions are incompatible or compete with each other. I cannot vent my anger and fulfil an intention not to hurt anybody. I cannot eat and stay thin. I cannot both go to work tomorrow and stay home to look after my sick child. Therefore, some intentions inhibit others leading to a further jiggling of the priorities.
Prioritising what is Easy
A major determinant of what we actually do is what is easiest to do. So actions that are well learned or matters of habit get done without a second thought but intentions that are complicated or difficult to achieve are constantly pushed down the stack, however important they are. Easy actions consume less resource. If they are sufficiently difficult and also sufficiently important we become pre-occupied by thinking about them but are unable to act.
Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ sets out much of the experimental evidence that shows how in thought we tend towards the easy options.
Youtube Video, Cognitive ease, confirmation bias, endownment effect – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Part 2), Fight Mediocrity, June 2015, 5:50 minutes
How often do we get up in the morning with the firm resolve to do a particular thing and then become distracted during the day by what seem to be more immediate demands or attractive alternatives? It is as if our intentions are being constantly pushed around by circumstances and our reactions to them and all that gets done are the easy things – where by chance the motive, the means, and the opportunity all fortuitously concur in time.
Staying on task is difficult. It requires a single-minded focus of attention and a resistance to distraction. It is sometimes said that ‘focus’ is what differentiates successful people from others, and while that may be true in the achievement of a particular goal, it is at the expense of paying attention to other competing intentions.
Implications for The Human Operating System
The above account demonstrates how as people we interleave multiple tasks in real time, partly in response to what is going on around us and partly in response to our internal agenda items. We do this with limited resources, depleting and restoring capacities as we go. What differentiates us from computers is the way in which priorities are continuously and globally changing such that attention is re-directed in real time to high priority items (such as threats and the unexpected). Part of this is in response to our ability to retrieve relevant memories cued by the external world and our internal states, reflect on (and inhibit) our own thinking and thinking processes and to run through and evaluate mental simulations of possible futures.
- In order to perform effectively we need to manage the demands on us
- Having too much, or too little, to do and think about can lead to stress in the short term and depression, if it goes on for too long.
- We have limited resources and capacities which can become depleted but that can also be restored (e.g. with rest)
- Measuring the amount of load a person is under is not simple as people have different resources, abilities and capacities
- Whether or not we write it down or say it, we all have an implicit list of intentions
- We prioritise the items on this list in a variety of ways
- Circumstances, our emotional reactions and timing are all crucial factors in determining priority
- We also tend to prioritise things that are easy to do (i.e. do not use up effort, time or other resources)
- Being able to manage priorities and interleaving our intentions in response to circumstances and opportunity, is a key aspect of the human operating system
This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’ introduces how we deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives
Next Up: ‘Policy Regulates Behaviour’ shows that not all intentions are equal. Some intentions regulate others, in both the individual and society.
Youtube Vide, The Distracted Mind, UCI Open, April 2013, 1:12:37 hours