Avoid Cognitive Overload, Part 1

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Writing a dissertation takes a lot of work. From beginning to end there are numerous logistical steps and cognitive tasks involved. So it is no surprise that people often become overwhelmed by the process. They get stuck and do not know how to move forward. Feeling overwhelmed and getting stuck are often consequences of cognitive overload. Cognitive overload refers to being burdened with too many tasks at one time, which overtaxes our ability to prioritize and concentrate on what needs to be done. Small separate tasks pile up creating the perception of a single insurmountable obstacle. At this point, we may just want to throw up our hands and surrender.

If this pertains to you, you are not alone. Cognitive overload is common when we are confronted with numerous tasks, such as what is required when writing a dissertation. The trick is to avoid cognitive overload, if you can, or have strategies to overcome cognitive overload, if you experience it. This blog focuses on one tip for avoiding and dealing with cognitive overload: Divide and conquer.

Separate logistical tasks from cognitive ones. Logistical tasks are not directly involved in the actual writing process. Logistical tasks include activities such as filling out school forms, obtaining permission from relevant parties, and properly formatting your document. Cognitive tasks refer to activities directly related to the writing process, including researching and drafting.

Make two separate columns on a piece of paper for each set of tasks. This will help you to categorize tasks and prioritize items in each column. Dividing tasks into logistical and cognitive activities is important because these activities involve different skills. Logistical tasks often require coordination or communication with others. Cognitive tasks involve solitary work and require intense concentration.

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You may also begin to see that logistical tasks and cognitive tasks can overlap, allowing you to save time. For example, while you are waiting to receive comments from your Chair on Chapter 1, you can tackle a logistical task, such as reaching out to obtain permission to use a survey instrument, or address formatting concerns.

Dividing tasks also lets you see that what lies before you are a series of manageable jobs, not a single insurmountable obstacle.

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