Optimising your mental workload capacity

Pay attention!

If you are caught whilst driving using a mobile phone, you will be fined and if you live in the UK, points placed on your licence. There is good reason for this. Driving requires visual attention and this is a finite resource. Split it between looking at a phone and driving and the evidence is unequivocal, you are far more likely to have an accident and possibly injure others. It’s a misconception that we can ‘dual task process’ i.e. pay attention to two or more things at the same time. A common manifestation of this misconception is when someone tells you “I’m listening to you” whilst they are looking at something on their phone. They are doing neither effectively. This is because we ‘switch task process’, i.e. we switch from one task to the other and back again and the result is performance in both tasks is reduced. This is why the person listening to you has not really taken in what you have said nor have they processed the information on their phone accurately. If you want them to pay attention, you have to get them to put their phone down first.


Despite the evidence of dual task versus switch task processing, many organisations place people in circumstances where there are multiple demands on their attention which makes getting anything done extraordinarily difficult. We seat people at desks surrounded by others also trying to work. We place them in front of a computer screen providing multiple distractions and a phone providing yet more and colleagues all around providing another source of interruption. I’m not advocating everyone should have their own office – there is much to be gained from having people work together, it promotes cross functional understanding, team-work and a myriad other benefits. I am, however, advocating space to allow people to focus when they really need to. This may mean working from home, or having quiet spaces to work. It is also incumbent on the employee to manage their own distractions which may mean learning how to cope with their phone on silent, or learning how to use filtering rules on their device to determine who is allowed to disturb the peace and quiet. Why is this an important thing to do? It’s because if we overload our attentional resources and we are more likely to make mistakes in the work we are doing, our response time slows and it even degrades our ability to perform physically (an athlete distracted by having to process lots of things in their mind will not be as quick as one who is not so preoccupied). Or, as in the case of driving, we are likely to crash. To be successful, you need to pay attention.

Work hard

Our mental workload capacity is impacted by experience and skill. As we become more experienced and skilled in a task, it needs less attentional resources effort to complete the task. This is because the behaviour has become habitualised and habits require hardly any attentional resources to execute. Habits involve a different part of the brain than that associated with mental workload. However, for the novice, the task will require a lot of thinking about and this is using up attentional resources and therefore demands a greater mental workload than the experienced individual. Thus, from a performance perspective, it’s a good idea to create habits that ensure the things you need to do regularly to be successful are ingrained into your routines. This will leave your attentional resources for the unexpected or more challenging issues that require some thinking effort to resolve. As with all skills, gaining experience and becoming skilled takes effort. There is no shortcut. To be successful requires hard work and diligence. The reward for this graft is an improvement in capability and a better ability to cope.

Underload or overload – find the balance

Paradoxically, not enough mental workload can also lead to underperformance. You can probably recall a day when you had limited amount of things to do and planned to use the free time to catch up on a whole load of tasks but found yourself unable to get going to do any of them. In the absence of sufficient pressure and motivation, we underperform. Somewhere between underload and overload sits the optimum level of mental workload that enables us to perform at our best. Where the exact red lines are that demarcate underload from optimal workload and optimal workload from overload is unclear, but the signs when these lines have been crossed are well understood. The strategies to manage stress are documented in detail elsewhere. What’s useful to understand here is that excessive workload is a key cause of overstress. But by freeing up mental capacity to cope with the pressure of work through better management of distractions and improving skills and gaining experience, much can be done to mitigate the risk of overstress and to avoid mental fatigue. By recognising when there is insufficient pressure you can create self imposed goals to generate the right impetus. By spotting the signs when you have overdone it and are in danger of overload or burnout you can manage your workload with and through others to alleviate the pressure. To be successful, you need to optimise the pressure you are under to drive your best performance.


We are not machines. We do not have an infinite capacity to cope nor are we any good with very little to do. Success comes from recognising the things that inhibit our performance and those things that help. Technology is both a distraction and an enabler – it is both part of the solution and part of the problem. If we want to make the most of our cognitive abilities we need to work hard at optimising our performance. But for now, leave your mobile phone alone in the car. Using it won’t help you or anyone else.


© 2019 Dominic Irvine. All rights asserted.