Attention to Cognitive Load and Memory in the Workplace Could See Greater Attention to Detail in Work and Greater Job Satisfaction

“Every day I go home, I am simply mentally exhausted!”

“I get a headache by the end of the day, and come back the next day to do it again.”

“There just seem to be too many balls in the air at one time…something is going to have to drop.”

These statements are probably nothing new to most people who go to work at many workplaces around the globe.  The sheer amount of information being thrown at people today is atrocious.  Of course, it can be a positive thing when you think about how much more access that people have to information than they did even 10 – 15 years ago.  But what does this really do to us in the workplace?  How can our minds handle this information?  What are workplaces doing to mitigate some of the losses, and improve the successes?

In most cases unfortunately the answer is probably not much.  One of the fastest growing professions in the world right now is Industrial/Organizational Psychology (Cherry, 2011), and for very good reason.  As I have discussed before, companies work in the sense of “I need it yesterday” which is not always conducive to success and progress.  A better way to look at it may be, “Taking a little extra time to do things correctly today, could save a lot of time doing and fixing things later.”  So what do I mean by doing things correctly?

One of the first things that I believe is tremendously important is to refer to the findings by psychologist George Miller.  In a study published in the 1967 Psychology Review, Miller introduced the “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.”  The premise behind this study is that the human mind can only discern between, or remember, seven different things with a variance of two more or two less (depending on type of stimulus).  However, more importantly Miller discussed the concept of “chunking”.  Chunking is when you group information together to remember it easier.  This could be grouping together by meaning, or by association, but nonetheless chunks.  A book out of the University of Missouri (Cowan, N., Morey, C.C., & Chen, Z.) gives some great background and examples of this, as do most Psych 101 textbooks.   Take, for example: 19-98-19-99-20-00-20-01-20-02.  If you were to attempt to remember each of these chunks of data individually, you would have 10 individual chunks (19, 98, etc.).  Most people would find remembering that many chunks difficult.  For most of us though, our brain recognizes 1998-1999-2000-2001-2002, which would reduce down our number of chunks to only 5, and would allow us to remember these much easier.

This is a basic concept of psychology, and yet seems to be lost in the business world.  This seems especially true when it comes to developing training, creating communications, and otherwise disseminating other information and communications.  While an expectation may be that adults in the workplace can discover their own ways of chunking, a true commitment to the employees and the organization itself would say that it would benefit all involved to help this process along.  Imagine for just a moment the reduction in wasteful communications or other information delivery!  By reducing the amount of information (cognitive load) you increase the amount of information that can be stored in the working memory and thus the amount that can be more easily encoded to long-term memory.

Another concept that I believe is important, and that appears to have been hit upon by some organizations out there, is the idea of a physical and mental break.  This has some very serious implications in the workplace.  An article published by Dr. Rick Nauert on PsychCentral discusses research that shows “that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.” (Nauert, 2011)  Essentially the research that Dr. Nauert refers to and discusses explains that you loose your attention to the task that you are working on because your mind becomes habituated to it in the same way that you stop noticing that you are wearing socks and shoes after a while.  Your body simply becomes accustomed to it, and so stops focusing on it.  The same thing is true when working on tasks at work.  Getting up from a task, or in some way diverting attention (at an appropriate time of course!) to something else for short periods can actually help you stay focused for longer.  By allowing for, and encouraging, breaks in work tasks organizations could see higher levels of quality in work, as well as happier, more satisfied, more productive workers with a lower burnout rate.

Hopefully as organizations around the world begin to see the need for change in the “this is the way we do things” mentality, I/O Psychologists (and those of us who are aspiring and working towards that goal) will be called in to action to identify, explain, and assist in correcting these types of issues, and to creating the best environment for workers and work.



Cherry, K. (2011, February 21). Kendra’s Psychology Blog. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from

Cowan, N., Morey, C.C., & Chen, Z. (in press).  The legend of the magical number seven.  In S. Della Sala (Ed.), Tall tales about the brain:  Things we think we know about the mind, but ain’t so.  Oxford University Press

Rick Nauert, P. (2011, February 9). Taking Breaks Found to Improve Attention. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from PsychCentral:


Other suggested reading:

Article by Nicholas Carr ( (scroll down to read) on Cognitive Load

Corporate Commitment to Long-Term Memory Could See Greater Overall Success

In today’s world of “I need it yesterday” there is an unfortunate tendency to forget about some of the most basic ideas and functions. One of these that I have noticed in the corporate world is the necessity to simply force as much information on employees as possible, with an expectation for them to remember, synthesize, and utilize that information. Unfortunately this is done without any thought on how the company can help this process, which is detrimental to both employee and company success.

Think about your own company for a moment. Do you get inundated with emails, conference calls, classroom training, online training, and meetings? How much of the information delivered through all of these sources do you actually retain? What information are you deleting, forgetting, or tuning out because there is just too much?

To commit information to long term memory it really needs to be encoded as something meaningful in the mind, and needs the time to be properly transferred from working, or Short-Term Memory to Long-Term Memory. In the haste to get things done “yesterday”, we often overlook these basic psychological functions.

If corporations truly made a commitment to improving this process, what would it look like? Perhaps we would see different expectations set and in different ways, meaning “You received xyz training yesterday, and so let’s talk about how you will apply it, and put together a plan to allow you to use the new skills or knowledge.” Or maybe, “You received abc email this morning. Send me back what you understood that email to say.” While these methods would not always be applicable and/or necessary, there are many situations in which they could certainly be helpful.

What would a company look like if things were treated in this fashion? How would people feel about the company 10 years after they start? Would it change anything at all?

I have to believe it would change things for the better for all involved. It would stand to reason that a company full of people who have received and retained information would reduce the number of communications needed to go out, would reduce the amount of training and re-training that would need to take place, and would see the company succeed greater through reductions in wasted time, money, and information.