Juggling the ping pong balls of cognitive load

You know that feeling of trying to juggle too many tasks at once? It’s like trying to keep a dozen ping-pong balls in the air simultaneously. The second you toss up a new one, two or three others come crashing down. 

These things don’t necessarily have to be specific tasks either; they can just be a huge bunch of stuff you carry inside your head – it’s hovering there, demanding to be dealt with! It might be thoughts about your work commitments, various deadlines, family responsibilities, the kids’ pick-up and drop-off logistics, relationship dynamics, bills and expenses, emotions, mental state, absorbing new information, or a whole bunch of other distractions!  There are so many distractions and competing demands in our busy world. It’s a feeling of noise in your head, but not necessarily noisy on the outside—the difference between being busy versus feeling busy. Make any sense?  

My head often feels like this – hundreds of ping-pong balls flying all over the place. There’s a high cognitive load and some of the simple things in life seem to take a huge mental effort. Balls get dropped. We forget stuff. We can’t hold everything in our heads all at once.

The more balls you juggle, the higher your cognitive load. Just like a juggler can only keep so many objects in the air at the same time, our brains can only handle so much simultaneous cognitive load before things start slipping. It’s like a ping-pong ball circus up there! Work responsibilities, personal obligations, distractions, multiple people connections… the list goes on….

So what’s the best thing to do when the cognitive load keeps piling up?

Get smarter about how you juggle

Prioritise the ping pong balls you’re juggling and focus on the most important ones, breaking things down into urgency and importance. Maybe block out other distractions so you can focus on one ping pong ball at a time (a bit like the pomodoro technique). Or you might want to use other helpful tools like the 4Ds to help you get smarter about what you’re juggling versus what others can juggle for you.

Take breaks from juggling

What are some ways that you re-charge your brain? We all know rest is important but how can we help re-charge our brains except for when we’re sleeping? I attended a very cool webinar the other day on the neuroscience of coaching executive brains. There was a lot of talk about TPN (Task-Positive Network) and DMN (Default Mode Network) networks in the brain – both play distinct roles in cognitive function, and these networks are often described as having an inverse relationship – when one is active, the other tends to be less active. Apparently most Execs nowadays are spending far too much balance in ‘TPN mode’ (i.e. focused on goal-directed tasks and working memory activities that require attention, focus and cognitive control), rather than DMN mode (i.e. mind-wandering, daydreaming, introspection). An overemphasis on the TPN at the expense of rest, relaxation, and activation of the DMN leads to burnout, reduced creativity, and decreased overall well-being. So it’s a no-brainer (excuse the pun!) that we need to make sure we put things in place to help activate our DMN more in our constant ‘on’ culture. What habits can you create to build some routines (e.g. sunrise walking, leaving the phone behind, staring out the window for 10mins) to help activate your DMN more?

Change the way you view your ping pong balls 

Boundaries, systems and insightful knowledge are all very well. I’m a big fan of these things but sometimes trying to juggle them all just feels like striving, not thriving. Is there a way to change the way we view the ping pong balls? Stop giving them all equal attention and energy. Rather than new boundaries, or better systems, how about simply recognising when we’re approaching juggling failure and respond with a simple shift in mindset. Let’s change the way we view our ping pong balls. 

There’s still the same number of ping pong balls, but maybe we can have a different focus on them.

Speaking of focus, I got a got a new prescription for my glasses a couple of months ago, and I struggled with being able to see out of them properly. After a few trips back and forth to the specs store, and fiddling around with adjustments, they eventually changed the angle of the lenses by just a fraction (less than a millimetre), and it’s made all the difference. When I put the newly adjusted glasses on, it was like my brain suddenly felt like it was having a break from this pressure I was feeling to see properly (I can only describe it a bit like having a brick pushing up against my brain!).

Maybe microscopically changing how we view our ping-pong balls can make all the difference. Let’s change the angle we’re viewing things from.

So, in a work sense for this year, here’s what I’m planning to focus my ping pong ball energy on this year:

  • Offering six-month or longer coaching relationships for leaders wanting to make a difference in their lives or the lives of their teams. I’ll be spending less of my energy on lots of ‘one-off, ad-hoc coaching sessions’. I’m going to go deep with a handful of amazing clients.
  • Facilitating team gatherings for leadership teams – help make it easier for them in the way I support them get them to where they want to be.
  • Getting my book out thereTeam Spirit – the power of purposeful gatherings. I want to help those who are currently not able to get external facilitators in to to run their own team gatherings to DIY it themselves. The book couldn’t come at a more perfect timing (financial constraints, budget cuts etc.) – and there’s heaps of useful tools to help people run their own team gatherings with more success. TBC publication is mid-2024!

The more you juggle, the more difficult it can be to find your centre, find your focus. From the big things to those that are out by a millimetre. How are you micro-adjusting, juggling and balancing your year? I would love to hear from you.