What is Cognitive Load?

Cognitive load is built on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) which posits that the human brain has limited capacity to store and process information at any given time. Based on the CLT, human memory can be divided into two stores: 

  • Working memory: short-term store to process new information and cognitive tasks [1].
  • Long-term memory: large memory store of past events and information that has been internalised [2].

Our working memory is short term, and its capacity is finite. As such, processing more information at once imposes cognitive load (e.g., remembering a string of numbers while multiplying numbers at the same time).

Types of Cognitive Load

There are 3 different types of cognitive load, namely intrinsic cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load and germane cognitive load [3]:

Intrinsic Cognitive Load Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL) refers to the load imposed due to the inherent difficulty of a task. As such, the extent of load imposed depends on the 2 factors — the person’s prior knowledge and the elements one is required to simultaneously process
Extraneous Cognitive Load Extraneous cognitive load (ECL) refers to any external tasks that do not contribute to the learning task itself. For example, spending mental resources to process disorganised information when conducting research is considered a process irrelevant to the task itself that takes up your cognitive capacity.
Germane Cognitive Load Germane cognitive (GCL) load refers to the available mental resources to integrate new information with existing knowledge. This is related to ICL in that higher ICL would entail lower available mental resources (lower GCL). 

When does Cognitive Overload occur?

Cognitive overload occurs when a person is mentally overwhelmed due to imposing cognitive load beyond our capacity. This generally results in struggles to complete activities productively and successfully. Completion times are increased and usually at non-optimal levels of performance when we split our limited attentional resources [4].

Cognitive overload, if prolonged, could lead to high stress levels and burnout [5], with symptoms that put individuals at risk of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that people who experience long term cognitive strain increases stress levels and reduce work performance. This reduces one’s perception of work satisfaction and thus, levels of wellbeing [6].

Common Signs & Symptoms of Cognitive Overload

Being aware of whether you are experiencing cognitive overload can help you to manage it as soon as possible. Some signs and symptoms that can help you to identify cognitive overload include:

  • Fatigue [7
  • Increased stress and anxiety levels 
  • Feelings of inadequacy and disinterest [8]
  • Reduced performance [4]

Causes & Risk Factors of Cognitive Overload


Many of us are prone to multitasking and may even take pride in our ability to do so. However, according to studies, multitasking does not improve work performance, but contributes to cognitive overload. Multitasking requires one to repeatedly switch one’s attention and mental resources between various activities. With our brains having limited working capacity, this results in the oversight of important information and longer completion times of tasks at compromised qualities, than if one were to focus on one task intentionally one at a time [5].

Impact of Attention Splitting

Poorly integrated information causes cognitive overload. For instance, positioning a diagram away from its written explanation forces readers to split their attention between the diagram and text. This hinders the integration of information [3].

Dealing with Cognitive Overload

Breaking Down Information

Breaking down a task into smaller pieces of information would help you to see the different aspects of the task. This reduces feelings of being overwhelmed by its volume or complexity, enabling you to slowly gain more knowledge and draw links between each step.

Minimising Distractions

Distractions from your surroundings take your attention away from the task at hand. To reduce cognitive load, put away distractions you can afford to help you better channel your mental energy and focus.

Organisation and presentation of information make a difference. Presenting information in a clear and concise manner (e.g., removing unnecessary pictures and summarising paragraphs)  minimises visual distractions. This allows us to have extra capacity to invest in the actual learning and integration of concepts instead.

Avoid Multitasking

Overall, focusing on one task at a time is more helpful than splitting your attention across different tasks. While multitasking is tempting with technological affordances today, set aside a fixed amount of time to focus on one task at a time. Schedule calendar entries and make to-do lists that specify the time you allocate to a task. This helps improve your performance while feeling a lot more productive at the end of the day.