In today’s world, mental overload is a fact of life. The right kind of mental stimulation results in brain growth. But there is yet something else you need to know: The type of mental overload caused by stress, on the other hand, actually KILLS brain cells and causes your brain to physically shrink.
Certain physical actions, like walking or eating, are so hard-wired that they don’t tax our brains much. If we talk on the phone while checking e-mail, it’s at the expense of downtime our brains need. Perhaps the real danger posed by screen-based technologies is not that they are rewiring our brains but that the collection of search engines, news feeds and social tools encourages us to link to, follow and read only that which we can easily assimilate.
We cram our mental downtime with multi-tasking our to-do lists and a performance-review mentality that leads to disappointment because we couldn’t see or do everything we wanted. Work without time to think, analyze or recharge feeds sub-par performance and stress. Our focus on what we have left to do lessens our experience of living and, ironically, the very thing we need for performance.
Research on fatigue in the workplace since the 1920s shows that performance rises after a break, whether a break of a few seconds or minutes. Workload refers to the performance shaping effects of over-and under-stimulation. Having much too little to do except wait and watch for something to happen would have negative implications for performance of that seemingly simple task. However, if we overload the system, our performance rapidly drops off and we start to make errors. Therefore, both overload and underload situations can be fatiguing. This fatigue, has negative consequences for future performance on tasks of any sort, whether underload or overload. In order to sustain optimal performance, it is necessary to maintain a good balance between too little workload and too much, ensuring that our nervous system is not over or under aroused. .
People are generally are unhappy with the status quo of mental overload, and feel that any change is bound to be for the better. It is apparent that most people have a range of demand that they can tolerate, or even feel comfortably happy with. Below the lower limit they feel discontented and underutilised, and above the upper limit they seek to shed work and may even become bad-tempered. We feel so efficient, listening to a teleconference while sorting e-mail and eating lunch at the same time. We end up with a permanent high number of unread posts in our RSS reader, and an unstoppable feeling that we’ll never catch up, never be truly informed, never feel comfortable with what we’ve managed to take in. We actually force ourselves into more multi-tasking. The bounty of a virtually unlimited access to culture ends up being a source of even more stress, as we feel compelled to take it all in. When we force ourselves to multi-task, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient. I hear about it all the time, where people feel like an 8 hour day is slacking off and working at night after the kids go to bed and in the morning before the office hours is the only way they can stay on top of things. Is it that people have too much to do or is it that they just don’t have a way that they can disconnect?