Do more by doing less: reduce your cognitive load and get more done at home and work with more ease
A few years ago, I was a quintessential working mom. I was running the school I founded, raising a child with special needs and disabilities, and wearing a number of other hats in my life, from volunteering at my church to trying to be a good friend and sister. At the time, my husband's work was based outside of the United States, so he would spend weeks at a time out of the country, and fly back and forth in an attempt to spend time with us and continue running a successful business offshore.
What that meant for me was I needed to be the glue, and I did not realize the work being human glue would entail. I coordinated my husband's schedule with mine across time zones (a six hour difference) so that we could talk early in the morning or very late at night before I had to get ready to drive 40 minutes to be one of the first people at school. I also had to ensure my morning sitter arrived on time, the fridge was full, and my daughter's clothes were set aside for school- God forbid she miss dressing up in character on Spirit Day on my account!
It was also up to me to make sure the speech therapist knew that my daughter had a doctor's appointment today, so we’d miss therapy. Two weeks ago (ok, let me be real, one week ago), I begged my mother to help me take my daughter since I’d be tied up at work. But I also had to plan to be freeish at work during the first 10 minutes of my daughter's appointment so I could speak with the doctor via telephone since my mom did not have my daughter's medical history down pat.
Then there was work itself. I had 30 employees at the time and was responsible for high stakes reporting and compliance for our school. It was often technical work I usually could not get done during the day due to tons of interruptions that naturally happen when you work at a school and do real people work with kids, teachers and families. I would leave work in time to get home to relieve my evening sitter. I only had about 45 minutes to acth up with and play with my daughter, then I would dispense her evening medications, check to see if any refill were dues, check her book bag for anything I needed to sign from school, read to her and put her to bed while fighting the temptation to go to bed myself. Then I would do some of my quiet work— that stuff I could not do during the day– check my alarm (and set a second alarm), before going to bed and waking up 4 or5 hours later to do it all again.
And it didn't stop. Phone calls, text messages, follow-up specialist appointments, referrals, IEP meetings, rejected insurance claims, overdue bills and other things to layer on top of this came at me daily. And I dealt with it all. People at times complimented me for holding it all together and at times, I actually thought it was a good thing. Until I couldn't any longer. I was carrying a cognitive load that would only balloon as my daughter's behavioral and medical health worsened, and my responsibilities at work grew.
So how did I go from carrying it all and moving through life on a conveyor belt to where I am today– living a fuller life and carrying a load I can sustain for the long haul? I will be honest- I didn't do it overnight and the fixes were not instant. There is a real cost to getting to a place that you can maintain as a primary caregiver. But first and foremost, I had to learn to share the load. And I had to learn not to feel bad about having to do this.
Typically, cognitive load is a good thing when out in a positive context. In K-12 education, we call 'learning' what takes place when you place the “cognitive load”, or the demand, on the student. It forces the student to do the mental work needed to arrive at the answer. And arriving at the answer is a process that's learned, a process that can be applied to other problems. So not only do our students walk away with an answer, but they walk away with a process that works! This is a really good thing. And when you do this at a level that’s just beyond what comes easy to you, it produces what we call Grit.
But there is such a thing as excessive cognitive load. This is what happens when you place multiple loads, or one big fat load on someone. You ask them to solve that problem, then take that answer and multiply it, and then take that answer and solve for a bunch of unknowns. But the kicker is, life, family, work, and your circumstances, such as being a caregiver for your special needs loved one, introduces unique problems simultaneously while you’re still solving for the original problem set. And the expectation is for all of these problems to all be solved at once: What’s this new behavior I’m seeing? How come she’s still not meeting this milestone? Why won’t the insurance approve this drug at the right dose? And so on. This is why the concept of multitasking is an illusion, but that's a topic for another day! Throwing multiple problems at a person at once is what induces an inordinate amount of stress in our bodies as caregivers, which can produce anxiety, and if sustained over time, a range of mental health conditions.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share more about how to reduce your cognitive load as your child or loved one’s primary caregiver. As caregivers, we’re asked to become quasi-superheros. And because our children and loved ones need more things done for them, we do, in fact, have to do more things than most parents or caregivers. But here’s how we preserve our mental and physical health in the process:
- Ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, or professionals. There are people who care about you and want to help.
- Talk to your partner. Share the mental load. This means talking about what needs to be done and dividing up the tasks. It also means being willing to ask for help when you need it.
- Delegate tasks to your children, even with special needs or disabilities. Just about everyone can do something. As our children get older, they can start taking on more responsibility around the house. It took time, but my daughter, who has autism and global developmental delay can take the trash to the garage, put her dishes in the sink, put her shoes, coat and shoes in the closet and more. Will it take a seemingly inordinate amount of hours to get there, but many of us can get our kids to do more. I’ll share more about the kinds of things she can do and how we got there in this series.
- Automate tasks. There are a number of tasks that can be automated, such as bill paying and grocery shopping. This can save you a lot of time and mental energy.
- Get organized. Having a system for keeping track of everything that needs to be done can help to reduce stress and anxiety. This could include using a to-do list, calendar, or app.
Look for Part Two next week where I deep dive into the "how-to". We can create fresh plans together and unload your cognitive load thing at a time!