A Few Thoughts on Cognitive Overload

Intellectica 1 (30):19-51 (2000)
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This article addresses three main questions: What causes cognitive overload in the workplace? What analytical framework should be used to understand how agents interact with their work environments? How can environments be restructured to improve the cognitive workflow of agents? Four primary causes of overload are identified: too much tasking and interruption, and inadequate workplace infrastructure to help reduce the need for planning, monitoring, reminding, reclassifying information, etc… The first step in reducing the cognitive impact of these causes is to enrich classical frameworks for understanding work environments, such as Newell and Simon’s notion of a task environment, by recognizing that our actual workplace is a superposition of many specific environments – activity spaces – which we slip between. Each has its own cost structure arising from the tools and resources available, including the cognitive strategies and interpretational frameworks of individual agents. These cognitive factors are significant, affecting how easy or difficult it is to perform an action, such as finding a specific paper in a “mess” desk. A few simple examples show how work environments can be redesigned and how restructuring can alter the cost structure of activity spaces.
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