Unpacking the Mental Load

Impact Coaches Inc. – Articles

Understanding the Invisible Weight We Carry as Leaders – and How to Lighten It

The last four years saw leaders work harder than ever before. Many leaders talk to us about the weight or “mental load” of their day-to-day tasks.

Mental load, or cognitive load, is all the mental effort that goes into the work we do including planning, decision-making, problem-solving, remembering, and executing activities.

The thing is, we often feel that taking on more work will reduce our mental load. If we could only take care of X, Y or Z, then we’d worry less, or we’d be more sure of success. But taking on more work only increases our mental load. We actually have to work on the feeling itself and learn to let go.

Factors influencing mental load

Task Complexity: More complex tasks require higher cognitive effort.

Environment: Noisy, chaotic, or distracting environments can increase the mental load.

Personal Factors: Stress, fatigue, lack of sleep, and emotional state can impact cognitive capacity and increase perceived mental load.

Tools and Resources: The availability and efficiency of tools and resources can either mitigate or exacerbate mental load.

When we take on the mental load of others, everyone suffers

As leaders, we also often take on the mental load for work we’ve delegated, like worrying about how a team member is progressing on a project. There can often be an element of perfectionism associated with this. A belief that no one could deliver or perform as well as we do. That a project needs to be done a certain way to succeed. Or a concern that the team member we’ve delegated to isn’t giving a task the focus it deserves.

Often we can feel the project or organization will fail without our attention. Which isn’t really true, but it feels as though it is because our teams rely on us.

But this not only adds to our mental load as leaders, it also takes away our team members’ ability to complete the work in its entirety – in their own way. It diminishes their capacity to be challenged, learn and fail (or succeed) on their own. And everyone suffers as a result – us, our team, and the organization.

Stop the mental load from getting out of control

The solution is to let things go. To delegate and elevate our people to take on work and run with it. And to release the guilt, judgement and passive aggressiveness that can make our teams feel we don’t believe they’re capable of succeeding. To say, instead, “I’m going to trust you to do the work and not follow up,” which can be a huge release for us and the members of our teams.

It requires us to acknowledge that, yes, there’s a lot of work to do, but that there’s always lots of work to do. That we have many other responsibilities at home and in our personal lives that also vie for our attention. That we can’t do all of them perfectly. And that taking everything on isn’t the right answer.

We can start to let go of some of the things we try to control, relinquish them to others and allow our people to take these projects or tasks on completely.

And see what happens – in a non-judgemental and non-victimizing way. Instead, we can be curious and open, and trust that the work will get done. Our people will succeed. And we’ll all be the better for it.

And if people let you down, have a conversation at that point and try to understand what happened so you can both fix it. If they routinely let you down, it might be because they aren’t a fit, or they lack capabilities and need more coaching or a job change. Either way, worrying about it isn’t helpful.

How to let go of your mental load

Perhaps the work has changed, and your way of working hasn’t. Or the mandate, volume or complexity of the work have increased substantially and your team needs to step up.

It’s helpful to pause and notice that you’re feeling overloaded. Sit with it. Don’t ignore it or work harder. Instead, think about:

  • How can you start to focus on the overwhelmed feelings and work to reduce them by letting them go?
  • How can you let go of carrying so much ownership for the details?
  • Do people on your team seem to rely on you for things they might be able to do themselves?
  • What can you give back to the rightful owner? Senior people can manage their responsibilities without you reminding them.
  • If people need things, how can you encourage them to go directly to team members rather than come to you?
  • Consider if you need more administrative people from the most senior levels down. Is there a plan for that? Whose job is it to execute?
  • What is in your control to action right away? Can you start hiring for some positions? Or use advisors temporarily? 
Impact Coaches Inc. – Articles

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