Get it out of your head: Distributed Cognition | Diversify Your Self Esteem

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Get it out of your head: Distributed Cognition

Life can be overwhelming.

Things mount up. The laundry piling up on your floor, your certification exam coming up, that dermatologist appointment you need to book, you really need to figure out your budget, did you remember to submit the paperwork for that stock investing brokerage account? Is that report for your manager on track?

Even writing those made-up commitments made me stressed.

These things need to get done… So how can we do them all, and more?

We can start by exploring what makes them so overwhelming.


Each task moves you closer to fulfilling your ‘full potential’. The person you wish to be.

For example, submitting a good report validates that you are a dedicated hard worker who is on track for promotion. Organising a good date-night validates that you are a caring, loving partner.

The flip-side to this is that the inability to complete these tasks demonstrates that you are not that person. When you succeed in them, you ARE what they represent. In the moments when you fail, you fail to be who you aspire to be. This is an identity-level crisis. Defcon 1.

Now that is a scary prospect.

Tying this back, this means that the thought of attempting these actions inspires fear – because it’s risky. You could prove you are not who you think you are. It is obviously possible to overcome this fear, we do it constantly, but it costs energy to convince yourself to struggle against the emotional current.

There are two main strategies I have used to great success to deal with this kind of fatiguing from a big to-do list that inspires fear. 

Write it out.

This one seems silly or trivial but it has a two-fold effect.

  1. Writing things is more effort than typing them. Meaning you will be more precise with what makes it to the to-do list. You’re also limited by physical space, you can’t just keep adding to it like you can on a word document or todo-list-app. Limit it to one page. Even better make it only 5 things MAX.
  2. The secondary outcome of this is what I’ve come to think of as ‘distributed cognition’. It allows you to stop using your brain to store things like an encyclopaedia. Instead using the power for thinking and processing. Get it out of your head. Writing things out brings a sense of calm because you do not have to keep it in mind anymore. Plus now it is precisely articulated. It’s no longer an ominous dark cloud hanging over your head, it’s more like a minor rain shower on a hot day.

Turn it into a routine.

It takes energy because you are having to actively make the decision to do it. If it is something that you need to do more than once then work to make it something you just do. This may sound reductive, but there are things that are non-negotiable for you. Extreme cases aside, things like waking up and brushing your teeth, eating lunch, going to work are all things that you just do without questioning “should I do that now?”. 

Growing up we are given a framework through school and parents of what is done, and when.

This changes as we graduate into adulthood. For many of us we had grown used to routine but never learned to make it for ourselves. So now we were stuck with a hunger for routine and no way to make it happen. Lovely. 

So invest in creating frameworks to force you into habit. I’ve explored that in an article about discipline. Habit is not a choice, you don’t choose to breathe, so lets make the gym the same, studying Indonesian or calling your mother on the weekend like you promised you would.

Following these two patterns removes the cognitive load required to approach many things in life. This in turn will make things less overwhelming, helping you to sustain for longer and take a step to figure out the things that really matter to you. 

I will return to the topic of ‘decentralised cognition’ again in the future to maximise what you can achieve by going on an information diet. Sign up to the email newsletter below to get it sent to you when it is published.

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