Understanding Human Cognition

The modern world is extremely­ complex, bursting with information, built around non-intuitive ideas, centred on concepts and symbols. Succeeding in this world requires focused attention, prodigious memory, capacious bandwidth, sustained motivation, logical rigour, and proficiency with abstractions. The gap between what our biological brains are capable of, and what modern life demands, is large and getting larger each day. [1]
We are ancient brains in a high tech world [2]
The hyper-novelty of modern life overwhelms our primitive cognitive capacities [3]

Knowledge work productivity depends on structuring work compatible with human cognitive limits rather than treating knowledge workers as autonomous black boxes (Cal Newport). By taking a scientific approach to analysing how our brains function and implementing workflows designed around that understanding, there is vast untapped productivity potential in the knowledge work sector.

What is Knowledge Work?

Knowledge work is a job that analyses information and generates creative solutions to complex problems. These roles include professions like research, design, computer programming, consulting, finance, law, academia, engineering and management.

Unlike manual labour or service jobs, knowledge work is heavily cognitive and highly demands advanced mental processes like evaluation, decision-making, writing, strategic thinking and ideation.

It relies on capabilities such as

  • Attention - the ability to selectively focus on relevant information
  • Working memory - being able to hold details in mind actively
  • Goal management - directing attention between competing priorities

Knowledge Worker Productivity

While knowledge workers are often treated as autonomous "black boxes", productivity depends heavily on how their work is structured. As business thinker Peter Drucker noted, more than focusing on giving knowledge workers clear objectives, motivational leadership is required. There is a great need for systematic thinking about organising work best to account for the realities of human cognitive capacities.

Understanding the Limits of Human Cognition

A significant source of productivity challenges in knowledge work stems from the collision between our brain's highly evolved ability to conceptualise ambitious, complex goals and the fundamental limitations in our mental capacities for bringing those goals to fruition. As Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen [2] put it, our ability to set high-level goals for ourselves collides headfirst with our brain's limitations in cognitive control.

  • Attention—We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Our attentional capacity is extremely limited. The flood of digital information confronts a brain that evolved in a simpler environment and struggles to avoid constant distraction. It's like the hour I spent scrolling through X last night instead of reading my novel.
  • Working Memory—Only a few pieces of information, 3 – 5, can be actively considered. We quickly forget details and nuance. Knowledge work frequently overburdens our working memory.
  • Goal Management —Our brains have not yet evolved to multitask well between competing goals or interruptions. Attempting to context switch frequently degrades our thinking and memory.

Optimising for Human Cognition

There are several strategies individuals and organisations can use to enhance productivity by structuring knowledge work in a brain-compatible way:

Minimize Distractions

Identify unnecessary distractions and sources of interruptions. These may include emails, messaging apps, unnecessary meetings, office visitors, etc. Ruthlessly cull and manage communication channels.

Implement Deep Work Sessions

Carve out periods for intense, focused cognitive work. Limit task switching or attempts at multitasking.

Use Checklists and Prompts

Reduce cognitive load by leveraging checklists, templates and prompts to ease the burden on working memory.

Practice Mindfulness

Build greater metacognition around behaviours that fragment attention and lead to shallow work. Monitor and reflect on how time is allocated.

Moderate Collaboration

Promote better focus by gathering employee feedback and collaboration asynchronously using surveys and documentation rather than constant real-time interaction.

Leverage Organizational Processes

Implement organisational systems, norms and workflows designed around the limits of human cognition—for example, structured meetings, email/chat limits, and focused work blocks.

Annie Murphy Paul [1] unveils the transformative idea that we think best when our cognition is extended to our bodies, spaces, and relationships.

This idea reflects three core principles:

  1. Embedded Cognition acknowledges that our physical bodies significantly contribute to thought processes. Take, for instance, gesturing. Our hand movements do more than communicate; they also aid in our thinking, assisting us in exploring complex ideas and facilitating our understanding of them.
  2. Situated Cognition, explains how our physical locations and environments shape our thinking. It highlights that our cognitive processes are not detached but deeply intertwined with our surroundings' characteristics, which can enhance or inhibit cognitive performance.
  3. Distributed Cognition investigates the phenomenon of collective thinking within groups. It underscores how individuals coordinating their expertise creates a chain of Transactive Memory—an efficient system where information is stored, encoded and retrieved within a group. Through this, the collective intelligence that arises can surpass the individual contributions of group members.

In essence, Paul suggests that our minds do not exist in isolation. Instead, their highest potential is unlocked when we leverage our bodies, environments, and the collective intelligence of groups to augment and enhance cognitive processes.

Her work suggests that the key to better thinking lies not within our brains alone but in harnessing the capacity of our Extended Mind.

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The Future of Knowledge Work

As Cal Newport [4] argues, there are significant productivity gains to be had by any individual or organisation that starts to think critically about optimising for actual human cognitive capacities rather than succumbing to the convenient but ineffective "hyperactive hive mind" workflow that dominates so many modern offices.

Understanding our brains' evolutionary constraints and limitations, combined with workflows designed to mitigate constant distractions, interruptions and overwhelm, provides the opportunity for enhanced productivity, innovation and satisfaction in the knowledge work sector.

For self-employed consultants and freelancers, staying competitive in the face of advancing AI technologies requires an ongoing commitment to learning and personal development. These professionals must enhance their skills as knowledge workers, strategically employing their cognitive abilities to generate value. A deeper self-understanding enables them to identify and develop their strengths while addressing areas of improvement. The ability to effectively learn, adapt, and apply their knowledge sets them apart in their fields, ensuring they remain relevant and competitive in this rapidly evolving work landscape.


[1]Annie Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain

[2] Adam Gazzaley and Larry D Rosen, The Distracted Mind, Ancient Brains in a High Tech World

[3] Heather Heying and Brett Weinstein, A Hunter Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century, Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life

[4] Cal Newport, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

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