Partnering with your brain: how to function at a high level and avoid cognitive overload

Guest Author: Pam Vaccaro | BILLD News | June-July 2021

July 26, 2021

During the height of the pandemic, you likely noticed that requests to “just show up and say a few words” at the state fair, Kiwanis club meeting or the July 4 parade faded.

You hadn’t seen that much white space on your calendar since your first run for office. You may have even welcomed some extended recess time to work on policy. After all, it was temporary. Things would go back to normal.

Instead, life as you knew it became unpredictable. Even how you secured your food and interacted with others left familiarity behind.

Your constituents turned to you for ballast on the state’s ship navigating uncharted territory. What time you would allot for making policy now competed for primacy with constituent requests for assistance with unemployment issues, clarification on the Paycheck Protection Program, devastating business closures and monumental school issues.

The word “shutdown” did not apply to you. It was business as usual on steroids.

Our brains prefer a state of homeostasis, but they have been functioning in a state of chaos for months.

As we begin a “return to normal,” is there a way for you and your brain to recover? ”Follow the science” has become a modern-day mantra, but in this case, brain science offers insight and possible quick fixes to make the adjustments you must make as a legislator.

As you read this article, you are using your working brain. It is limited in capacity. It can take in three to seven novel ideas at a time, and it starts putting the information into schemas or what it knows so that it can store it into the indefinite long-term memory for your use.

Cognitive load theory proposes that if our working brain gets overloaded with too many novel pieces of information in a short time, it reduces the important transfer from working brain to long-term memory. You were on overload and so were those you serve. Although these suggestions might seem simple, your brain will appreciate the understanding of its function, likes and dislikes, and your attempt to create a better partnership.

These tips will help you create a game plan to regulate cognitive load (manageable by your brain) and reduce cognitive overload (unproductive and stressful states for your brain).



The working brain needs a recess. Providing deliberate calm is like pressing a reset button:

  • Baroque music has been proven to quiet the brain, as reported in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, because it has 60 to 80 beats per minute and has no words to distract. Try the app
  • Pet your pets. Research from the Cleveland Clinic indicates decreases in stress hormone levels and increases in “happy hormone” levels by giving some loving attention to Fluffy and Mitten.



The working brain can multi-task if priorities don’t compete. The brain calls on familiar patterns that require less working brain and more long-term memory. This auto-pilot state creates the predictability it likes. Consider the following:

  • Establish morning and evening-hour routines.
  • Novelty is always welcome, but Maria Popova’s classic “Brain Pickings” makes a strong case for the advantages of routines.



Both American psychologist Barry Schwartz and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson make strong cases that fewer choices increase the working brain’s ability to function at maximum productivity.

  • When constituents ask for your assistance, say: “Here are two things you can do right now.” Legislators know a lot more than needs to be said. Remember your constituents are in working brain when communicating with them.
  • Ask as many questions as you can to pinpoint what colleagues or constituents are saying to you. This reduces the number of essential pieces of information your working brain needs to process in order to reach that “aha moment” necessary for completion of a task or course of action.



Scientists watch our brains light up, literally, when a person experiences a meaningful connection.

Where routine creates predictability, rituals create connectivity with meaning.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of legislators over 20-plus years, and as they tell me the difficulty of getting so much done (well before 2020), I ask them: “So what makes you choose to do public service as a legislator? You seem to love it.”

The answer is consistent, and from the brain and heart: “I want to make a difference.”

Pam Vaccaro is a nationally recognized expert in the field of time and priority management and is the founder and president of Designs on Time. She has trained hundreds of Midwestern legislators as a member of the BILLD faculty since  1997.