In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, many people are burdened by an invisible yet pervasive weight known as “mental load.” This cognitive and emotional burden is often paired with managing multiple responsibilities and expectations at home and in the workplace.
From juggling household chores and childcare to handling professional commitments and personal well-being, a mental load can overwhelm you, stressed, and depleted.
In this article, we delve into mental load and explore empowering strategies to help you effectively navigate and balance your responsibilities.
What is Mental Load? (Definition)
Mental load refers to the cognitive effort required to complete a task or manage a situation. It includes the actual work that needs to be done and all of the mental preparation and organization that goes into completing the task.
For example, planning a dinner party involves cooking the food, making a guest list, buying groceries, setting the table, and coordinating with guests. All of these tasks add to the mental load, which can become overwhelming if not managed properly.
The cognitive labor1https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0003122419859007 of completing tasks for a dinner party includes:
- Anticipating needs: What are people’s dietary restrictions?
- Identifying options to meet those needs: What meals might guests enjoy?
- Making decisions: What meal will accommodate the most people?
- Monitoring progress: Tracking shopping, invitations, guests, meal prep, etc.
Without efficient systems, routines, and support, a mental load can cause increased stress, fatigue, burnout, reduced performance2https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4392279, and health-related issues. Unfortunately, most of those who struggle with mental load are women and mothers3https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356528716_The_mental_load_building_a_deeper_theoretical_understanding_of_how_cognitive_and_emotional_labor_overload_women_and_mothers, partly due to societal pressures and expectations that are put on women to be primary caregivers.
Do You Struggle with Mental Load? Your Mental Load Checklist
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it’s likely you struggle with mental load. If you’re still unsure, here is a checklist to help you determine if it’s time to seek support.
- Do you feel like you’re constantly thinking about everything that needs to be done?
- Does your to-do list feel never-ending?
- Do you feel like you’re the only one who knows what needs to be done?
- Do you feel resentful toward your partner or team for not being more supportive?
- Do you have trouble relaxing or taking time for yourself?
- Do you feel like you’re frequently forgetting something you might have missed?
- Do you feel easily irritable or stressed?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you’re likely someone who struggles with a mental load. Let’s look at ways to relieve the stress and take some weight off your shoulders!
Examples of Mental Load
The mental load can be experienced in every aspect of life, including the workplace and home. Here are a few examples of mental load in these settings:
Mental Load in the Workplace
- Project management: Planning and coordinating complex projects, assigning tasks, tracking progress, and meeting deadlines.
- Decision-making: Making important decisions that have far-reaching consequences, such as budget allocation, resource allocation, or strategic planning.
- Team coordination: Mentally juggling multiple team members’ schedules, roles, and expectations to ensure effective collaboration and productivity.
- Problem-solving: Analyzing and finding solutions for unexpected challenges or conflicts that arise in the workplace.
- Client or customer management: Managing client relationships, addressing concerns, and meeting needs.
- Multitasking: Balancing multiple tasks simultaneously, such as attending meetings, responding to emails, and handling urgent requests.
Mental Load at Home
- Household management: Planning and organizing household chores, meal preparation, and grocery shopping, as well as managing bills and finances.
- Childcare and parenting: Coordinating children’s schedules, school activities, and doctor’s appointments and managing their overall well-being.
- Emotional labor: Providing emotional support to family members, listening to their concerns, and maintaining relationships.
- Life administration: Planning and organizing family events, social engagements, vacations, and coordinating with extended family members.
- Home organization: Managing clutter, cleaning, and maintaining a tidy living space.
- Personal care: Balancing personal well-being, including self-care activities, exercise, and managing emotional health.
These examples demonstrate the mental load individuals experience in both professional and personal settings, highlighting the need for effective strategies to manage and distribute the mental load so it doesn’t negatively impact well-being.
The Impact of Mental Load on Your Well-Being
Mental load can significantly impact people’s health and well-being if left unmanaged. It can lead to stress, anxiety, burnout, sleep deprivation, and even physical health problems. It can also strain relationships, as the person carrying most of the mental load in a relationship may feel resentful or unsupported.
Here are some of the specific impacts of mental load:
- Stress: Mental load can be a source of stress, requiring people to think about and plan for the future. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, worry, and fatigue.
- Burnout: Mental load can lead to burnout, which is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Burnout can make functioning at work, at home, or in relationships difficult.
- Sleep deprivation: Mental load can make sleeping difficult, as people may worry about everything they need to do. This can lead to fatigue4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8744873/, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
- Physical health problems: Mental load can contribute to physical health problems due to anxiety and stress, such as headaches, stomachaches, and high blood pressure.
- Relationship strain: The mental load can strain relationships, as the person carrying it may feel resentful and unsupported. This can lead to arguments, disagreements, and even separation.
10 Strategies for Managing Mental Load
Managing mental load can help reduce stress, improve productivity, and improve work-life balance. Here are some strategies to help manage mental load:
#1 Get in sync with your team or partner
Those taking on the mental load of caring for a team or a household may often resent their partner or colleagues for not sharing the load. So it’s important to communicate regularly and seek support. It’s possible that your partner or your team may not realize the weight that’s on your shoulders.
To reduce the weight on your shoulders, build communication into your routine and check in on what you need and where you’re at. Go through a support checklist with your partner or team each week (or in a regular routine that works best for everyone).
Your checklist might include a few questions, including:
- How are you feeling this week?
- What specific challenges are you facing this week?
- How can I support you this week?
- What is essential this week?
- What can be taken off your plate or delegated?
- What concerns, ideas, or dilemmas are on your mind?
- What personal care activity are you engaging in this week? And how can I help give you time for that?
- How can we improve our communication and support of each other?
As you communicate your needs and seek support from each other, use “I” statements5https://www.pearsonhighered.com/assets/preface/0/2/0/5/0205956262.pdf. For example, instead of saying, “You never help me prepare the presentations for clients,” you could say, “I feel overwhelmed preparing presentations on my own, and I could use some support. Can you be in charge of the research portion?”
#2 Let go of perfection and focus on your strengths
Striving for excellence in everything you do is admirable. However, it can often lead to burnout, especially if you tend to aim for perfection6https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-bul0000138.pdf. Those who pursue perfection often shame themselves for not being “good enough” at everything they do, which can often lead to depression and anxiety.
Here’s the good news. Perfection is not actually attainable. You have permission to let it go, celebrate progress, and even get a little messy along the way! Instead of pursuing perfection, what might it look like for you to focus on your strengths and allow others to step up in other areas?
Try this exercise to explore and focus on your strengths:
- Reflect on the activities and tasks where you feel fully engaged or the most energized. What is it about these activities that you enjoy most? Make a list of those tasks or activities, and pay attention to any common themes.
- Then reflect on what activities drain you the most. What is it about these activities that drain you? Make a list of those activities, and note the common themes.
Pro Tip: Utilize Vanessa Van Edwards’s Alphabet Work method, which helps you identify what tasks play to your strengths and what you can delegate to others!
Chances are, the things that drain you may actually energize someone else! While you may not be able to delegate all draining activities to others, you’ll have a better idea about where you find more enjoyment, and you can begin to let go of your pursuit of perfection in areas that tend to drain you.
Pro Tip: Take a strengths assessment like Gallup’s CliftonStrengths to take a deeper dive into discovering your strengths!
#3 Let go, delegate, and trust
Delegating tasks and trusting others to carry them out is crucial for effective teamwork and reducing your own mental load. But it can also be tough, especially if you struggle with letting go of perfection or control (See #2!). It takes practice to accept that others may not carry out activities exactly like you do. But little by little, as you release your expectations for perfection and empower others to take on responsibilities in their own way, your mental load will get lighter.
Here are some strategies to help you delegate and build trust:
- Clearly define the problem: When delegating responsibility, be clear and specific about the issue and desired outcome. Depending on the task, you don’t necessarily have to give them exact steps to do something. This allows people to step in with solutions and take ownership.
- Let people surprise you: Trust that the person you delegated to has the skills and capabilities to succeed. Let go of the urge to micromanage or take over. Give them the space and let them surprise you!
- Create a mistake bucket: If mistakes or challenges arise, view them as learning growth opportunities. You can even create a “Mistake Bucket” and write down mistakes you’ve made along the way and what you’ve learned from them.
Remember, delegation and trust are developed over time. Building trust involves clear communication, support, and allowing others to demonstrate their abilities.
#4 Create a routine with time-blocking
Establishing regular routines and schedules can help streamline your tasks and make them more manageable. Use the time-blocking method to set specific times for activities, such as work tasks, household chores, and personal time. Time-blocking consists of treating your time like a budget and identifying your capacity and what you may need to say no to.
You can use several free and paid apps to time-block, including Google Calendar or a physical daily planner. To start time-blocking, take these steps:
- List all your priorities and goals related to various areas of your life, including personal, work, family, friends, spiritual, and passion.
- List all activities and tasks needed to accomplish those goals and priorities (don’t forget to include rest and fun!).
- Rank your list by importance (note that importance may change weekly).
- Estimate how much time you need or want to dedicate to each weekly task or activity. For example, you might want to dedicate 30 minutes daily to working out.
- Set a priority “appointment block” for one to two hours every day of the week when you feel most focused or energized.
- Name your priority appointment blocks with the activities or tasks on top of your list.
- Fill in the rest of your week during all your waking hours with the rest of your activities. Include commutes, eating, and breaks. Your time blocks can range from 15 minutes to 1 hour—but aim to keep these blocks focused on one or two specific activities at a time.
By setting dedicated time blocks to focus on your priorities, you can reduce the mental load in other parts of your day and discover when you may be carrying too much and need to let something go.
#5 Break tasks into smaller steps
Research shows that complex tasks can often feel overwhelming, adding to your mental load. Break them down into smaller, more manageable steps, and consider what pieces you can delegate as well. Focusing on completing one step at a time makes the overall workload more achievable. To do this, take these steps:
- Envision success: Envision your completed project. Write down what success looks like, what problem you want to solve, and your project’s purpose.
- Categorize elements: Work backward from your vision and categorize your envisioned success into separate buckets. This might include tools needed, internal and external support, budget, etc.
- Write down each task: Under each category, write down every task that will take up to 20 minutes to complete to reach the category goal.
- Review and prioritize: Review your task lists and determine and prioritize them based on urgency and importance.
- Plot your tasks: Plot your tasks on a calendar within your deadline period. Adjust as needed to account for delays or changes along the way.
Pro Tip: For the best results, break down big projects or goals with a partner or team to help share the weight of the mental load.
Looking for more ways to achieve your goals while reducing your mental load? Check out this helpful resource!
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#6 Prioritize self-care and self-compassion
Research shows7https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/19/19/12523 that when you prioritize self-care activities, you reduce stress and recharge your energy. Engage in activities that promote relaxation, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones. Prioritizing self-care starts with recognizing its importance. When you show up for yourself, you can better care for others.
If priortizing self-care is new to you, try starting small and getting and asking a friend to hold you accountable. A little goes a long way!
- Incorporate small moments of self-care: Self-care doesn’t have to be time-consuming or elaborate. Incorporate small moments of self-care throughout your day. It could be taking short breaks to stretch, practicing deep breathing exercises, or enjoying a few minutes of mindfulness or meditation.
- Seek support: Reach out to friends, family, or support networks for encouragement and accountability in prioritizing self-care. Share your self-care goals with them and ask for their support in holding you accountable.
Prioritizing self-care and self-compassion is an ongoing practice. Be intentional and consistent in incorporating self-care into your routine. By nurturing yourself, you build resilience, enhance well-being, and better manage the mental load in your life.
#7 Automate and streamline tasks with technology
Identify tasks that can be automated or streamlined to reduce mental load. Utilize technology, such as scheduling apps, task management tools, or meal planning apps, to simplify repetitive or time-consuming tasks.
Here are a few programs and apps that may be useful!
- Project management tools: Project management tools, such as Trello or Asana, can be used to track tasks, deadlines, and progress, making it easier to manage projects and stay organized.
- Communication platforms: Communication platforms, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, can streamline communication and collaboration, allowing teams to work together more efficiently.
- Time-tracking and productivity apps: Time-tracking and productivity apps, such as RescueTime or Toggl, can monitor time spent on tasks and identify areas for improvement, allowing individuals to optimize their workflows and improve productivity.
- File sharing and collaboration tools: File sharing and collaboration tools, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, can be used to share files and collaborate on documents, making it easier to work together and streamline workflows
- Inventory management software: Inventory management software, such as QuickBooks or Zoho Inventory, can automate inventory tracking and management, reducing the time and effort required to manage inventory.
- Customer relationship management (CRM) software: CRM software, such as Salesforce or HubSpot, can be used to manage customer data and interactions, making it easier to track leads, sales, and customer service requests.
- Smart home technology: Smart home technology, such as home automation systems, can control appliances, devices, and systems that run the home, making it more efficient and convenient.
- Meal planning apps: Add efficiency to meal planning and grocery shopping with apps like AnyList, Little Lunches, or Mealime.
- Sync household priorities: Utilize apps like Cozi to sync family calendars, grocery lists, meal plans, and more on multiple devices.
- Budget planning apps: Reduce tension and create efficiency around your shared budget with apps like Mint, YNAB, or PocketGuard.
#8 Learn to say “no”
It can be tough to set boundaries and say no sometimes. But it’s okay to prioritize your needs and take a step back when needed. Remember that you deserve to prioritize your well-being, and saying no doesn’t make you a bad person. By communicating your boundaries clearly and kindly, you not only reduce your mental load and care for yourself, but you also permit others to care for themselves.
To learn to say no, it’s first important to understand your priorities and limits, which takes learning self-awareness. Pay attention to your feelings and emotions when requests or demands are made of you. Notice when you start to feel overwhelmed, stressed, or drained. This self-awareness can help you identify when it’s necessary to say no.
For example, if a friend of yours asks you for a favor you are unable to commit to, identify your reaction. Are you overwhelmed or excited to help? Does it overlap with something on your priority list? Clarify your priorities and values to understand what is most important to you. If something falls outside of your priorities, it may be time to say no to it.
It also helps to set boundaries proactively. Rather than waiting for others to infringe on your boundaries, proactively establish and communicate them. Clearly define your limits, expectations, and availability, and make them known to others. This helps set clear expectations from the beginning. For example, you might make it known that Saturday nights are family nights so your friends understand what your priorities are.
While boundaries are important for preventing overwhelm, sometimes it can feel awkward. Let people know you have their best interest at heart as well, and consider offering alternatives or compromises when you cannot help. This can help maintain positive relationships while respecting your limits.
Setting boundaries and saying no is a skill that develops with practice and self-awareness. By prioritizing your well-being and establishing clear boundaries, you can create healthier relationships, reduce stress, and manage your mental load more effectively.
#9 Practice mindfulness
Cultivate mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, to help calm your mind and reduce mental clutter. This can enhance your focus and enable you to better manage your mental load.
Here are some tips to help you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life:
- Start with your breath: Begin by focusing on your breath. Take a few deep breaths, paying attention to the sensation of the air entering and leaving your body. Use your breath as an anchor to bring your attention to the present moment.
- Engage your senses: Take moments throughout the day to engage your senses fully. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures around you. Engaging your senses helps bring your awareness into the present moment.
- Practice mindful eating: Slow down and fully experience your meals. Pay attention to the flavors, textures, and sensations as you eat. Chew slowly and savor each bite.
- Cultivate non-judgmental awareness: Practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment. Instead of labeling experiences as good or bad, simply acknowledge them as they are, allowing them to come and go without attachment or aversion.
- Use guided mindfulness meditation: Utilize guided mindfulness meditation practices with apps like Calm or Headspace to support your mindfulness journey.
- Create reminders: Set reminders or cues throughout your day to bring you back to the present moment. This could be a chime on your phone, a sticky note on your desk, or associating mindfulness with specific activities such as brushing your teeth or waiting for the elevator.
Remember, mindfulness is about cultivating a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Integrating these tips into your daily life can gradually enhance your mindfulness practice and experience its benefits.
#10 Regularly reassess and adjust
Periodically evaluate your responsibilities, commitments, and tasks. Assess whether any adjustments or changes can be made to distribute the mental load more evenly or eliminate unnecessary burdens. For greater results, go over your assessment with your partner or team to support you as you seek to balance your mental load.
- Schedule time to assess: Set aside dedicated time for reflection and self-assessment. This could be a weekly, monthly, or quarterly practice. During this time, evaluate your current practices, routines, and strategies to identify what is working well and what needs adjustment.
- Clarify your goals and priorities: Revisit your goals and priorities to ensure they align with your current aspirations and circumstances. Clarify what matters most to you and use it as a guide to evaluate the effectiveness of your practices.
- Seek feedback: Reach out to trusted individuals, such as mentors, colleagues, or friends, and ask for their feedback. Their perspective can provide valuable insights and help you identify blind spots or areas for improvement.
- Embrace a growth mindset: Approach reassessment and adjustment with a growth mindset. View it as an opportunity for learning, growth, and refinement. Embrace the mindset that there is always room for improvement and adjustments are a natural part of the process.
- Start small and iterate: Begin by making small adjustments rather than completely overhauling your practices. Implement changes gradually and observe the impact. Continuously iterate and refine your approach based on your observed feedback and outcomes.
Remember, managing mental load is an ongoing process. It requires self-awareness, effective communication, and a willingness to seek support when needed. By implementing these strategies, you can alleviate the burden and create a healthier balance in your life.
The 3 Modes of Mental Load
Research has found there are several types of mental load8https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-010-9128-5 that we experience on a daily basis, including intrinsic load, extraneous load, and germane load.
Intrinsic load is the inherent complexity of the task at hand. This type of load is determined by the amount of information that needs to be processed and the task’s difficulty level. For example, if you’re helping your child with their calculus homework, you may have to devote considerable mental effort toward understanding the complex topics to support them.
Extraneous load refers to the unnecessary cognitive effort required to complete a task due to poor design or external distractions. For example, you might be trying to cook a new recipe while also trying to entertain guests and simultaneously respond to multiple text messages. The additional demands on your attention increase the extraneous load of cooking the new recipe.
Germane load is the cognitive effort required to understand and learn new information. This mode is essential for learning and problem-solving. For example, you may try out a new hobby requiring learning new skills. By challenging yourself to master something new, you can improve your cognitive abilities.
Mental Load Key Takeaways
In summary, take note of these helpful tips to reduce your mental load and improve your well-being!
- Schedule a weekly support check-in. Connect with others on where you’re at and how you can share the mental load of your responsibilities.
- Let go of perfection and focus on your strengths. Focus on what you do best.
- Let go, delegate, and trust. Give up any need for control and empower others.
- Create a routine with time-blocking. Clarify boundaries in your calendar.
- Break tasks into smaller steps. Reduce overwhelm with smaller goals.
- Prioritize self-care and self-compassion. Make time for yourself.
- Automate and streamline tasks with technology. Make better use of your brain power.
- Learn to say “no.” Set boundaries to free yourself up for your priorities.
- Practice mindfulness. Declutter your mind to improve resilience.
- Regularly reassess and adjust. Evaluate what’s working and what’s not.
For more tips on how to improve your mental toughness, check out our article Mental Strength: 7 Tips to Develop Rock-Solid Discipline.
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