Cognitive limitation: when the devil is in the lack of details

Everything has been done by the book. You arrived at your feedback point with an open mind, your manager was very professional. You leave with a smile on your face, and you are ready to tackle your area for improvement: making your written communication more punchy. There's nothing complicated about that goal... and yet, when it comes to getting started, it seems rather difficult. It's a bit like arriving in Nepal to climb Mount Everest, and all they've done is point at you and say, "That's the highest, you can't miss it. "You're fully motivated to go there, and indeed, the goal is visible. The problem is that you're missing a lot of information and tools... and the result is that Everest will be waiting.

What's going on in your head: Cognitive limitation

Our brain is an amazing machine, but like any machine, its capacities are limited: we are only able to process a certain amount of information at a time. Professor Miller, from Harvard, estimates that this number is 7, more or less 2. Faced with too many possible choices, especially when these choices are complex and seem to require a lot of effort, our brain does not know which decision to make, and blocks our passage to action. Faced with Everest, what equipment to take, what food to eat, when to leave, in what direction? Just looking at the mountain, you already feel tired - and yet, you don't even lack oxygen. In short, you are incapable of coming up with a plan, let alone putting it into action.

In the face of your feedback, the situation is exactly the same. It's not that the goal of "making my written communication more impactful" is difficult in itself: it's that it is ambiguous and complex. Ambiguous, because you don't know whether your manager was talking mainly about e-mails, presentations, files or reports. Complex, because as is often the case with soft skills, it is difficult to know when you will have reached a sufficient level: it is like being asked to climb Everest, except that you don't see the summit, and you don't know how high it is. As a result, the effort required to apply this feedback is growing at a rapid rate: the best way to avoid this effort is simply to do nothing.

Nudges to the rescue: the chunkingmethod

Fortunately, working on your written communication is (a priori) easier than climbing Everest: no need to be in extraordinary physical condition to overcome it! All you need to do is apply the right nudge, that is to say the little nudge that will help you take action. This is chunking.

The chunking method, which Rory Gallagher and Owain Service (the authors of Think Small) tell us about, simply consists of dividing a goal into subtasks, as small and numerous as necessary, until each piece becomes accessible. If you ever feel like climbing Everest, you won't do it from a boulder: the climb is broken down into stages. And before you even set foot in the snow, you'll have a very precise list of the type of equipment to buy and the training to do.

This simultaneously reduces ambiguity and complexity: you now face precise and accessible actions.

Try to apply this method: Break your goal into subtasks

Why? Soft skills are actually a set of behaviours to be adopted and refined on an ongoing basis. Listing these behaviours, or actions, gives concrete form to the stages of your progress. Not only do you know what to do, but you also prepare concrete examples to present to your manager as proof of your progress.

How? List your types of written communication: e-mail, presentation, file, report. Prioritize only one, for example e-mails: this will be your focus of the month. Finally, list your weekly actions: this week, pay attention to the title of your e-mails; next week, use formatting to structure your e-mails...

Little by little, you will work concretely on parts of your written communication. You will progress, at your own pace but in a continuous way... in short, you will advance, slowly but surely, towards your Everest!

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