stress, travel, and breakfast

This could be the title of my memoirs – “Stress, Travel, and Breakfast.”

Not the final title mind you, but the working title until I think of something cooler. This particular post is about how a breakfast of Kellogg’s Special K cereal helped ease The Crazy a bit while traveling.

The term “cognitive load” ( CL ) comes up in my field, when I’m designing screens/interfaces/flows through different online presences. CL is that amount of mental processing an experience sort of “puts” on you, the hoops it requires of you to figure it out and proceed forward.

Vegging on the couch watching “The Voice” is pretty low cognitive load, while defusing a nuclear bomb in a deep-dive suit while colorblind is a high cognitive load.


Remember “The Abyss”? I loved that movie.


For me lately, traveling seems to be somewhere in the middle of these two examples.

Ambient stress

While there is something liberating about giving up most of your stuff and wandering the earth for a year…   there are sometimes day-to-day pressures adding to the cognitive load of living like this.

In addition to the press of people, not knowing the language, subtle differences in everything from road design to cafe customs, to being on somewhat of a schedule in the smaller hops from place to place, this all stacks; there’s a bit of cognitive load here. And lots of times it’s ambient, in the background and definitely affecting you, but not too obvious.

I’m a grown man with lots of varying experience in stress, but even with a full night’s sleep some of the days lately have been a little bit stressful, with all these above elements sort of piling on. A fairly high ambient cognitive load, leading to stress.

This has interesting effects. If the CL and accompanying stress is high enough, I forget how to act in basic situations, and use normal tools. Tollbooths and spoons come to mind. You get much dumber, in the moment.


WTF is this?


In situations and experiences I design in my work, a user can always opt out of something if my design is imposing too much cognitive load. If I’m designing search interfaces, the short conversation after too much CL might be “Screw this; I’m using Google.” Wandering around Paris, it’s not easy to just opt out.

Well, I guess I could just stop what I’m doing, pull up a chair at any one of an endless number of cafes, and have a drink. At 10am.

Why not? I’m on walkabout.


Or…  I could take steps to reduce my CL, and up the things that make me calm. This is where Special K comes in.

While shopping for the daily food ( as one does, in France ) I came across a ridiculously inexpensive box of cereal that hadn’t entered into my conscious thought since childhood: Kellogg’s Special K. yes, the boring flakes you got when you really wanted the Tony the Tiger stuff. My mom bought Special K until I was, like, in high school.

I remember not liking Special K. I remember pining for Frosted Flakes. They’re Grrrrrrrrrrreat! after all. All these years for breakfast, I’ve never looked back.

But there in that store, that little voice I sometimes have in the back of my head said “Grab this,” so grab it I did. My little voice often makes sense. Or this may have been Kim. She also makes sense, much of the time.

And of course I loved the cereal.

It brought back memories of my childhood and my mom, or simple carefree times, and it was a much more powerful stress-reducer than you’d think. The combo of all those pleasant tone-setting thoughts and feelings in the morning before the day started really helped.

In conclusion

Stress can really be expressed as a kind of equation, I guess. Stress on the right side of the equals sign, part of it coming from some amount of cognitive load. You can lower stress ( the number on the right ) by reducing CL ( on the left ), but you can also add de-stressors at key points, kind of like negative values on the left. This works just as well, as getting rid of the stressors, the things that add CL, or just getting better at handing the stressors.

Not good with word-equations?

Find something that reminds you of good times in your childhood, and bring that back into your life somehow.



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