Mental Workload Of Hoovering

11 Jan 2020

Fran, my wife, one day told me off for not doing the hoovering. An argument ensued - at the time, I felt I was in fact doing most of the hoovering. However, once we talked about it in more depth, she made the point that I only do hoovering on demand.

The task of “monitoring” for when there is a trigger event for a household task creates some workload.

Thinking about why, there are a number of things it’s easy to fall into naturally that increase the mental workload of hoovering:

Trigger-based hoovering

If you don’t have a regular cadence to it in your subconscious, then you need to manually remember to think about it.

Friction in the ‘getting going’ process

We don’t have a set place for our hoover - our house just doesn’t seem to have a suitable nook yet. Our house is also three floors. We could minimise this friction by keeping it in the same place to prevent the dash around the house each time.

Application to work

I think this explains why when you’re a manager you can feel stressed and busy despite not actually producing any output directly, and it’s useful to realise that this matters.

The tasks to complete that involve the greatest mental workload and feeling of “energy” to me are those that appear inconsistently. Setting a good communication cadence can control this context switching and the sense of needing to check in. The challenge as a manager is that you may end up bottlenecking multiple other people if you do not do work on demand, which can create further inefficiency. Intelligent task batching is key.

Cognitive workload

A commonly accepted way to define mental workload is as the product of factors that contribute to one’s workload efficiency for a given taskload.

There have been many attempts to track mental workload - alpha band power is used to classify workload using electroencephalography. For pilots, for example, increased alpha activity in their brains has been observed as decreasing during take-off and landing phases. Alpha activity itself is the neural oscillations that come from the electrical activity of thalamic cells. The thalamus is generally thought of as a relay station to relay info between many areas of your brain. For example, inputs from your retina are sent to the thalamus, which sends them to the visual cortex, which is located in an area of your brain called the occipital lobe, hence why measuring how much stuff is going on here is a reasonable proxy for how hard you’re working.

Skin conductance is used as an indirect measure. Skin resistance varies with the state of sweat glands - when the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is aroused, then sweat gland activity increases - even when you are cold. Likewise, heart rate is used similarly.

In fact, many of these measures are combined with subjective questioning too.

Mental workload as a wearable

However, there remains a need for a good way to measure this as an everyday wearable, which would be pretty cool as something to track on your phone - definitely a step up from just exercise. Skin conductance is no good as you’re walking about, so the signal-noise ratio would make it meaningless. Alas, alpha activity measurement headsets look pretty ungainly, at the moment.

Applications of this would be very cool - there is so much great stuff that helps you improve sleep quality, but there’s nothing that helps you optimise what you do at your desk, or in your daily life trying to keep on top of the hoovering.