High- vs. low-cognitive load work, environments, and mental fatigue

Some tasks simply require more cognitive load than others. Certain work environments are conducive to low-cognitive load (LCL) work while it would be foolish to attempt high-cognitive load (HCL) work in these environments. Further, one’s mental state and energy level (e.g., Staal, 2004) also matter. I am a person who best performs HCL work in complete silence, but might be more productive doing LCL work with music or a podcast playing. However, one’s energy level also matters. Pulling an all-nighter to complete an essay requiring HCL is generally a bad strategy, for instance.

High levels of mental fatigue increase the probability of errors and reduce efficiency when doing HCL work (Meijman, 1997). Lengthy work shifts with HCL work should be interrupted with frequent, short breaks (Boucsein & Thum, 1997). In fact, several short breaks are probably superior to one long break.

Applying this to the typical office worker’s workday and work-week, it becomes clear that HCL work should be scheduled early in the day, and perhaps, additionally, early in the week. For most people, this is when more cognitive load capacity is available. On the other hand, afternoons and Fridays should be geared toward LCL work because this is when many people are more fatigued, but, fortunately, LCL work is resilient toward mental fatigue.

For academics, this may also mean that office hours should be scheduled in the afternoons and, if possible, later in the week. Because there are many interruptions from students, phone calls, et cetera during office hours, one is not going to be getting much HCL work done anyway, but most student visits are LCL rather than HCL.

Further, this conceptual framework lends credence to the idea that email is a massive waste of time and probably shouldn’t even be looked at until late in the day (or, if you can get away with it, Friday afternoon). It also repudiates open-door office policies, at least with respect to getting any HCL work done.

We are at the stage where one’s physical environment is finally being recognized as important to cognitive load theory (Choi, van Merriënboer, & Paas, 2014). Beyond the cognitive load of the task at hand, one should think both about how one’s physical environment is organized and one’s level of mental fatigue. In fact, this should partly guide one’s schedule. For example, many people find that an early-morning workout leads to a more productive workday.

The consequences of one’s physical environment being important toward productivity are numerous and far-reaching. In fact, taking steps in advance to minimize distractions and temptations in one’s work environment is a piece of this puzzle. For instance, workers may be more productive if are militant about disabling or blocking smartphone notifications and installing browser add-ons such as Facebook News Feed Eradicator to impede viewing the Facebook news feed. More extreme solutions might be to physically sequester one’s smartphone and physically disconnect from the Internet for HCL work, in addition to doing this work with one’s door closed, early in the morning before the kids wake up, or late in the night for nightowls.

A full appreciation of cognitive load requires us to recognize the stark finiteness of our mental energy, and to appropriately limit our expectations and orient our lives toward what is most important. Being efficient at LCL tasks does not make one a leader nor innovator. HCL work is key, and it is facilitated by a streamlined work environment with respect for mental energy and cyclical rhythms. If I want to encourage myself to play piano, I don’t do this by leaving the piano lid closed or placing the piano bench on the opposite side of the room.

When I criticized University of Central Florida’s College of Education and Human Performance for not allowing student nor instructor PCs to display labels nor ungroup items on the Windows 10 taskbar (in June 2017 on my blog and again in September 2017 on Twitter), it was with an appreciation that if you want students and faculty to work better and get more done, you don’t force Microsoft’s stupid default taskbar window management settings on them. When doing HCL work, having your taskbar icons identified only by the programs’ icons—and grouped together so that one must hover and then choose the correct window—is inarguably an unwise imposition.

One might posit that some sort of invisible hand of market competitiveness might drive institutions and organizations toward providing workplace and learning environments conducive to HCL work. Neither in the “free” market nor the contrived worlds of academia, churches, NGOs, or governments do I see evidence of this. I suppose it might be true for small, hypercompetitive startup companies, but firms with a modicum of largess are inclined toward systemic dysfunction. For the gainfully employed, optimizing one’s schedule and work environment for HCL is, regretfully, frequently an exercise in futility.

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