“Cognitive load” is a 30-plus-year-old theory from instructional design that says people have trouble performing tasks and learning new things if they are trying to process too much information at once. For example, in a 2013 study, college students who multitasked on laptops during class (and students who sat next to them) had lower GPAs. A 2009 review of information overload research suggested that too much information can actually be harmful to performance. Employees with a high cognitive load could be less productive in the workplace. Research from the University of North Carolina published in 2010 found that workers who felt overloaded with digital communications were less productive, and this decrease was especially strong for workers who depended on technology. We were likely already losing productivity to cognitive load before this rapid digital transformation, and this problem could be getting worse.

While the cognitive load theory is well documented, methods for measuring cognitive load are still in their infancy. In order to tackle overwhelm in the digital era, we need a reliable way to understand when people reach their mental limits. At Cultivate, we have developed an algorithm that takes into account various digital behaviors and calculates a cognitive load score on a weekly basis. We share this information with users along with the main drivers of their current score and we allow them to give feedback, which helps us to customize each cognitive load calculation to the individual.

For our first iteration, we are using broad heuristics to get a general idea of how much mental effort users are exerting each week. We look at over 70 different signals as inputs into our algorithm.  Some example inputs such as:

Since cognitive overwhelm is very dependent on the individual, we calibrate our score by observing deviances from the norm for each user. That way someone who spends all day in meetings may see a higher cognitive load score if they send more emails than usual in a week, while someone who usually works more independently may see an increased score based on an elevated number of meetings.

Our Cognitive Load score is currently in Beta as we continue to refine our calculation based on both user feedback and cutting-edge research in the field. As we learn more about this burgeoning field, we intend to continuously improve our metrics to provide people insights into their own working habits, which cannot be found anywhere else, to empower employees to be more effective, engaged, and balanced at work.

Rachel Habbert, PhD
Rachel Habbert, PhD

Rachel is the Senior People Scientist at Cultivate. As a psychologist, she’s always been interested in people: how we think, grow, evolve, and interact. She is excited to help Cultivate users interpret their behaviors through a scientific, research-based lens.