Mental Benchmarking

One thing that seems overlooked by most people who discuss productive work habits is the varying mental capacity for performing different types of work. While it’s well known that alcohol and other substances decrease mental ability and it’s slightly less well known that sleep deprivation has a similar affect to being drunk [1], the reference cites the case of medical residents – the effects of sleep deprivation can affect people with medical training who presumably are better qualified to recognise and mitigate such problems than most people.

Previously I wrote about increasing efficiency through less work [2], which was mainly based on the total number of hours worked in a week – with some mention of extreme fatigue.

However it seems obvious that things aren’t that simple. The ability to perform work can be reduced due to temporary issues, poor sleep the previous night (not the same as sleep deprivation but enough to decrease performance), general health (I find that having a cold really reduces the quality and quantity of my work), and physical state (skipping a meal due to being busy can lead to lower quality work).

For the work I do (system programming and system/network administration) there are a range of tasks that I need to perform, which require different levels of skill. Now when I have several tasks that need to be done it makes sense to do the most demanding task that I can do well. The problem is in assessing my own ability to perform such tasks, while I can have a general idea of how alert I feel, it seems likely that self assessment by subjective criteria will decrease in accuracy at least as fast as my ability to perform the work in question.

So having an ability to assess my mental capacity at any time seems useful in determining when to work on the hard tasks, when to work on easy tasks, and when to just give up and go to bed! ;)

Fortunately I have found a benchmark that seems to give reasonable results. I have found that I can reliably solve the game Codebreaker (based on the board game Mastermind [3]) on the Familiar distribution of Linux running on my iPaQ in under 30 seconds when I’m fully alert. So far my tests have indicated that when I seem less alert (due to finding tasks difficult which should be easy or making mistakes) the amount of time taken to complete the game increases (my worst day was when I couldn’t complete it in under a minute).

It seems likely that someone who is doing intellectual work could take one day off work a week without a great decrease in productivity if it was their least productive day. If there was a factor of three difference in productivity between the best and worst days then skipping the worst day might decrease productivity by 10% if the 8 hours in question were used doing something as demanding as working. If what might have been the least productive day had been spent relaxing followed by going to sleep earlier than usual then it doesn’t seem impossible for productivity to be increased enough on the next day to provide a net benefit.

One thing I plan to do from now on is to use Codebreaker to help me determine when I should cease work in the evening. If I take more than a minute to complete it (or have difficulty in solving it) then it’s probably best to finish work for the day.

2 comments to Mental Benchmarking

  • That’s a really interesting idea. Sort of like a breathalyzer for your brain. “You must be THIS smart to login to the router”

  • The variety of your blog posts is really amazing, but everytime I think you’re actually posting useful things. I’m installing codebreaker right now and I’m gonna try to benchmark myself a few times a day (I tend to skip meals, go to bed late).