Experiment No. 28: Mental Load "Swear Jars"

Blog Post
Feb. 15, 2021

The Basics

Target Audience: Partners, spouses, older children
Ages: 13 and up
Category: Mental load
Estimated Time: 15-20 minutes per day
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

I almost need a way to assign dollar amounts to these [household tasks]... I need a way to show value as well as completion.
- Janet, BLLx beta tester

The mental load is all of the thinking, planning, and organizing work of keeping a family and home running. This constant mental work builds stressors that can have damaging effects on our health. This labor is often done internally, through mental rumination, and therefore can be very difficult to see.

We want to help make this invisible labor visible to others in your home. Seeing this labor is the first step toward sharing it fairly. Research suggests that visual cues in your environment help trigger habit formation. The purpose of this experiment is to provide a visualization of the mental load so that household members can understand how much each person is carrying during the day.

The mental load can drain energy and productivity and takes time away from other types of planning, including for career advancement. It’s a cost that should be shared. To show that mental labor has real financial value, try using real money—dollars and cents—to represent your mental load. Here’s a step-by-step guide for raising awareness of the existence and value of the mental load in your own home!


  1. Find any sort of jar to store money. This will be your Mental Load Swear Jar. (If it helps with buy-in for this, generating enthusiasm, or including a younger member of the household in the process, perhaps assign someone to decorate the Mental Load Swear Jar.)
  2. Get together with your partner or family members to talk about what the mental load is (if you don’t know where to begin, the Emma comic may be a good entry point to the conversation), and why it should be seen, valued, and shared by all.
  3. Together, assign someone to gather the money that will represent the mental load. Distribute 10 one dollar bills and 20 of each: quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies to each partner to be used to quantify each person’s mental loads. Don’t worry if you don’t have these exact amounts. Just distribute an equal amount of dollars and coins, of varying amounts, to each household member who’s taking part in the experiment. Make sure you use money with different values to capture more and less intense mental loads.
  4. As a group, designate a set time per day during which everyone comes together to share their mental loads. Encourage everyone to jot down notes throughout the day about the mental labor they’re doing, if they have trouble remembering. (What was the mental load you carried all about? Did it interrupt other work? Did the mental load become more stressful, and if so, why?) At these meetings, each participant shares the thoughts they had during the day that capture their mental loads. For each episode or category of the mental load, partners need to allocate a value ranging from 1 cent to 1 dollar that represents the stress associated with this experience and place that money into the Mental Load Jar. More stressful components of the mental loads carry more value than less stressful moments.
  5. Now, keep it up and watch as the money moves from your pockets into the jar. The experiment is finished when one partner has allocated all of their money and has nothing left to give. Partners should note and discuss who runs out of money first and whose mental loads are more taxing.
  6. Based on what you learned about everyone’s mental loads through this process, discuss how to re-allocate some of this work, so it’s shared more evenly. For ideas on how to do that, check out Experiment No. 15 The Handoff. Once you’ve made some changes, try the experiment again to see what changed. Assess whether the mental load is lighter for the person who was carrying the most weight and if it feels fairer to everyone.

Connect With the Better Life Lab

Are you going to try this week’s experiment? Do you have a story about how you and your own family solved a problem with the work at home? Is there a specific challenge you’ve been trying to tackle? Can this experiment be improved? Please let us know via this form, at bllx@newamerica.org, or in our Facebook group for BLLx Beta Testers.

Be sure to also sign up for our biweekly newsletter!

This experiment was guest written by a team of researchers who study gender, work, and social inequalities at the University of Melbourne:

Liz Dean is a Lecturer (Teaching Specialist) and Director of the Undergraduate and Honours program in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Science at The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include gender, feminism, and social inequalities.

Leah Ruppanner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne. Her recent book, Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment (2020), shows how childcare and gender policies vary across US states and their relationship to mothers’ employment.

Brendan Churchill is a Research Fellow in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Related Topics
Gender Equity