Make Everything Easier: Get More Mental Bandwidth
Have you ever felt like you were in over your head? Maybe your schedule was packed and you didn't have time to think. Or maybe it wasn't packed, but you weren't making enough money like me, so you just couldn't seem to keep things together. If you've ever been through a breakup, you probably noticed how much more difficult simple tasks seemed.
That is what it feels like to have low mental bandwidth: everything is hard and you're just not quite yourself.
Now imagine those times when you were on top of everything. Sleep was on track, workouts were happening, food was dialed in, you were making good money, and even though you were technically booked from sunrise until sunset, your days felt leisurely and there was always enough time.
That's what it feels like to have high bandwidth, and helping you live in that zone is the topic of today's post.
Cognitive bandwidth is how scientists refer to the brain's ability to use cognitive resources effectively. It is a combination of two things:
- Cognitive capacity (problem solving)
- Executive function (attention, planning and judgement)
When you have low bandwidth, it's harder to solve problems, your attention and ability to focus go out the window, you can't plan your time and your ability to make good judgements drops. You basically become dumber.
I first came across this concept while reading the book I mentioned, Scarcity, which shared research about how poverty affects the brain. The authors found that scarcity caused people to experience a drop in IQ of about 13 points, which is the difference between normally functioning adults and chronic alcoholics. For an overview of the research, check out this article.
The reason was simple: when humans experience scarcity of any form, they become preoccupied with it. This distraction robs them of attention and other mental resources every single second of the day. It is like living with a mosquito in your ear constantly buzzing, "Your bank account is getting smaller."
Their point: being poor brings not just material challenges, but also sabotages the mental abilities we need to get out of the situation.
Chronic stress or anything that distracts you will result in reduced bandwidth, whether it's a train running past your window every hour or a constant sense of fatigue.
The problem is that once your bandwidth drops, you are much more likely to drop the ball, which will only make the situation worse, which will lead to reduced bandwidth, more bad decisions, and a vicious cycle until you get a break or a breakdown.
On the other hand, having high bandwidth enables you to be amazingly effective because you get to make full use of your brain's most powerful and adaptive resources. You can keep ahead of the game so even in high demand situations, you never get overwhelmed mentally or emotionally.
Bandwidth is basically the holy grail of personal effectiveness.
How can you make sure you have the most bandwidth available at any given time?
Since drops in bandwidth are the result of distraction, the solution is to enable yourself to focus, either by changing your environment or calming your mind.
This list is a combination of recommendations made by the authors of the book, my own experimentation, and some internet research on the topic. Basically, anything that helps you feel present, calm, and effective is a good candidate:
- Unload your mental burdens. If the main problems you're facing are overcommitments or overwork, write off some tasks or commitments. Make use of organizational tools that take over for working memory: calendar reminders, daily planners, etc.
- Get help with chores. Hire someone else to do them for you. Use grocery delivery services or cleaning services. The peace of mind and increased cognitive capacity usually makes up for the cost (sometimes literally, as in my case).
- Take care of minor distractions instead of letting them sit.
- Take care of your health. Exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep.
- Aerobic exercise. As much as I advocate strength and movement-based training over repetitive aerobic exercise, running, walking, and biking seem much more effective for increasing mental bandwidth than strength training. The usual recommendation is 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day.
- Meditate. It works. It helps you quiet the constant chatter stirred up by distraction which is the root cause of low bandwidth.
- Take frequent breaks. This is also an essential element of effective learning. It gives your brain the chance to unwind, indulge in diffuse, rather than focused, thinking to make new connections, and refresh. I use the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of total rest.
- Act as if you weren't experiencing scarcity...as long as doing so doesn't make things worse. In my case, I had been putting off a haircut, which seems trivial, but it had taken on a ton of importance as something I'd do when I had more money. It was only $25 and it got me out of my spiral of scarcity. If you're super busy and have been putting off recreation or relationships, just take 30 minutes to play or call someone. This reminds your brain that your situation may just be in your head, not real.
- Revitalizing habits. A tea or coffee ritual. Listening to or playing music. Playing games (not addictive time-killers like most mobile games, but engaging games. I'll let you be the judge of what that means to you ;-).
If you know you have certain activities that help you be more mindful or present, or simply feel good, try them and see what works.
The problem with scarcity and the low bandwidth it creates is that we tend to focus on it, believing that anything else is a waste of time when in fact, taking time, energy, and money for some of these bandwidth enhancers is exactly what we need to make a real change for the better.
Try one or two of the activities above for a week, or make up your own, and see if you don't feel more capable. If you have some things that help you, please share. Your idea could turn someone's whole month around.
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