A few years ago in the middle of a technical interview, I experienced a mental “blink”. I stared at the whiteboard but couldn’t think; it felt like my neurons were frozen in their tracks. Like a computer that couldn’t spare processor cycles to run an application, I couldn’t spare enough “mind,” to solve the problem.
Try multiplying two two-digit numbers in your head while playing basketball. Or try listening to a physics podcast while grocery shopping. You most likely can’t do both, not because you aren’t trying hard enough, but because you can’t.
The failure to multitask and the failure to perform computations in stressful situations have the same cause. Making computations, staying attentive, and controlling your impulses require a resource commonly referred to as mental bandwidth. This resource is limited.
Mental bandwidth describes your cognitive capacity and executive function. It also describes your ability to exert mental effort. (Through my reading and research, I found that various sources have similar, but incongruent terms and definitions. I used the terms and definitions that made the most sense to me.)
I’ll explain how bandwidth affects our behaviors and choices and how I’ve faced low bandwidth at work as a manager. I’ll also include some strategies I’ve used to curb the effects of low bandwidth.
Bandwidth and Choices
Thinking Fast and Slow describes an experiment with two sets of subjects. One set was asked to remember a 2-digit number and the other set was asked to remember a 7-digit number. The subjects were seated in a waiting room with a bowl of fruit and slices of cake. They were told that they could eat whatever snacks were available while waiting.
The individuals who had to remember the 7-digit number chose the cake 50 percent more often.
Two disparate tasks — memorizing a number and choosing a snack — were bound together by the scarcity of bandwidth. It’s reminiscent of my college days, where I ate Cocoa Puffs while cramming for exams.
We assume we have full agency over our choices; that they are the carefully constructed results of our experience and deliberation. But that assumption is incomplete because it does not factor in the impact that our state of mind has on the choices that we make. It requires bandwidth to override our built-in cognitive biases and engage in rational thinking.
As managers, the outcomes that we deliver are the results of our choices. And when we run out of bandwidth, our unconscious impulses drive our choices. So how do we protect our decision-making capabilities during times of low bandwidth?
We should recognize bandwidth as one of our most valuable resources, and protect it, but we should also aim to make thoughtful decisions in its absence.
Protect Your Bandwidth
Know Your Build
It’s worth understanding your build, ie, the features and quirks of the machine that is “you.”
Learn about yourself by paying attention. What gives you energy, and what depletes it?
I am an introvert and tend to get over-stimulated; a portion of my bandwidth is spent observing, analyzing, and reacting to everything around me. This over-stimulation can make meetings challenging, especially if my role in the meeting is not obvious.
I worked with my team to tweak our meetings so I could increase my contribution. Like a broken record, I would remind my colleagues to set a clear agenda on meeting invites, with a well-defined goal and relevant documents. I would read meeting materials diligently and take notes. During meetings, even with a portion of my bandwidth tied up, I had my notes in front of me to remind me why I was there, and what I wanted to learn.
When I’m the meeting owner, I always project a slide deck or memo. I do this not just to help my team follow along, but to help myself follow along.
Prepare Your Environment
Before engaging in a high bandwidth activity, design your environment to support you.
Writing is a developing skill for me; I need a lot of bandwidth to do it. Before I sit down to write, I prepare my environment. I let my partner know I’ll be unavailable for a few hours, I reduce outside noise with noise-canceling headphones, and I follow the Pomodoro focus technique. I also place a bowl of fruit nearby so I don’t reach for slices of cake.
Find time to pause at work. Create a cool-down routine and practice it.
I use an Apple Watch application called Breathe, which guides me through one minute of focused breathing. It’s a quick, effective way to clear your mind and recover bandwidth.
Some situations call for a longer pause — like a vacation-pause. Pay attention to your body and look for signs of burnout. Honor what they are trying to convey. It is better for you and your team if you take time off and return with a clear mind than if you attempt to power through your burnout. Bandwidth is a necessary ingredient for effective decision-making, so take time off to replenish it.
Cultivate awareness to help you identify when you need to pause.
A breakpoint is a feature of all software debuggers. When trying to find the root cause of a bug, you can set a breakpoint on the suspect line of code. When the line of code is triggered, the program halts. You can then explore and analyze the program state to identify the source of the bug.
By cultivating awareness, you’re allowing yourself to set breakpoints in your mental software. You’ll be able to slow down time, analyze, and re-evaluate. You’ll be able to sense when you’re stressed out, and you’ll be able to sense when you’re about to be stressed out. The moments between about to be and being make all the difference. In those moments, you can choose to pause. Pausing and recovering mental bandwidth could improve the outcomes for yourself and your team.
Mindfulness meditation can supercharge your awareness. You observe your breath, and when your mind wanders, you observe it wandering. When you get angry, you observe the anger. When you get bored, you observe the boredom. And when you get angry at how bored you’re getting, you observe that.
The practice is difficult and frustrating, but just like reps on push-ups make your arms stronger, getting reps on awareness will make your breakpoint instincts stronger.
If you can’t spare 20 minutes a day for meditation, there are other ways to stay mindful. You can bring awareness to the bottoms of your feet while you’re walking (it really works!), or bring awareness to your breath whenever you can. You can also mentally take note of the sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes of activities you’re engaged in. These tactics ground your awareness in the present.
Create guardrails to shield your choices during times of low bandwidth.
Prioritize Your Task List
Keep your task list short and fresh.
When you’re low on bandwidth, your ability to make decisions becomes encumbered. An unsorted, stale, and long task list will add to your burden.
Regularly close and deprioritize tasks on your task list. Create vivid priority labels so high-priority tasks grab your attention.
If your bandwidth is depleted and you’re unable to work on important tasks, consider resting. Resting and recovering your bandwidth could be your most important task.
Create habits to help guide your impulses during times of low bandwidth.
Meditation and exercise were the first activities to get deprioritized during my stressful periods. Though they helped me attain optimal performance at work, the stress of my responsibilities prevented me from seeing past my immediate deadlines. I felt like I needed to make a choice between wellness and work, and I always chose work.
Habits are silver bullets in times of low bandwidth. They mitigate the burden of choice and have the power to direct our impulses.
I used a habit-tracking app to elevate meditation and exercise to habits, and they soon became a part of my morning routine. Now, I rarely miss them.
Place Visual Cues
Use your environment to help keep you on track when you’re low on bandwidth.
I stick post-its on my monitor to remind myself of priorities for the week. I place garbage bags by my apartment door so I remember to take them out while I’m racing out. I wrote “impermanence,” on the inside of my wrist after a meditation retreat to remind myself to relax. Every time my wrist flipped, I’d remember to breathe.
There is no downside to over-reminding yourself to do what is most important. Once you develop habits, you can always wind down the reminders.
Write Things Down
If you have ideas marinating in your mind from back-to-back meetings, it will be hard to remember an employee’s vacation request.
Take notes and add tasks to your personal task list. That way, low bandwidth or not, nothing is lost.
It helps when the people you’re working with and the people you’re living with know the state of your bandwidth.
Telling your team that you’re low on bandwidth is not making an excuse. It creates an opportunity for productive collaboration despite your low bandwidth.
Last year, the stress of wedding planning encroached on my available bandwidth. When I told my team, they provided empathy and support that helped me stay productive. They accommodated my schedule and my alone time, where I would disappear into a phone booth to focus in an undisturbed setting. They saw less of me, but the additional focus allowed me to stay on top of my tasks and help the team.
Bandwidth is crucial when navigating difficult conversations because it helps you react rationally instead of emotionally. My partner and I have a term for being low on bandwidth. We say, “my jug is full.” When I tell my partner that my jug is full, I’m signaling my lack of bandwidth to engage in a serious discussion or perform a difficult task. It has helped us avoid countless arguments.
Bandwidth is your most valuable mental resource. Investing in your bandwidth is investing in optimal decision-making and possibly optimal contentment.
Learning about bandwidth has changed my way of operating. It’s helped me produce better work with reduced work hours. It’s helped me identify systemic issues within my team by guiding me to look for burnout. It’s helped me improve my team’s communication. It’s shown me that reminders are acceptable and sometimes necessary. It’s encouraged me to learn about my build and the builds of all my team members. It’s helped me live a more balanced life.
Mental bandwidth could be the missing piece in your quest to becoming a more effective leader.
A Proactive Approach to Time Scarcity — Time scarcity is a primary cause of low bandwidth for managers. In this post, I discuss how to create slack to counteract the effects of time scarcity.
Thinking Fast and Slow — Covers “system 1,” and “system 2,” thinking, and various cognitive biases.
Scarcity — Describes how scarcity affects our mental bandwidth.
Atomic Habits — Describes the power of habits, and how to create them.
Mindfulness in Plain English — Offers a guide to mindfulness meditation.
Forest — A simple, beautiful app that can be used as a Pomodoro timer.
Kin — Habit tracking app.
Breathe — Apple watch app that guides you through 1+ minutes of focused breathing.
Thank you to Compound Writing for the helpful reviews!