Mental Bandwidth Management is the New Time Management

5 min readSep 20, 2018


Sloww Mental Bandwidth

I’ve always believed that all 40-hour workweeks are not created equal.

On the surface, the quantity of hours is the same. But, a 40-hour workweek that allows you to think, breathe, and do your best work is not the same as a 40-hour workweek that’s glorifying busy where you feel like you’re drowning in work.

We’ve all heard of time management — countless books and time management experts exist. But, managing your time is only as effective as managing your energy during that time.

As an introvert (INTJ), I struggle to shut off the inner dialogue in my head. And, not just the inner dialogue, but the inner compulsion to constantly consume, digest, and analyze information. This means that no matter what I’m physically doing, I’m often mentally preoccupied with something else.

But, even good things like learning have limits (you can’t do all the life hacks). Everything takes practice, and I’m training my brain to stop and take breaks.

What happens when we never slow down and stop to take a break? A paper published by Harvard says that psychiatrists are reporting an increase in acute stress from people “stretched to their limits and beyond, with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation and reflection.”

In other words, no margin leads to no mental bandwidth. Managing your time also means managing your bandwidth.

What is Mental Bandwidth (or Cognitive Bandwidth)?

Here were the top descriptions I found to describe mental bandwidth or cognitive bandwidth:

  • “By bandwidth I mean basic cognitive resources…that we use in nearly every activity. Bandwidth is what allows us to reason, to focus, to learn new ideas, to make creative leaps and to resist our immediate impulses.” — TIME1
  • “Bandwidth refers to our cognitive capacity and our ability to pay attention, make good decisions, stick with our plans and resist temptations.” — Harvard2
  • “(Bandwidth is) the capacity of the brain’s ability to perform basic functions that underlie both higher-order behavior and decision-making.” — Wharton3
  • “Cognitive bandwidth is the maximum amount of thinking that’s available per unit of time.” — The Dot on the Ceiling4

You can break it down one step further:

“We use the term ‘bandwidth’ to refer to two broad, related components of mental function:

  • 1) Cognitive capacity: the psychological mechanisms that underlie our ability to solve problems, retain information, engage in logical reasoning,..the ability to think and reason abstractly and solve problems.
  • 2) Executive control: our ability to manage our cognitive activities, including planning, attention, and initiating and inhibiting actions.” — Harvard2

How Time Scarcity affects Mental Bandwidth

In their 2013 book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir take a deep dive into scarcity.

Daniel Kahneman called their work “the finest combination of heart and head that I have seen in our field.” That’s an incredible testimonial from a winner of the Nobel Prize and author of the best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The Guardian sums up the scarcity hypothesis as:

  • “Do the stressed-out time-poor of the west have common cause with the actual dollar-a-day poor of the developing world? If they do, it is Mullainathan and Shafir’s contention that the link between these two states is ‘scarcity’.” — The Guardian5

Mullainathan and Shafir have written about their research on TIME and Harvard. Here are some highlights to better understand the affects of scarcity on our mental bandwidth:

  • “Scarcity creates a powerful goal — dealing with pressing needs — that inhibits other considerations. We argue that by constantly drawing us back to that urgent unmet goal, scarcity taxes our bandwidth and our most fundamental capacities.” — Harvard2
  • “We think we need to manage time, but we also need to manage bandwidth…Busy people all make the same mistake: they assume they are short on time, which of course they are. But time is not their only scarce resource. They are also short on bandwidth.” — TIME1
  • “Although the room seems quiet, it is full of disruptions — ones that come from within. Such internal disruptions stem from scarcity. An unrealized need can capture our attention and impede our ability to focus on other things. Scarcity in one walk of life means we have less attention, ‘less mind,’ in the rest of life. The concept of less mind is well studied by psychologists. Although careful research in psychology employs several fine distinctions to capture this idea, we use the single umbrella term ‘bandwidth’ to cover them all.” — Harvard2

The impacts of scarcity on mental bandwidth can be a vicious cycle:

  • “Feelings of scarcity, whether money or time, prey on the mind, thereby impairing decision-making. When you’re busy, you’re more likely to make poor time-management choices — taking on commitments you can’t handle, or prioritising trifling tasks over crucial ones. A vicious spiral kicks in: your feelings of busyness leave you even busier than before.” — Lifehacker6
  • “This scarcity mindset consumes what Shafir calls ‘mental bandwidth’ — brainpower that would otherwise go to less pressing concerns, planning ahead and problem-solving. This deprivation can lead to a life absorbed by preoccupations that impose ongoing cognitive deficits and reinforce self-defeating actions…When you focus heavily on one thing, there is just less mind to devote to other things. We call it tunneling — as you devote more and more to dealing with scarcity you have less and less for other things in your life.” — American Psychological Association7

Bonus: A Cognitive Bandwidth Formula

I’m a big fan of simple formulas and equations because they are memorable (see an equation for happiness here). I stumbled across a blog called The Dot on the Ceiling that took a slightly different approach to cognitive bandwidth by creating a formula that we can all use to find mental balance:

Cognitive Throughput + Cognitive Overhead < Cognitive Bandwidth

  • Throughput: “The actual amount of thinking done per unit of time…the throughput depends on the complexity of the stuff I am working on.”
  • Overhead: “Overhead is the cost of doing stuff where I have to care about organization, task switching, etc, and is paid against the bandwidth limit.”
  • Bandwidth: “The bandwidth is fixed at some level which I can barely change.”

The idea is to try and always make sure your throughput and overhead don’t exceed your perceived total bandwidth. If you know your overhead is going to be high one day, try to plan for a reduced throughput (and vice versa).

Give it a try and let me know what you think in the comments!

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