I was introduced to this concept of bandwidth yesterday. Not in the traditional sense, but as an analogy for how much our brain can hold and compute.

In tandem bandwidth is the impact of a scarcity mindset.

The scarcity mindset is something that how we react cognitively when we’re without something we desperately need – food, shelter, money, comfort, peace. Interestingly, it’s common for those of us not in extreme deprivation to choose self-inflicted scarcity (intermittent fasting, extreme financial frugality) in an effort to better ourselves or our circumstances.

Regardless of whether it’s a choice: If we’re distracted, stressed, or plagued by a scarcity mindset, research shows that our ability to think and create with clarity goes out the window.

This much is obvious.

However, the guest academic Sendhil Mullainathan also talked about how we can compromise our bandwidth unconsciously.

When we’ve got a few minutes unaccounted for: when we’re walking to the bathroom, when we’re waiting for something or someone, when we’re heating up your lunch, what do we do? Often without thinking about it?

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

What to do with these one-, three-, ten-minute gaps of time has a significant impact on our bandwidth.

Whether it’s checking email, the news, social media or our texts, “Inevitably, I’m going to see something that either pisses me off, or just distracts me,” said host Ezra Klein.

We all know that feeling.

Even if it’s accidental or innocuous, the new information is now lodged in there, and like the hot potato analogy that Pasricha talks about, it’s now demanding our attention, making it harder for us to concentrate on the important work.

The ripple effect happens instantaneously, and we can’t un-know what we’ve just seen.

Mullainathan describes it beautifully.

We use these moments to expose ourselves to cues and primes that are going to effectively destroy the time after.”

Anders Ericsson, quoted in Grit, has discovered that “even world-class performers at the peak of their careers can handle… three to five hours of deliberate practice per day”. Those who’ve learned how their body and brain work optimise that time.

It doesn’t come easily though. They must fight to clear their bandwidth, because the part of the brain looking for distractions is hard to silence.

If you find yourself dividing your bandwidth between many different stimuli, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice, here are a few tips from the experts like Angela Duckworth and Cal Newport I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Understand what time of the day you do your best work. Sometimes it’s the best day of the week, or the best days of the month. It doesn’t matter how long it is, because you must simply…
  • Fiercely guard that time
  • Use the rest of your day to make sure that “sacred time” isn’t touched. As a wise man once said to me, “the key to my early morning lies in the night before.”
  • Recognise what limits your bandwidth. Twitter? Your emails? A certain co-worker? Limit (or remove) your exposure accordingly.

Underneath what we can practically do to help widen our bandwidth, here are some of the wider questions that I’ve found helpful:

  • What is it costing me to be on social media? Time? Effort? Mental hauora (wellbeing)?
  • What are the cognitive repercussions for the rest of my day going to be if I do this?
  • What default activity am I letting distract me (the sound or visual alert of a new email, for example)? How can I minimise this?
  • Where is the Resistance most likely to get me?
  • What is urgent?
  • What is important?
  • How do I create the circumstances I need to put out work or art that I’m proud of?
  • What is my “untouchable” time of the day?
  • What do I get to fill that with?
  • When do I just need to switch off entirely?

Everyone’s answers will be different. If you’re doing work that matters, that means something to another person, getting the bandwidth you need will certainly be a fight.

Such important things to know, such hard things to put into practice.

I have certainly not mastered this. But as I have said before,

Here’s to starting on the journey of being aware.

Aware of what the bandwidth is worth, and aware of the cost of narrowing it.