CXO

6 tips for managing your mental bandwidth

We've all heard that time is the most precious commodity, but our attention span is even more valuable, as it affects how we utilize our time. Here's how to manage it effectively.

Time is an interesting thing. It's the one "commodity" that cannot be created or destroyed, and you can't acquire more than 24 hours each day. What we do with those 24 hours ultimately impacts everything from our long-term success to how we relate with the important people in our lives.

Key to utilizing our limited amount of time is successfully allocating our mental focus, or to use the technology vernacular, our "mental bandwidth." Just as you can only perform so many simultaneous computing tasks for a given amount of network bandwidth, so too can we as human only focus on, and be successful at, a certain amount of tasks. Here are some tips for managing your mental bandwidth.

1. Ignore the dogma and experiment

The world is ripe with prescriptive advice, yet as individuals what works for me may not work for you, and oftentimes the advice is conflicting. For instance, a penny saved might be a penny earned, yet we're also told not to be penny smart and pound foolish.

The same holds true with advice for mental bandwidth, where one "reputable" source might encourage multitasking, while another demand absolute singularity of focus. Rather than trying to adapt your working style to someone else's, experiment with different techniques and keep those that help, while casting aside those that don't, even if they work for a well-regarded guru, loved one, or friend. There's no harm in mixing, modifying, and abandoning in an effort to find techniques that work best for how your individual brain is "wired."

2. Actively manage your mental bandwidth

Perhaps the biggest mistake many people make is allowing their mental bandwidth to be managed for them. The beeping phone, meeting request, or act performed for ritual or obligation all rob our limited mental bandwidth, and many perform these actions unquestioningly. If you allocate your focus as you see fit, and actively choose what you want to focus on, you'll be in command of your mental bandwidth even when faced with unmovable obligations ranging from work to civic duties.

SEE: Time management tips for tech professionals (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

3. Do a bandwidth cost/benefit

Most of us are awash in meeting requests and accept without question. Everyone complains about excessive meetings, yet it's often a guilty pleasure to summon a group at your whim, or join a discussion under the assumption that your input is necessary and valuable. In the worst case, this might extend to accepting vague requests for "coffee" or "catch-up" sessions without thinking through whether the commitment is worth the cost in allocating your focus elsewhere. The world is awash in advice on how to make meetings more productive; simply asking yourself whether requesting or attending is worth the cost in mental bandwidth is a great start.

4. Plan for focus time

There are tasks that require great focus, whether performing precision or dangerous manual work, or designing a complex system or bit of code. Or, you may need to spend some time with a small group, free from distraction. Book a block in your calendar, shut off your phone, move to a different physical location, or do whatever is required to create the right circumstances to have the necessary focus to get the job done. Creating the right environment and circumstances can be a critical element in how you'll deploy your mental bandwidth to achieve the best result.

5. Know when to throw in the towel

Thankfully, most work cultures are evolving away from rewarding "time served" to outcomes produced, but for many of us it can be tempting to put in the extra hour at the office, or delay vacations for what's perceived as a critical set of meetings or deadlines. Trying to squeeze out the last ounce of mental bandwidth can be tempting in the moment, but it's ultimately an effort with rapidly diminishing returns. Calling it a night, taking that long-delayed vacation, or even the simple act of a quick walk around the office will recharge your mental energy and make you more effective in the long run.

6. Don't make assumptions about your team

A locked door and giant pair of headphones might be just the thing you need to focus and deploy your mental energies most effectively. It can be tempting to assume that what works for you will be effective for others, even to the point of designing your physical spaces and policies around what you assume will allow your team to best manage and deploy their mental bandwidth. Rather than assuming, ask your team how you can help them be most effective. Allow your teams to experiment and find what works for them, and use the end result as the benchmark for success, rather than trying to dictate that everyone adapt the exact same working style.

Also see:

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Image: iStock/Antonio_Diaz

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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