Manage Your Mental Bandwidth

If you look back on your mental processes at various times, you’ll recognize periods when you were busier than others. Think about those busier times, and you’ll probably remember that you naturally prioritized certain tasks, projects, and goals while letting others slide, at least a little. When you did this, you were managing your mental bandwidth.

What you may not recognize, however, is that you parceled out among the various items on your overcrowded plate not just your time and attention, but all your mental faculties. The one I want to talk about today is your decision-making power.

The plain fact is that your ability to make good decisions is far more limited than you believe. When you’re concerned about too many issues at once, you automatically reduce the attention you pay to making good choices about some of them.

But this is only half the battle.

For best results, it’s important to do more than consciously devote your decision-making bandwidth to what’s most important in your work and your life. You must also avoid making sub-standard decisions on whatever tasks, projects, and goals you’re leaving on the back burner.

Here are some steps you can take to do a better job of managing your decision-making mental bandwidth:

Inventory Your Concerns

It’s remarkable how many tasks, projects, and goals the human mind can juggle at one time – far more, in most cases, than we realize. For this reason, it’s important to bring all these concerns into your conscious awareness, so you can better apportion your decision-making power among them.

To do this, begin by making a list of the following:

  • The major items you’re trying to accomplish,
  • The elements of which these major items are constructed,
  • The minor items you’re trying to accomplish,
  • The elements of which these minor items are constructed,
  • The routines and other chores you’re trying to keep up with,
  • The extra responsibilities (such as decluttering, preparing for upcoming events, and so forth) you’re trying to fit into your schedule,
  • Items you’ve been meaning to accomplish, but have been repeatedly putting off or avoiding,
  • Your “bucket list” of idealized items you’d like to complete,
  • Additional items you’d like to advance,
  • Anything else that occupies some of your thoughts.

That all looks and sounds like a fantastically long list. But I’ll bet even this compendium doesn’t encompass everything that occupies your thoughts and your intentions.

That’s why – obviously – you can’t give all of these items your full attention. And that’s why some of what you decide regarding at least a few of these items is often far beneath your usual standards of productivity and success.

Stop “Shooting From the Hip”

It’s not that you intentionally make bad decisions on some of the less-important myriad items cluttering your thoughts and your intentions. It’s more common that you “shoot from the hip” instead of taking careful aim.

This is understandable, because you don’t have the time or energy to apply your full decision-making process every time you think about whether or not to take out the garbage, send a thank-you note, or do any of the other less-important items on your mind.

Instead, you tend to make an instinctive, “gut,” or “knee-jerk” decision without thinking things through. This has the benefit of quickly shunting that particular item back out of your mental spotlight so you can concentrate on something more important.

But it also brings on a deficit: it leaves you with the aftermath of poorly made choices.

The better way is to short circuit your instinctive, “gut,” or “knee-jerk” decision-making process in favor of a brief, but more focused look at your options and opportunities.

To do this:

  • Call a halt to your impulsive choice that’s quick, easy, and probably sub-standard.
  • Give yourself ten seconds to determine whether:
    •  you really need to make a choice right now, or
    • you can defer this choice for a better time without closing off some options or letting a bad situation get worse.
  • If you can, defer this decision for a better time.
  • If you can’t defer this decision, take a minute to focus on it.

Learn to Focus in Brief

When you recognize the immediate need to decide something about a minor item cluttering your thoughts and intentions, do it quickly.

Here’s one good way:

  • Briefly consider the upside you’d like to realize from the item.
  • Briefly consider any downsides you’d like to avoid.
  • Briefly list some potential responses that might trigger one or more of the downsides.
  • Briefly look for some other, safer responses you could select, which should obviously include the way you routinely handle this item every time it comes up for action.
  • Quickly select and implement one of these safer responses.

The advantages of a process like this include:

  • It’s fast and easy.
  • It’s likely to avoid the worst of the downside outcomes.
  • It’s a “rapid response” skill you can cultivate and improve with practice.

Think of this process as cooking a meal. There are times when you’re concentrating on the main course. But you never lose touch with or ignore any of the vegetables, appetizers, or side dishes you’re also preparing. You never let them burn. Nor do you neglect to get them started, or leave them half-finished until the main course is done. You treat the meal preparation process as a coordinated whole, and you give every element its fair share of your attention and decision-making power.

You can and should do the same in other areas of your work and your life.

The goal is to allocate your decision-making bandwidth among all the items you’re concerned with in such a way that each of them gets at least the minimum attention it needs without short-changing anything more important.

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