How good are you at managing your mental bandwidth?

I’ve just read the most sensible thing I’ve heard in a long time when it comes to problem solving by a wise man who has been given a “genius grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard says that “Although we can control where our time goes, we cannot fully control how our bandwidth is allocated…Working out a key piece of your new strategy does not just require time it requires bandwidth.” In his new book Scarcity: Why having too little means so much – he explains that we arrange our diaries without proper time for thought and cram things into an already too tight mental space. An hour here for a brainstorm, an hour there for a finance meeting, 45 minutes to think about that new product launch. One thing bleeds into another without space or mental bandwidth.

I see this so often when working with brands and agencies who have a creative challenge – they hope that by having a brainstorm or a hastily convened meeting of their best minds that their problems will be solved in that a 1 hour time slot. Maybe but only if the focus on the present moment is there. I recall a particularly difficult creative session with a major company who had gathered 10 of their best people to crack a big creative problem – but that morning they’d had a big negative story break and everyone was distracted, glum and on their blackberries. There is no easy way to compartmentalise problems but the big, hairy problems with big budgets attached do deserve their share of your mental bandwidth.

Mullainathan says “Faced with a time shortage, we squeeze tasks into the nooks and crannies of our calendar, leaving less and less time to switch between them. As a results, we become less and less productive.”

Becoming a better manager of your mental bandwidth seems like a good goal as we head towards 2014.

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