Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Manage Bandwith, Not Time

When we schedule things, we don’t want to just show up, we want to be effective when we get there. This means we need to manage bandwidth and not just manage time. And this is where things get tricky, because bandwidth does not behave the way time does. Time can be dissected easily: an hour can be cut up in many ways. Fifteen minutes on this memo, a five-minute walk to another meeting, 30 minutes at that meeting and then 10 minutes debriefing. But bandwidth cannot be dissected like time can. Picture yourself at dinner with a friend whose marriage is on the rocks and wants some advice. Now imagine her request comes at a time when you have a big-project deadline looming. You value her friendship so you make time for dinner, but once you’re there, you find your mind wandering back to that project. You hear the advice you’re giving and feel it’s muddied. You try to console her, but it feels a bit off-key: after all you’ve only heard 70% of what she’s said. The problem of course is that while you’ve made time for her, you didn’t make bandwidth for her.

But we can become better bandwidth managers. First, recognize that different tasks require more or less bandwidth. That round-table project update meeting may be time-consuming but not bandwidth consuming. The final decision on what to do about that nice but underperforming employee is not time-consuming but is bandwidth consuming. Being a good parent or spouse may be both time- and bandwidth consuming.

Second, recognize that some tasks tax your bandwidth even when you are not working on them — a looming deadline or a challenging decision call your mind away from whatever you’re working on. They leave you with less bandwidth for everything else. Finally, other tasks do not tax bandwidth but refresh it. It may be time with family, watching a basketball game, time at the gym or simply doing nothing.

These simple ideas can change how you schedule your day. Don’t place tasks requiring heavy bandwidth (that strategy memo) right after tasks that tax bandwidth. Give yourself more time than you need to get the previous meeting off your mind. For bandwidth-demanding tasks, recognize that big contiguous blocks are better than smaller blocks. Finally, find those tasks that refresh bandwidth and make time for them.

- More here from Sendhil Mullainathan

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