Busy people all make the same mistake: they assume they are short on time, which of course they are.
But time is not their only scarce resource.
They are also short on bandwidth.
By bandwidth I mean basic cognitive resources – psychologists call them working memory and executive control – that we use in nearly every activity.
Bandwidth is what allows us to reason, to focus, to learn new ideas, to make creative leaps and to resist our immediate impulses.
We use bandwidth to be a good participant at an important meeting, to be a good boss to an employee who frustrates us and to be attentive parent or spouse.
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.
Oh, and maybe a quick phone call on the walk to that meeting.
The busy are expert at dissection: that’s how they make it all fit.
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 heard only 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.
This is the big mistake: we focus on managing time and end up mismanaging bandwidth.
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.
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.
Here are specific mistakes busy people sometimes make and achievable, evidence-based solutions.
1. Using the justification “I’m doing this for my family.”
Let’s say you’re working long hours because you’re starting a business, or you’re taking night classes in addition to your day job.
It’s understandable to think, “I’m ignoring my family now, but what I’m doing will have huge benefits in the long run.
Therefore it’s ok.”
Even when your motivation is to provide for your family, it’s important not to use this as a blanket justification for ignoring their needs in the present.
It can be difficult to repair relationships if you ignore them for too long.
Solution: Recognize that time you invest in your relationship is an investment just like the time you spend working or studying. When it comes to love, the best investments of your time are typically those that show you are emotionally responsive, accessible, and engaged.
Take a look at this quiz.
The questions are things like “My partner shows me that I come first with him/her. True/False.”
How do you think your partner would answer?
If you’re brave, ask them to complete the questionnaire.
If they answer any questions as false, talk about simple ways you could move to true. Don’t dispute their perception – their perception is what counts!
2. Not staying aware of your partner’s priorities.
If you’re overworking, your brain might be fully tied up thinking about your own priorities, to the extent you don’t even know what your partner’s priorities are. What’s important to your partner currently?
What have they attempted to talk to you about but you’ve brushed them off?
It could be repairs that are needed to your home, vacation plans, concerns about your child’s eating habits, or worries about a parent’s ill health.
Maybe there’s simply a movie they want to see in theaters before it’s too late.
Try this self-test: Can you list three of your partner’s current priorities?
Solution: Create a behavioral habit that gives you a chance to talk to each other.
For example, my spouse and I often take a late night walk.
If you regularly drive somewhere together, that might be your chance to talk, or maybe you make a habit of going out for Sunday brunch or chatting when you’re lying in bed on the weekend.
Make sure the habit you choose is a time when both people are in a clear headspace to talk.
Why a walk often works so well is because neither person is physically trapped in a confined space like they are in a car.
Talking while walking can make it emotionally easier to have in-depth conversations.
3. Brushing off your partner’s attempts to get your attention.
The most important aspect of relationships is emotional trust.
A huge part of emotional trust is perceiving that you can easily get your partner’s attention.
People in relationships do many micro behaviors aimed at getting the other person’s attention.
For instance, if you’re working in one room, your partner might come into the room on the pretense of looking for something.
Or your partner follows you into the bathroom to ask you a question.
Or attention requests might come in the form of touch or eye contact. Make sure you’re not too distracted and self-absorbed to miss these attempts, dismissively brush them off, or ignore them.
Solution: If you find yourself irritated with your partner (“Why do they keep interrupting me?”) it might be that you’ve been ignoring their requests for attention and they’ve escalated into annoying behaviors.
Ways to show your partner they can get your attention include responding with eye contact, physical touch, or by communicating that you were listening.
4. Taking out your stress on your partner.
When people are very busy, they sometimes don’t have many emotional reserves left to deal with small hassles and irritations.
This can result in snapping at your partner over little things, being negative, and complaining. For instance, the first thing you do when you come in the door is complain about the traffic.
Solution: Ask your partner to call you out on it when they feel that you’re taking out your work stress on them.
When you reunite with your partner at the end of the workday, make sure the first thing you say is something positive.
It often doesn’t take much time or effort to be emotionally engaged in your relationship.
Micro behaviors like giving your partner a quick touch on the lower back as you’re walking past can go a long way.
The main barrier is often that you don’t see these small moments as important opportunities to stay connected.
By making a few mental and behavior shifts you can potentially avert relationship disaster.