Best Ways to Improve Your Mental Bandwidth
Are you feeling mental overwhelm and like you have low mental bandwidth? Whether this is due to an impending crisis or simply the result of living a too-busy lifestyle for too long, it can be hard to take a step back and realize that you have the power to take back cognitive control.
We all need to be able to stop, think, and breathe—otherwise it can feel like you are running on a treadmill that you can’t stop and can’t get off of. All of this mental preoccupation makes you bad at doing things like making decisions, planning ahead, and responding to a crisis with a calm and level head.
Low mental bandwith is often the result of feelings of scarcity. A scarcity mindset creates a situation in which you are constantly dealing with pressing needs instead of being able to plan ahead. This can happen when you are short on time, short on money, or during a period of crisis outside of your control.
It means that instead of focusing on the task at hand, your mind is preoccupied with constant thoughts about the thing that is keeping you up at night. And if you live with anxiety, you will be even more prone to this cycle of getting stuck in scarcity and not being able to climb your way out.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the way to deal with low mental bandwidth is to actually start doing the things you don’t think you have time for (or buying things you think you can’t afford—within reason—that really aren’t that big of a deal). If you start to give yourself space and time to breathe, and show your brain that you do in fact have time, money, or space to relax, paradoxically you will kick yourself out of the scarcity mindset that is making everything hard to begin with.
This isn’t to say that we don’t face tragic circumstances in life that are beyond our control. But all of us face these at some point, and some will handle them better than others, most likely as a result of their mental bandwidth.
If you imagine your mental bandwidth as a pitcher of water that will overflow if you keep adding too much, then the way to improve it is to do things that keep that water level low, and give you much needed breathing room.
Below are some simple things you can do to start taking back your mental bandwidth.
Go for a Walk
We all know that exercise is good for us, but how many actually make time for it? Just go for a 30-minute walk a few times a week, and start to prove to yourself that you have time if you make time. The added benefit of getting outside and moving your body is that it will have a positive impact on your mood. If you’d like to get started, I’ve got a full post about how to do a 30-day walking challenge to help you out.
Do Something You Don’t Have Time For
If you are running on empty right now, I know it can be hard to imagine spending 30 minutes doing something like working on a jigsaw puzzle, practicing meditation, or painting. But I can’t stress this enough: If you are already running on empty, your brain is already functioning at half capacity.
Things are taking you longer than they should, because of your low mental bandwidth. You actually NEED to do something that slows you down, to allow your brain room to breathe. Don’t believe me? Think of something you’ve been putting off because you don’t have time, and just do it for 15 minutes a day for a week. See how you feel and if the mental heaviness starts to lift.
Automate What You Can
If your mental bandwidth is low, one way you can boost it is to unload everything that you can from your brain. This means to delegate tasks, say not to commitments, write everything down (instead of trying to remember), and generally having good systems in place to reduce your cognitive load.
Another way to think of this is to streamline when things are tough. Instead of coming up with an elaborate meal plan for a month, come up with a simplified weekly meal plan that you can repeat each week until you get back on track.
Put Out Minor Fires
How many times have you walked past something and thought—oh right, I need to do something about that. Or had a task that kept popping up and distracting you because you didn’t deal with it right away.
This is a delicate balance to strike; you don’t want to lose focus by jumping in to put out fires right away, but you also don’t want to let them fester. If you can’t deal with something right way, add it to a to-do list so that at least the cognitive burden is lifted. This means you no longer have to “keep thinking” about it, because you’re already “working on it” in a sense.
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Plan Your Meals
When you get stuck in a vicious cycle of low mental bandwidth, it is easy to slide into eating unhealthy meals. Before you know it, you’ve eaten nothing but junk food for a week, and it’s impacting your mental health.
Again, you might feel like you don’t have time for it, but the solutions are to plan your meals, do some prep work so it’s easier to grab healthy meals and snacks, and avoid eating as a way to cope with mental burdens.
Get Enough Sleep
When you aren’t getting enough sleep, your mental bandwidth will naturally suffer. As much as possible, try to keep to a regular sleep schedule during times of stress. The best way to do this is to set your alarm for the exact same time each day.
While it may be hard to get up if you have trouble falling asleep or wake through the night, getting up at the same time each day ensures that you have enough “sleep debt” each night to make it easier to fall asleep.
Do Something Present-Minded
When we have low mental bandwidth, our minds are consumed by everything other than what is going on around us. One way to get past this is to focus on activities that force you to be in a present-mind state.
Meditation or writing in a journal are good examples of things you can do to focus on the present. Mindfulness activities like adult coloring books or just being aware of the present moment (for example, while eating a meal), can be helpful. It’s when you most feel like you can’t slow down, that you need to do it.
Stop Checking Everything
Stop. Checking. Everything. Full stop! I’m the worst for doing this, but all those phone notifications, emails, social media posts are a distraction that are taxing your already overburdened brain.
What you need to be doing right now is focusing on the 20 percent of things that are important and ignoring the other 80 percent. Start being very aware of how you spend your time, by using a method like time blocking to plan your day, and you’ll soon become more aware of distractions.
You can stay informed on the world news by checking a few times day, instead of a few times an hour.
I know it can be hard when you are preoccupied with the urgent and pressing, but slowing down and taking time to improve your mental bandwidth is necessary for you to be present and able to take action during times of crisis.
So if you won’t do these things for yourself, do them so that everyone else who is relying on you can be confident that you won’t fall apart under pressure.
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