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Step 5: Revamp Your Calendar—or Throw It Out

Recognizing times of low bandwidth and dealing with common errors is helpful. But a more efficient solution might keep you from getting low bandwidth in the first place—in other words, keep from getting "drunk." It would be nice, of course, if we could just increase our bandwidth capacity, but research, Mullainathan says, has yet to prove a way to effectively do so. Our ability to focus simply has a limit.

Add to this: most of us think we can cope with our mentally taxing lives by managing our time. Let's say you're looking at your calendar for next week, the way that he did with the move. Most of us think about what we can fit, in terms of hours. We have the morning free so we fill it with the big meeting with the boss (10 a.m. to 12 p.m.). Then we have an intense lunch with the possible new client (12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.). Then at 2:30 p.m., we're getting off early to take all three kids to all three after-school activities. Time-wise, this should work fine.

The meeting with a boss, however, takes a lot of bandwidth. You have to come up with a whole new ad campaign. Worse, at 11:40 a.m., you start thinking, "I really need to prepare for that lunch!" So you stop listening and generating new ideas. You then race to the lunch, now at mid-bandwidth and with even less creative and analytical skills. There, you also lose the last 20 minutes, because in your mind you're preparing the 2:30 p.m. pick-up and worried that you won't get back to the office in time and might forget the tutu for your daughter. "It's all doable, I have the time planned," you think, driving your kids first to ballet, then to hockey, then to pottery. Only to find the tutu in your backseat once you pull into the driveway.

What we need to do, says Mullainathan, is stop managing time and start managing our bandwidth. Of course, we can't just cut out activities and obligations. But when we sit down to plan our week, we can think about our schedules in terms of what our brains can reasonably handle—no matter what our bodies are capable of. For example, we can give ourselves just as many high-bandwidth activities but space them out differently or stagger them with low-bandwidth activities.

Step 6: Go on Automatic

Another thing you can do is to transform certain high-bandwidth activities into low-bandwidth ones by making them "automatic." When you first began brushing your teeth, the activity took a lot of time and concentration. But as you did it over and over, you no longer had to think about getting the toothpaste on the brush (without squirting it all over the counter) and moving that big plastic tool over all your teeth (including the back side of your incisors). You can certainly do the same, repeating responsibilities at work or at home until they are, if not mindless, then less mindful. Serve the same breakfast for 30 days. Send an email in the same way 60 times (i.e., write, spell check, reread, send).

Moving, unfortunately, isn't something most of us can do with sufficient repetition to make it automatic. So what was the solution for this social scientist, other than to have a quick-fix after he'd already erred? "I should have done as I teach others," he says, with a sheepish laugh. "It wouldn't have taken much to keep me from losing my glasses. All I needed was an hour to recover from the move the next morning. In other words, I needed to sleep in a little later, eat breakfast and rest my bandwidth." In other words: The next time you get your brain drunk, consider giving it time to recover from the hangover.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir are co-authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

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