Bandwidth, Part 1: Visualizing Our Free Mental Space

How’s your bandwidth these days?…
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My bandwidth’s not been so good lately. It’s been a bear of a month workwise — 45, 50, even 60+-hour workweeks; not a day off yet and there probably won’t be one; and the end is not yet in sight (although certainly in mind).

[Sidebar for my DC, NYC, and other workaholic friends/folks: Yes, I know that you laugh in the face of 45-50 hour work weeks, which are routine for you. Yes, I know that you work hard. You work too hard. Stop working so hard. And spending so much time on Facebook and web surfing while you’re at work supposedly working hard. ;-)]

As you might expect, I’ve been short on bandwidth recently — certainly not as much as I’d like. You know what I’m talking about: the amount of time (or energy or resources) we have available to take on something new, or to handle what’s on our plate without being unpleasantly stressed out about it. I’ve taken to calling this ‘bandwidth’ because it captures my sense of how I experience the mental side of daily life. If I have plenty of bandwidth, I’m happy, or at least OK. If I have too little bandwidth, I find my mind and my life slowing down to a unhappy crawl.

I’m surprised I don’t hear more people talking about their bandwidth. There’s really only one colleague I can think of who talks about his bandwidth, which he started doing a few years ago if I remember correctly.  I thought it was an interesting way to look at it, but didn’t think much more of it.

Then the idea of monitoring my personal bandwidth took hold for me a couple of years ago when I started using the Activity Monitor app on my Mac computer. (more about that story in a later post). Once I discovered Activity Monitor, I started using it regularly to monitor my computer’s bandwidth. This was useful if I was going to do something like run a session on a synchronous program such as Adobe Connect or Blackboard Collaborate. Or, if my computer was running a bit slow, I could look and see why, and then I could decide which of the eight applications and 30 open files (yes, I’m one of those kind of computer users) I could close to free up some memory.

It wasn’t long before I started thinking about this applied to my own CPU, aka brain. It was easy to imagine having a Activity Monitor-like dashboard which told me how much mental bandwidth I had at any one moment. For example, here’s how my dashboard might look if my brain was full with stuff:
bandwidth really narrow 215
Not much bandwidth there.  Probably a sign that that my mind was likely already slowing down, even if I didn’t realize it yet, and that I need to back off of something — close some files, forget about this or that for the moment — until there was a workable amount of bandwidth again.

Here’s how it might look if I had plenty of available bandwidth:
bandwidth wide
If I my dashboard looked like this (above), I’d know I have plenty of mental space to take on a new activity or project — or maybe just cruise along for awhile.

Or if my dashboard looked like this (below), I’d know that I was still OK but that I needed to be wary as they’re probably wasn’t much room left to take on anything else:
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Another feature I like about the Activity Monitor dashboard is the notion of “active,” “inactive,” and “wired” space. There seems to be parallels in how our minds work in daily life (or at least in how we experience them). “Active” describes those activities and tasks in which you’re actively and consciously engaged at any particular moment — those tasks that are in the foreground of your doing and being in the moment. “Wired” is that level of memory you need to have going at all times whenever you’re plugged in, no matter how undemanding the other tasks might be that you’re doing at that particular moment. Then there’s “inactive,” which is that memory you’re using when you think you’re not using any — for instance, “vegging out” in front of the TV which is not as inactive as we think it is.

While I pay the most attention to my available, “free” bandwidth — the green portion of Activity Monitor’s system memory circle (or pie chart if you prefer) — is the one I watch the most, because that tells me the most about how mentally serene or frazzled I’m feeling at any particular moment.

How have I used this idea to manage my own personal bandwidth for fun and happiness? More on that in the next post…

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