Mental Space: Optimizing Your Cognitive Bandwidth

by Alina on April 27, 2017

in Decision-making, Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness, Power


In the recent years, there has been much talk among scientists and in the media about cognitive bandwidth. Simply put, cognitive bandwidth (or “mental space”, as we refer to it conversationally with friends) is our capacity to allocate and use our limited cognitive resources effectively.

The larger context for conversations on cognitive bandwidth has generally been poverty. Poverty can be so pervasive in one’s life that solving money-related problems can take a disproportionally large part of one’s “mental space”, leaving too few cognitive resources to attend to things like studying, thinking about the future or sometimes even basic self-care. Poverty literally changes one’s brain and affects a person’s ability to think rationally, creatively, and clearly. (See this great TED talk by Eldar Shafir if you’re interested in more details.)

If you’ve never lived in poverty, you may wonder what this has to do with you.

As it turns out, any kind of scarcity in one’s life can change his brain by:

  • claiming a disproportionately large part of one’s cognitive bandwidth
  • disproportionally magnifying whatever it is that one is lacking
  • perpetuating the person’s obsession with obtaining whatever is missing,
  • making one feel depressed and desperate, and
  • changing the person’s behavior in a way that makes him even more susceptible to scarcity of that one resource.

When someone is always hungry, when someone has to make decisions on daily basis whether to buy food or medicine, it is not surprising that thinking about this can take over the person’s mental space.

Scarcity of love, time, recognition, connection, health may also make people feel like they are trapped in an unescapable loop of having no mental space for anything other than what’s lacking.

Let’s say one of your colleagues doesn’t get much recognition in the company. He’s doing good work, but somehow, his name is never mentioned at big meetings, and a promotion hasn’t been in the works for him. He may spend a great deal of time obsessing over the unfairness of this situation and continuously look for signs of being constantly passed over, which would take his time and attention. As a result of this rumination, he would spend less time doing the actual work he’s expected to do. In anticipation of being overlooked, his behavior at meetings will be passive-aggressive, which would lead to colleagues being less willing to work with him, and him receiving even less recognition… Obsessing over scarcity can thus turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy related to this scarcity.

Anyone’s cognitive bandwidth can become susceptible to the scarcity trap, either due to life’s circumstances or to lack of conscious effort to allocate mental bandwidth efficiently.

So, what can you do to break out of the scarcity trap, to clear out your mental space, and constructively dedicate your cognitive bandwidth to what matters to you?

  1. Focus on what you want rather than on what you don’t want. “These are the kinds of projects that suit me best” rather than “I hate my current job”. “I enjoy being in a loving relationship” rather than “Feeling lonely is horrible”. “How do I get healthy?” rather than “I can’t stand being sick!” This slight shift in focus can become a game-changer, even though it may seem that you’re still talking about the same thing. Whatever you focus on – expands. Mindfully allocate your mental space to what you want more of in your life.
  2. Curate your mental chatter. Have you ever had a heated argument with someone, only to find yourself sitting in the room alone, realizing that you’ve just spent 10 minutes talking in your head with someone who is not a part of this mental “dialogue” in real life? This person is going about his business, completely unaware of the fact that your blood pressure is up, and you’re troubled by your “interaction”. Such mental chatter occupies cognitive bandwidth which you could be using to do something creative, productive, or pleasurable. If you catch yourself having a conversation in your mind with someone you don’t really want to talk to, ask yourself: how would you rather spend your time, attention and energy? Then, mindfully put your attention on what is that you would rather do, or think about someone you’d rather spend time with in your mind.
  3. Consciously put your attention on what is working. Give yourself a gift of investing your time, attention, and other resources into what is already working well in your life. Problems will take up your cognitive bandwidth all on their own. However, it takes a conscious effort to focus on what’s already working, so that you create and attract more of it.
  4. Have a system for prioritizing allocation of your mental space. Every ER has triage plans for days when business is going as usual, as well as for various large-scale disasters. You control your time by deciding what is most valuable to you. Why not do the same with mental space? When it comes to time, instead of feeling time-poor and saying “I don’t have time for this, you can say “This is not a priority” (see this powerful TED talk on time management by Laura Vanderkam ). Similarly, control your cognitive bandwidth by allocating it to what is most valuable to you. Does your work always takes precedent when too many demands are being made on your mental space? Should it? Does your work only takes priority during certain hours/days? Should it? Is keeping in mind your kids’ camp forms, appointments, performances, and playdates always more important than keeping in mind your friends’ milestones? Is this working for you? Make time to think about your priorities, and your system for allocating mental space.
  5. Give your cognitive bandwidth a break. When there are too many demands on your attention and time, taking a “mental break” may seem unthinkable: there’s just too much to do. However, this is precisely when your mind most needs a break in order to prevent “overheating”. Take care of the smallest, absolutely necessary part to address your current challenge, and pause as soon as you can. Shift your attention to soft focus. Go for a run. Go on a short hike, or for a walk in the park. Sit by the water. Take an actual lunch break, away from the phone and the computer. If you’re running on empty, you’re not nearly as effective as you want to believe, and there’s a great deal of research showing that taking a break, playing, and spending time in nature boosts creativity, complex problem-solving skills and productivity (email me if you want to hear more).

I would love to hear what is occupying your mental space these days, and I am happy to allocate my mental space to your stories. What’s been on my mind is developing tools and strategies for helping analytical thinkers understand and use intuition. I’ll be presenting and co-presenting on this topic at two conferences this summer. Let me know if you’d like to hear more!


Academy-of-ManagementNeed a change of pace? Is it time for a transformation? Learn more here.

THIS SUMMER I’ll be presenting and co-presenting on  intuition development for analytical thinkers at a conference for Psychotherapists at Garrison Institute, and at the Academy of Management conference in Atlanta. Would you like to introduce your organization to research-based programs on intuition development? Let’s set up a call to discuss. (Or send me an email at )

logo_Alina Bas_vert_white_no wordsTHE NEW WEBSITE is finally coming! The “under construction” sign will give way to the new website by the time you receive the May newsletter! Thank you for being so supportive and patient as I was re-branding and re-defining my work.  I look forward to showing the results to you!

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