A newly promoted client of mine was struggling with managing time and tasks. She felt like she could never get on top of her task list. She had missed several important deadlines that weren’t client-critical but caused issues for the rest of her team. She felt dejected and was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to get her arms around the new job. Upon looking deeper, though, we discovered that it wasn’t really about time management; it was her bandwidth.
If you think you have enough hours in the day to tackle everything on your to-do list, but you seem to consistently run out of the energy to do it all before the day is over, you may have a bandwidth issue. Think of bandwidth as your energy or mental capacity to handle something. Time management is how you allocate that energy to accomplish the myriad things you need to accomplish.
It’s not only how much you have on your plate, but also how much energy each of those tasks requires. This is what ultimately determines how much you can get done in a particular period. When your mental energy—or your bandwidth—is drained, it doesn’t matter if you have hours available because you won’t be very productive.
So how can you tell when your personal bandwidth is stretched to capacity? Here are some factors that may be depleting this essential metric.
Always pursuing perfection
You can measure yourself against high standards without being a perfectionist. What depletes mental energy is holding yourself to impossible criteria and feeling like your efforts are never good enough. While you can often strive for improvement, beating yourself up because you focus on a flaw drains bandwidth you could be using to function at a higher level.
If you find that you are consistently thinking that you haven’t been a good enough manager, employee, parent, or spouse, then you may be allowing the pursuit of perfectionism to deplete your bandwidth. Feel free to identify how you can improve the next time, then release the incident and move on. When you start doing this, your bandwidth will seem like it’s magically expanding, but all you’ve really done is let go of the destructive side of perfectionism.
Agreeing to every new project
Whether in your personal life or at work, struggling with an inability to say “no” can quickly use up your mental energy. Remember that every time you say yes to something you don’t have to or want to do, you’re saying no to something you do want. Sometimes you have to just say no to things that you do want to do because you simply don’t have the bandwidth at the moment. I once had a client who was invited to speak at a TedX event, but she turned it down because she knew that if she took on the extra responsibility, many other important roles in her life would suffer.
Remember that new commitments often come with hidden logistics, preparation, and planning. It will only benefit you to consider everything that will tax your energy before saying yes.
Staying online too much
In the age of relentless digital communication and the expectation of immediate response, it is increasingly difficult to disconnect. If you’re used to being practically instantaneous in your communication and want to change, you will need to manage others’ expectations. This is especially tricky because it’s easy to get swept into that level of simultaneity.
In addition to managing others’ expectations, though, it’s up to you to manage yourself. This means managing your boundaries so that being “on” 24/7 doesn’t deplete the last drop of your bandwidth.
Underestimating your time
We are often optimistic that we can get things done in a certain amount of time, but we forget about interruptions and other mitigating factors. I have a client who consistently overloaded her daily to-do list, overestimating her ability to work at maximum efficiency throughout the day. After examining her typical list, we discovered that she was neglecting to allow time for distractions by colleagues, transitions from task to task, preparation for new requests, creative thought, and a variety of other little issues that require time. And as a result, she never accomplished what she had set out to do each day and often spent her mental energy focusing on how behind she was.
I coached her to set a more realistic schedule for each day, with prep time for each task, transition time between, set time to respond to coworker messages, and even time each day to catch up on anything that slipped through the cracks. She accomplished more and opened her bandwidth because she was much more realistic and wasn’t constantly stressing over not having enough time.
Losing track of your priorities
If you come to your desk each morning with only a vague idea of what needs to be accomplished that day, you waste bandwidth trying to figure out where to focus first. By taking a few moments at the end of each day to lay out what must be done the following day, you will be able to start your morning with a clear head and direction. It also helps to list the tasks you must complete in order of importance.
I have a colleague who abides by the concept of “eating the toad for breakfast.” She refers to the day’s most difficult or dreaded task as her “toad,” and she does it first thing in the morning. The thought process is that once you’ve completed your most challenging tasks, everything afterward will seem easier. When you’re not clear about what your priorities should be, you can waste precious mental energy swimming in your to-do list and eating up bandwidth.
Failing to be present
Humans are great at living in the past or the future but are less successful living in the present. Take a moment to think about a time when you were extremely productive at work and really hit your stride. You were probably fully focused on the task at hand and not distracted by other things. When you’re thinking about what you didn’t do yesterday or have to do tomorrow, you’re wasting mental energy.
Another productivity tip is paying attention to any needless worrying. Worry is arguably the most useless negative emotion. If you can’t do something about what is happening, why waste energy on it? The only relevant question is whether you have control over the situation. If you have no control, your worry is wasted. Release the worry and free up bandwidth.
Managing your bandwidth is especially important when you find yourself going through overload or stressful times. If you see yourself in these examples, take heart—even small adjustments can make a big difference. If you take time to evaluate what may be taxing your bandwidth, it can be a significant stress reliever.
Dr. Lisa M. Aldisert is a New York-based business adviser, speaker, and author. She is president of Pharos Alliance, an executive advisory firm specializing in strategic planning and organizational and leadership development for entrepreneurial organizations. She is most recently the author of Leadership Reflections.