Thoughts on Mental Bandwidth

Back in 2009 and early 2010, I worked 60+ hour weeks. Between my day job, Dresden, IPR, etc., life was full. Too full. “Mental breakdowns happening like clockwork due to the constant pressure”-full. Add my rather rigorous convention schedule to that, and it was a recipe for unhappiness.

The problem is that I tricked myself into this toxic situation because I would see the number of hours I *could* work in a day and the number of things I needed to do both to keep a roof over my head and to achieve the dreams I had, and said “yes, I will work all those hours. how bad can that be?”

Ambition is a demon on your back that makes you feel guilty when you have to tell someone “I would love to work on your project…but I can’t.” It makes you feel guilty when you decide to watch TV for a couple hours instead of working. (It also robs the feeling of awesome from the achievements in your life, but that’s a topic for another time.) Ambition is the thing that told me I should work all those hours.

The other side of the coin is that we aren’t robots.[1] We can’t be on 24/7, even if there’s time in the day for us to do so. Because time is only one part of the equation. It took me until a few months back to realize more of the equation[2]:

Time + Mental Bandwidth = Productivity

Mental bandwidth[3], unlike, time, is not a constant. It’s your ability to focus on an idea, your energy to do something brain-based, like deal with customers, write, edit, produce audio, manage projects, whatever. Of course, mental bandwidth is also consumed by dealing with home maintenance, travel, relationship issues, business meetings, taxes, all that crap. And mental bandwidth isn’t something entirely under your control — both in that the world will throw you crap you have to deal with and that it’s linked as much to your physical condition as anything else.

To plan my life solely around the time I have is an amateur move. I also have to plan around my mental bandwidth. But since I don’t know what that’ll be tomorrow or next week or whatnot, that’s hard to plan for. So I’m starting to take an approach of figuring out how much I could work in a given stretch of time, and committing to only working 70% of that. If a day gives me ten hours of work time, I know I have to work seven. (That doesn’t count breaks and the like. No one pays me for those anymore. But I’m strangely comfortable with that.) That said, I’m planning more weekly than purely daily.

Right after GenCon, I tried to dive back into work at 100%, and crashed a bit. I didn’t really have that mental bandwidth back. Lesson learned and all, but it’s hammered home that I need to be more aware of my mental bandwidth both in the moment and how I can predict it in the near future. To that end, I’m (slowly) reading Getting Things Done (mentioned previously) and am trying to take better care of myself physically & mentally.

This is not an easy thing to do. I can’t tell which activity of all those I need to do in a day will cost more bandwidth at that moment. Sometimes, dealing with customer service is easy, and costs less than writing. Sometimes, the opposite. Shoot, sometimes writing makes me feel like I have more mental energy than before I sat down. It’s all strange and relative and a bit chaotic — enough to make planning difficult. Especially because they all need to be done. I can’t just say “meh, I won’t do X today,” at least not without drastic consequences.

Like many of my “Thoughts on” posts, I am not stating a solution to something. Just putting thoughts to virtual paper on this lovely Seattle day.[4]

– Ryan

[1] Close friends will know the tone of voice I’m using here. And that I’m wincing as I type it.

[2] Math & CompSci nerds will cringe at how basic that equation is. But you get what I mean, which is the point.

[3] A friend of mine calls this Emotional Bandwidth. I used to think of that as something different, but today I’m less sure. I prefer “Mental Bandwidth” as a label, though.

[4] I’m writing this while chilling outside. It’s drizzly. I’m enjoying my pipe & KMFDM. This is heavenly.


9 Responses to Thoughts on Mental Bandwidth

  1. Clark says:

    Oh, hell yes. I’m dealing with my day job placing increasing demands on my time, just at the point where my writing career looks to be taking off. In a bid to preserve mental bandwidth, I had to say “no” to a good friend on a good project today. It’s frustrating, but I really had no choice, and it will be for the best.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I hear you. You would do your friend and the project better justice by saying no when you can’t do it than saying yes when you can’t.

      – Ryan

  2. Jason Pitre says:

    Wisdom. While I am in the same situation, I have managed to cobble together a solution of sorts. Occasionally I can switch to another related but cognitively different chunk of work. Rather the writing, perhaps trying to work on producing art for the game or perhaps reading interesting material. Some way that I can contribute toward the end result, rather then simply writing off the day as wasted. It’s far from perfect, but occasionally it moves me fractionally forward.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That’s a good way to go about it, especially if you’re on different roles on a single project. It’s harder (not impossible, just harder) to do when you’re dealing with multiple projects from multiple clients daily. Still, an ace tip.

      – Ryan

  3. Chris Bennett says:

    Clark is right.

    “Say ‘no’ to the good, so you can say “yes’ to the great.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:



      – Ryan

    • Wayne says:

      There’s also a saying, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” And there’s always the problem of telling the good from the great when they’re in the embryonic stage. I recently stopped development on a game that I think is a blast to play, but after discussions with friends, I realized it was too intellectual and narrow. Maybe I can sell it to Mensa…

  4. meredith says:

    Reminds me of the “spoons” theory used by people with disabilities.