Bandwidth and Focus

in life •  last year

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I’ve been thinking about this concept of bandwidth. The definition of bandwidth for this article being our cognitive limitation and things upon which we can direct our focus.

With multi-tasking, it suggests that our bandwidth is divided, partly allocated to one thing, and other parts to another. In addition, there appears to be some sort of switching cost too.

Flow state, I imagine, must mean that 100% of your mental bandwidth is allocated to a single task. In a flow state there simply isn’t room for any other thoughts, in order to switch focus, you need to break the flow, and then open up some bandwidth to allow focus on new things.

Then, naturally, there must be tasks that do not take up all of one's bandwidth; or put another way, your full bandwidth is not being allocated to them.


Bandwidth differs from focus as focus appears to drift over the things that we have the bandwidth to notice and think of. So the bandwidth is the subject, and focus is the action on the subject. The problem with the term ‘focus’ is that it makes it sound like it is under your direct control. I remember back to the 90s where people would say “just focus!”

No. What our brain decides to focus on is really its business and it isn’t something we can immediately govern within that exact moment. “Give me a second” is what we say when we are trying to redirect our focus.


Another aspect of the bandwidth is that it clearly shrinks and grows with the time of day, circumstances, restfulness, and how we have primed it. For example, this morning I kept slipping into fantastical imaginations. I can’t recall any of them now, but simple little imagined scenarios were sufficient to completely engulf my entire attention.

The danger of having too low a bandwidth is some tasks simply overflow it. When I try doing complex problem solving late at night, I end up with far worse solutions and it takes me much longer than when I am rested.

I would describe the problem of bandwidth overflow late at night as two parts. One is that I have less bandwidth to start with, and two is that my bandwidth is shrinking. I might fill up my mind as far as it will go to take a few steps, but then when I reach for the information again, it has disappeared.

In contrast with during the day or when I have the energy and time, I can feel the bandwidth stretch when I need it. However, this is more about flow.

I particularly like the mornings for this because my total bandwidth available early in the morning is quite limited, so something simple (like meditation) is able to consume 100% of the limited morning bandwidth where as during the day it may only consume a fraction of it.


Given this definition…

The most interesting scenario to me is underflow of bandwidth. I was raised on video games and now I suffer discomfort when my bandwidth is only partially filled. I don’t know in which direction the cause and effect points there, if the two things are even correlated at all.

There has been a lot of attention on flow in some research recently. It is found that if someone is trying to allocate full attention to something (that is boring in nature I presume) and you distract them with something as simple as a message; it will disrupt the efficiency of their flow for about 30 minutes.

Looking at the concept of the damage of distraction, it might be reasonable to think that maybe our focus falls over all the things within our bandwidth buffer.

There may be tasks that can fill the entire bandwidth regardless of size. I can think of a few computer games and social networks that do this very well too.

I think meditation (if you’re practised) could do this also. It almost feels like the act of cleaning, it slowly fills your entire attention, and you are just picking everything up and putting it away as you go. So a bandwidth sweep?

Consciously loading in ideas to our bandwidth…

Continuing the analogy of sweeping clean our bandwidth with meditation, I think this might be where mindfulness could place as an all day tool.

Mindfulness is the cognitive ability to recognise thoughts and behaviour as separate from the self.

By my definitions and ideas above, it would make sense to have mindfulness loaded into our bandwidth. What this would do is have a kind of cleansing function for our bandwidth when our focus drifts to mindfulness. It would direct focus to focus on thoughts themselves, rather than on the objects those said thoughts would direct us.

Obviously, this will take a bit of work from time to time, meaning we will need to be able to take 5-second micro-breaks to let our mind just stabilise and go through the motions of mindfulness.

If this were the case, this would allow for focus on things that don’t naturally fill our entire bandwidth by filling the rest of our bandwidth with mindfulness, which should naturally stretch.

Shrinking ones own bandwidth to fit tasks…

From self-observation, I notice that I purposely shrink my own bandwidth with drugs. I use caffeine mainly and I’ll have up to 10 shots of coffee in a day, depending on the tasks I’m doing. If they’re very deep and can fill all of my attention, I won’t need coffee. If they’re all small and boring administrative tasks, I need a LOT of coffee. Sometimes I have the issue that my bandwidth is still too large.


So. No conclusions, just thoughts and musings. Perhaps this is a useful model, or perhaps it isn’t. It is always good to be able to see applications for the mindfulness tool.

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