The modern world can be busy and stressful, with people often experiencing a lack of time and mental resources. It's easy to make bad decisions in such an environment, as our mental bandwidth narrows and we focus on the wrong tasks. While some people thrive under pressure, for others, busy routines and ongoing stress lead to procrastination and reduced productivity. As it turns out, achieving a healthy work-life balance is a great way to increase our attention span and upgrade our cognitive bandwidth.
When it comes to work and effort in general, more is not always better. Too much work often leads to physical and mental stress, which can spill over into the rest of your life and make you feel pressed for time. Behavioural scientists have a special name for this feeling, with the term "tunnelling" used to describe a narrowing of our attention span and cognitive bandwidth. While a sense of hyper-focus can lead to mental clarity and productivity, it can also create feelings of distress and panic.
The cycle of work and scarcity can have a dark side, as humans enter into a limited cognitive mode where they can only focus on immediate and low-value tasks. Rather than working hard to achieve big rewards, working too hard can lead to a lack of strategic and long-range thinking. If the "tunnel" gets too dark for too long, it's easy to get addicted to unhealthy work habits and completely forget about the journey that led you there in the first place.
According to Antonia Violante, a behavioural scientist from the United States who recently completed a project on work-life balance, “We see people end up tunnelling on the wrong thing,” as they perform tasks that feel good but lead to a sense of false satisfaction. Email and social media procrastination are two obvious examples, as busy people actively choose to waste time rather than embrace a healthy sense of mental space.
“Even behavioural scientists have addiction problems with email.” says Violante, adding “It allows us to be busy, which feels good. But it leads to a false reward.” To step out of the time scarcity tunnel, it's important to become aware of how you're trapped in busyness and make some positive changes. Setting limits and positive routines is a great place to start, as is a newfound appreciation of physical and mental space.
Like many things in life, planning and awareness is the key to a healthy work-life balance and increased mental capacity. When we recognise time and bandwidth as limited resources, we begin to see all of our choices as a trade-off. Instead of trying to cram time and space in a misguided attempt to be productive, we should pay close attention to our daily schedule and actively design our life around the inherent limitations of time and work effort.