The Art of Managing Mental Space

Mental space — like physical space — is what we have very little of as college students. When I took on a leadership role in January, one of the former officers mentioned, “It doesn’t take up much time, but it takes up a lot of mental space.”

What she meant was that the amount of mental energy you needed to devote to the position was much larger than the time actually required. This struck me as an — oh, so that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all along — moment.

Last semester, I was at odds with my schedule (or google cal rather). I would stare at the white empty boxes that seemed to populate my schedule at the end of the week, but when I mentally sat down to balance the accounts, I kept coming up short. It seemed like I had a lot of free time (suppose n hours/week), but I didn’t seem to get n hours of work accomplished and I never actually felt like I was anything less than busy.


Thus, I will try to use the concept of “mental space” to better manage your time (and happiness!) in this entry.

1) Mental space is the amount of mental space an activity/project/job takes up in your finite brain.

This seems circular, and it is. I am not actually trying to prove the existence of such a space, but rather (like an economist), I am going to assume that there is one so as to provide a framework for understanding it and applying our insights from it.

Insert joke:

A chemist, a physicist and an economist are all trapped on a desert island, trying to figure out how to open a can of food.

“Let’s heat the can over the fire until it explodes,” says the chemist.

“No, no,” says the physicist, “let’s drop the can onto the rocks from the top of a high tree.”

“I have an idea,” says the economist. “First, we assume a can opener…” (Mankiw, Macroeconomics, 6th ed.)

Insert obligatory laugh.

Thus, mental space is a bit of a proxy for the amount of time and effort you spend thinking about something. I spend a large amount of time thinking about food, for instance, but the percentage of “brain time/space/effort/energy” I devote to food is greater than (unfortunately) the time I actually eat food.

Voila. Now, to pull an trick out of Mankiw’s “Ec 10″-licensed car, we can better examine this concept of mental space by examining its implications.

2) Productivity: maximizing flow, minimizing stock variables.

Let’s suppose I have a set of assignments I need to do for a project. I can approach this in two ways:

  • I can not do the assignments immediately, and let them simmer and rest in the bubbling pot that is mind…until my motivation to do said tasks becomes as mushy as HUDS’ overcooked cauliflowers.
  • I can do the assignments immediately with a single-minded devotion to just “getting it done” and “getting it out of my mind.” And voila, stuff gets done, but I no longer have to deal with limp vegetable matter clogging my brain. (Yes, I am fond of very awful analogies. Forgive me.)

So, the first example is tossing all your assignments into something like a vegetable stock (variable). It piles up, it gets overcooked, and eventually the pot fills up and you’re forced to eat gross veggies.

The second example is like tossing all your tasks into a Magic Bullet (tm, I’m sure). They get chopped up in 3 seconds, remain fresh and crisp, you eat them, and once you digest them, you no longer have to worry about them (unless you have digestion problems, but that’s a different issue — eat fiber!). Thus, your stock bubbling on your stove is still empty and can boil many many other things that actually require a longer cooking time.

The point: mental space or mental real estate is limited. You’re not God (as Nietzsche pondered so very thoroughly). The size of your pot ain’t that large, and you don’t like the taste of soggy veggies.

So, do things quickly not for the purpose of being “more productive” (because how motivating of a motivation is that?), but rather for the purpose of cleansing or fen shui-ing your mental space so that you can focus your energies on better and more exciting things (e.g. blogging).

3) Draw out a mental space floor plan.

As you can see, you can understand a lot about me by taking a look at my floor plan for my brain. My brain expends a lot of calories worrying about this general interest publication called Tuesday Magazine and tries to minimize the amount of school stuff it thinks about.

Note, how my “kitchen room” for food is almost as large as that of my “study” (school stuff). Ah, priorities!

So, draw out your mental floor plan. Do it. It is good to visualize how much of your brain you are using on the tasks you hate. Once you have your plan, ask yourself if this is how much precious mental square-footage you actually want/should devote to these things.

If I were honest, I would probably put in a room for all my internet stuff (reading blogs, blogging, being addicted to google calendar, etc.).

4) Evaluate and Re-evaluate

There is no good floor plan for everyone. The floor plan for a 15th century castle is unsuitable for a Manhattan apartment. Ditto, with your brain.

A lot of productivity and self-help books keep talking about this 80/20 rule — 20% of the people do 80% of the work. You can extrapolate from that how you will:

  • 20% of your brain does 80% of the work (hah).
  • 20% of what you do now matters for 80% of your future time (and budget constraints).
  • Only 20% of what you do matters.
  • Insert your theory.

Thus, interpret that how you will, but realize that the unimportant things (responding to emails, facebooking) should not be taking up neither 80% of your mental space nor 80% of your time.

Also, realize — at certain points of your life, the value of your mental real estate goes waaay up — think housing boom of the 90s. When you’re young, healthy and energetic, time (and happiness) is your best asset. And then you hit the 30s, and poof goes the bubble.

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1 Response to “The Art of Managing Mental Space”

  1. 1 Infinity's boundary

    Nice!! I love the veggies comparison haha

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