Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

It's Not About "Productivity." It's About Living Purposefully.

In the time you’ve read this sentence, your brain has processed about 200 “bits” of information. Your brain can handle roughly 100 bits of information per second which then become part of your awareness. Following a conversation between two people takes about that much bandwidth (have you ever noticed how hard it is to follow three or more people talking at the same time?).

Reading quickly will take about 50 bits per second, leaving the rest for sounds, sights, and smells of the environment around you. Everything we perceive as human beings takes up some allotment of our brain’s processing power. Having a deep conversation with a loved one, watching TV, doing mindless work, and sitting quietly and watching the world around you, all draw from the same pool of attentional resources.

If we assume your brain can process 100 bits of information a second, we can extrapolate how much information your brain can process in your entire lifetime (assuming you live to be about 80 and you sleep for eight hours a night). That number comes out to be roughly 150 billion bits of information.

That sounds like a huge number, right? However, we’re talking about the entirety of your experiences as a human being being encapsulated in one simple number. Every emotion, thought, sensation, and conversation you’ll ever have is included in that number and the way you’ve allocated those 150 billion bits of attention over the course of your life will make up the entirety of who you were and what you accomplished.

Suddenly, 150 billion doesn’t seem so big.

We’re talking about the entirety of your experiences as a human being being encapsulated in one simple number.

For some, productivity is about fiddling with new tools or shaving seconds off an ultimately meaningless task. It can be fun to read about others’ productivity hacks and try them in our own workflows. But really, thinking about productivity means coming back to those 150 billion bits that make up who you are and who you will be.

It becomes less about tips and tricks and more about making sure you’re allocating the most scarce resource in the universe, your attention, in ways that most closely align with who you are and what impact you want to have on the world. It’s about eliminating the unnecessary tasks and demands that are eating away at your 150 billion bits so you can focus on something that helps another person or creates a little more beauty in the world or solves an important problem or makes you feel like you’re on this planet to do something worthwhile.

“Being productive” isn’t about getting more work done. It’s about making sure those 150 billion bits are spent as wisely as possible.

Watching TV and having a conversation with a loved one will take about the same number of bits of information for your brain to process. Mindlessly flipping through the channels after work and brainstorming a new creative endeavor take about the same number of bits to perform. Which is more meaningful to you? Which will you be glad you did more of when bit number 1,499,999,999 rolls over?

A thank you must be given to my professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for first sharing this perspective regarding attention and it’s impact on who we are and ultimately, who we end up being.

More insights on: Energy / Fatigue, Focus

Sam Spurlin

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Sam is a PhD student studying positive organizational psychology. His research focuses on how creative and independent professionals can systematically improve their individual work process. He writes and coaches at SamSpurlin.com.
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