Modern life can demand an almost overwhelming amount of attention.
It isn’t any surprise that a huge “time management” industry has grown up around this reality. Amazon is stuffed with books—and devices—designed to do everything from manage your schedule to convert you to a paperless office. A thousand different calendar and schedule apps will turn your smartphone into a battery-powered personal assistant—one that works twenty-four hours a day.
There’s one problem.
Nobody fully understands the power of the mind. It is an incredibly powerful thing—and one we constantly underestimate. But it wasn’t designed to function that way.
In 1956, Dr. George Miller published one of the most influential papers in the history of psychology. He called it “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” and it outlined for the first time a human’s mental “channel capacity”—the amount of information the average person could remember at a given time. It wasn’t so clear-cut as the title, but Miller’s basic premise is still valid—so much so that it’s referred to as Miller’s Law. Humans can only process up to seven simple concepts at a given time. This channel-capacity law actually serves as the underpinning of the modern phone-number system. Seven numbers are the most people can easily remember.
What happens when we flood our brains with information?
Once we start thinking about more than a handful of things at a time, our ability to execute any of those things at a high level becomes compromised. And the problem is compounded by the fact that very few of the things we’re asking our minds to do are simple or one-dimensional, like remembering the digit of a phone number. We’re asking our minds to tackle multiple multidimensional tasks at one time—and our channel capacity at that level falls short. We can’t really carry in our “working memory” any more than three things at one time and have a chance of doing any of them well.
It’s something like being a beginner juggler. If you work at it, you can handle juggling three things at once. But once a fourth item gets thrown in, the system is overloaded and it all gets dropped.
George Miller found all of this to be true in the 1950s—when nobody was carrying around high-powered miniature computers in their pockets, mail came in an envelope with a stamp on it, and “twitter” was just something the birds did.
Today, his findings are more valid than ever. All of us are busier than ever before. It’s way more than just work: We’re making calls, sending texts, going to meetings (real and virtual), and “networking” with professional colleagues. We’re wrestling to balance work and home life in a time when information doesn’t operate on a “normal” 9-to-5 schedule.
The best time management plan in the world—or the best calendar, or the best device, or the best app—doesn’t address the fundamental problem of channel capacity. If technology were the answer, success would be as simple as flipping a switch.
Figuring out how to hack Miller’s Law and find more mental bandwidth isn’t going to help you live a more productive life. Fitting more pieces into the puzzle won’t make you more successful.