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It’s Not About “Productivity.” It’s About Living Purposefully.

"Being productive" is not an end in itself. Don't get caught up chasing "lifehacks" without taking into account the big picture.

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 Posts by Sam Spurlin

Comments (46)
  • XTC

    Nice post. It is always nice to put things in to perspective.

  • tannerc

    Great past Sam, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t scientifically accurate – at least, not in this context.

    The brain doesn’t work in terms of bits, and even if we wanted to say that synapsis activity was equivalent to a bit, there would still be no accurate way of measuring how much information is being passed during each fire.

    Again, I think this is a great article that brings about a good point (taking the time to figure out if you’re focusing on the right things), but I also think it’s important to note that this gives a misguided perspective of how the brain works.

    For additional insight (from an actual neuroscientist), see Paul King’s answer to the question: “What would be the memory capacity of our brains if we were to approximate it in terms of bytes?” here:

    • Sam Spurlin

      Hey tannerc — thanks for the comment. I think one thing I didn’t make clear is that I wasn’t using “bit” in terms of computer “bytes” at all. When Dr. Csikszentmihalyi gave this lecture in class he used the word “bit” in a more colloquial way to describe the sensations and information we are capable of being aware of at the same time (such as my keyboard keys are black, my middle left hand finger is a little sore, and I’m feeling a little bit of hungry). Admittedly, it’s a very vague idea and I should’ve been clearer (and perhaps I can ask Dr. Csikszentmihalyi how he’d define a “bit” in this example the next time I see him).

      Thanks for the link and the great feedback.

      • tannerc

        Exactly the point I was trying to call-out. It’s just too easy to misinterpret the term.

        It may make more sense to simply say: “synaptic activity.” Of course the problem then becomes, a lot of people still have no idea what that means. It’s a conundrum!

  • jeffkaiserman

    My summary? Focus on what’s near and dear to you in order to be productive and creative. Create a vision, set goals, and “flow”.

    • Sam Spurlin

      I can get behind that summary. The only tricky thing is getting super clear on what “near and dear to you” really means and figuring out how to not let other things (sometimes important things!) distract you from that.

  • CostasCo

    Agree with your take on what productivity is and isn’t, but believe that our 150B bits have non-linear power..

  • Bob Tobin

    Love this. Just discovered this blog.

  • Bernoulli

    we’ll look back at this assertion and laugh in 30-40 years

  • Aaron Morton

    I guess that is the most challenging bit; maintaining attention long enough to go into flow.

    Like you say, we have so much vying for our attention we don’t stay in that pursuit long enough to hit flow consistently. The positive is the very fact we are able to recognise it means that being in flow *is* possible so set up our environment in order to make it easier.

    Aaron Morton
    The Confidence Lounge

  • RichieOnix

    Great post. I also think its about working smart and not hard. When you work smart you analyze more and build a plan that is likely to make you more confident about what you are doing. Thanks for sharing this!

  • NelemNaru

    Woah. So a bluray disc can hold over twice as much bits of information as my brain will process in an average lifetime?

    • Sam Spurlin


      The “bits” I’m referring to in this article are not the same as computer “bits.” See a commenter below for further discussion on the topic, but basically I was using “bit” colloquially to connote a “piece” of information. Sorry for the confusion!

      • NelemNaru

        Ah, my bad. Also, it would have been better for me to compare brain processing to a CPU instead of a storage medium. And you’re only talking about processing input, while the brain also takes care of all involuntary processes. So there really was no point in me trying to compare.

  • Meatball

    Your message is valuable and important, but it may be difficult to get through to a young man who has no sense of mortality or the finite nature of his life. A lot of the productivity chatter is rooted in this (willful?) ignorance of this limitation. It’s sad but common that very few people know clearly and confidently what the purpose of each of their lives is. To become super busy and try to squeeze every last bit out of their brain is merely an escape from the emptiness.

  • David Torres

    “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.”

    Wow! Great perspective! My thoughts are now on how they discovered how much “bits” of info we can contain in our lifetime? I think this is a pressing issue because info is an abundance more than ever! We need more formulas for happy meaningful life and less random useless info.

    • Sam Spurlin

      It’s based on the idea that we can process a certain amount of sensory information at a time (which scientists have determined experimentally to be around 100 “pieces” of information per second. That includes everything from tactile sensations, visual cues, thought, smells, following conversation, etc. Using that you can then extrapolate how many pieces of information you can process in a minute, in a day, in a month, in a year, and, therefore, the average lifetime (but remember to subtract out the time you’re sleeping!)

      • R. E. Warner

        But what’s your source for that number? As a student of cognitive science, I’m skeptical. Binary concepts don’t readily translate to the parallel frequency firings of neurons, so how did these scientists decide on what a bit is in the brain? (This is not to say that your overall point isn’t still valuable without concrete numbers—our lives are finite.)

  • Karthik Radhakrishnan

    @thesimplerlife:disqus Say my thanks to your professor! This post would attract any one because – This is unique in Productivity topics.
    I’m sure your professor has done research. Well, without research I could say that what you say is true and adding to,
    “Productivity is a catalyst to reduce your diversion/processing of your mind and thought power that could avoid being wasted”
    Well, “Living purposefully” in heading, doesn’t correlate that great to the blog. But Productivity is not about “Reducing time to do better” . It’s on “What you concentrate on to do it better”

  • Armaan Khanna

    Totally Agree Sam. Productivity is all about making use of the time for a wise happy purpose, “we live, or, we contribute”. You’ve described the true meaning of productivity in your own way. Thanks to you and your professor.

  • Joshua Cox

    In a nutshell, acting with intention. What is the intended result you are expecting to get out of this frame of time. If there is no intended result, what’s the point?

    • Sam Spurlin

      Exactly. I usually talk about it as making conscious choices. The conscious use of our attention is what I really tried to drive home. I’m not here to tell you *how* to use your attention, just to make sure you’re the one who is in charge of its allocation.

  • Susanna Halonen

    Great post & totally agree! It’s about spending your energy & time doing things which are meaningful to you. And there’s no point in delaying that. I recently did a blog post on the importance of spending your time purposefully here: – As Alan Lakein says wisely, “Time = Life. Therefore, waste your time and waster your life, or master your time and master your life.”

  • Sean Hodge

    Excellent argument for cutting out the television and other fluffery. Instead engage with family and more meaningful work.

  • Adam

    Nice one, thanks.
    I have a question though. Assuming the principle you explained, what’s the insight into the research, which shows that a “background noise” from, let’s say, coffee shop, is actually increasing focus and therefore productivity (if we may use the term “the old way”)? Because – in my mind – according to your insight, restriction of outer, unwanted impulses would be better for focusing on “the” work.
    Any opinion? Thanks 🙂

    • Sam Spurlin

      That’s a great question and I don’t have a good answer. Perhaps the background noise present in a coffee shop actually “drowns out” conversations that could be clearly heard otherwise?

      Perhaps the background noise never actually enters our awareness and therefore isn’t using up any of our available “bits”?

      It’s a good research question, for sure.

      • Adam

        I like the “drowning out” hypothesis 🙂 sounds pretty much reasonable. Anyway, thanks for the answer.


      I agree we need some comfortable environment to boost our creativity.

      In order to make the “creative” bits working effectively, you need to use some “sensing” bits hearing to the “background noise”.

      The brain will create the comfortable work environment for the “creative” bits to work using the “sensing” bits 🙂

  • rachel

    I like a lot of this post and especially the line about aligning your time with who you are, though calling out TV watching vs a conversation with a loved one is a simple comparison that removes actions from their context. At a particular moment in time, a conversation with a loved one might not be the best use of time (for example, when an introvert who has just come home from a day full of meetings needs some alone time to recharge). If you’re energy is low, TV might actually be a good option. Doing things that are meaningful is important, but pushing ourselves beyond our limits for the sake of “meaningfulness” could actually have bad results.

    • Sam Spurlin

      I agree. My only point is to strive to make whatever it is you’re deciding to do a truly conscious decision. Consciously choosing to watch TV trumps having a mindless conversation with a loved one. I think the value of the attention comes from the conscious use of it and not necessarily constantly using it on “good” or the “right” things all the time. Thanks for pointing that out!

  • Kael

    Has Professor Csikszentmihalyi published anything on this subject? It’s an intersting concept that I’d like to learn more about – it’s just not something that seems well-reasoned from the little information presented here. I don’t see how one can quantify and correlate the data taken in by the human mind to the data used and stored on a computer chip. Despite my skepticism, I’d like to learn more if there are actual research documents available.

    • Sam Spurlin

      I mention this in a comment reply below, but the “bits” I’m using here is not the same as the “bits” of a computer chip. It was a poor choice of words on my part, but it’s better to think of it as a synonym for “piece” in this context. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Debbie Ruston

    It’s a simple concept…stop wasting time on things that don’t matter and use time wisely on things that align with what is most important and meaningful to you.

  • Jonathan Lumb

    Really interesting and slightly thought provoking. Viewing life as an alloted number of ‘bits’ is like watching a clock countdown though, I wouldn’t want to put that pressure on myself to utilise each moment.

  • Angelina Sereno

    I love this! I’m constantly talking to people about attention. It really is everything.

    Depending on where you put your focus, you can actually create more time and energy to fuel you… or the opposite. 🙂 Thank you for writing this article! I may use pieces of it (with proper credit of course) on my blog:

  • MykolaNovak

    important article.

  • linkvaark

    So the underlying notion here is that it’s important to be “productive” in order to have a meaningful life. What if life is essentially meaningless and has little point except the continued existence of the species? Why not use the time we have to do things that we feel like doing, including “wasting” our time on unproductive activities? Not everyone is going to change the world, and that’s fine.

    • Chris Gimbel

      The span of time spent in late life regret is proportional to the amount of time spent on things not worth the time of your life. At some point to the two come up against each other.

    • Nick

      I don’t understand that logic. If life is meaningless, then why continue the species? Why not stop reproducing and let the future generations of animals have a clean and safe planet to live in?

  • Aidan

    Write an article like this, sure, but don’t forget to include the bit on attaining that infinite amount of energy needed to always do the “wise” thing.

    • Aidan

      Much of the time I know I should be doing this or that – but I simply don’t have the energy to do everything all the time. Maybe that makes me lame, but i’m also pretty happy.

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