Careers, Study and Well-being / Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Life / Student life

A Theory of M&Ms and Bowls

by Katie Cowan

Let’s say everyone starts their day with a hundred M&Ms and several bowls with neatly-printed labels. I know I am jumping in at the deep end here, but just go with it.

M&Ms represent units of personal capacity, or mental bandwidth. I say M&Ms rather than “units” or “coins” because M&Ms are bright and colourful and people enjoy eating them after my visual demonstrations of this analogy.

So let’s say everyone starts their day with a hundred M&Ms. Then everyone goes about their days, and in doing so spends their M&Ms on various activities, by putting some M&Ms in one of their bowls. Any activity or event takes M&Ms, even if it is a neutral or a positive thing. So “studying for an exam” is 20 M&Ms, say, and “parenting a child” or “managing a relationship” is another 30. “Showering and eating breakfast” is 2. “Not getting mad when your neighbour asks you to turn down the music” is 5. Over the course of the day you use up your M&Ms, until you get to sleep and replenish to the full 100 the next day.

You can earn extra M&Ms by using bowls like “exercise”, “getting all the sleep you need”, and ironically, “eating vegetables instead of M&Ms”. And some of the big bowls that require M&Ms also give them back, like “self-compassion” or “being in a loving relationship”. So maybe some days you start with 120 M&Ms, kudos to you. Other days your activities require more M&Ms than you have, and you spread your M&Ms thinly among your oversupply of bowls, or borrow M&Ms from your future self to avoid going into M&M debt. All the bowls suffer a little bit, but everything technically gets done.

Our M&M allotment is not fixed, and can be grown within a day or over time, given we have enough M&Ms available to undertake the task. For example, “taking the dog for a walk in a densely wooded forest” will earn you M&Ms, but so will ongoing therapy or medication that reduces the amount of M&Ms you need every day for “anxiety” (anxiety being an example of a bowl that typically drains M&Ms from all other bowls).

Now. Most of us are not pootling about with nothing taxing us other than a well-balanced, ordinary life. Most of us have one or more of the following as well: stress about money, stress about relationships, anxiety, depression and/or any other mental illness, a physical illness, an ongoing stressor like loneliness, fear of what will happen in the future, or the illness of a loved one. Most of us also sometimes have good things that still take up a bunch of M&Ms, and all humans have occasional stressors that pop up unbidden. Extra bowls get added to the collection and we redistribute our M&Ms accordingly.

But this point that M&M starting points and usage vary across humans and across our own lives is a big one. If we have an illness of some kind, even just a bad cold, we might start the day with only 80 M&Ms, or the “showering and eating breakfast” bowl might suddenly require 20 M&Ms instead of 2. Stressors of most kinds will also interfere with our ability to replenish our M&Ms, since most of them impact sleep, and most activities that nourish us and build us up require some effort of their own to undertake. If we are depleted by “managing an illness” or “worrying about how to pay rent”, we have no M&Ms left to spend on “going for a run”, even if “going for a run” would yield a net gain in M&Ms. (You’ve got to have M&Ms to make M&Ms, as the old saying goes.)

Unfortunately, our culture mostly does not allow or account for variation in M&M allotment or usage, and it leads to a lot of unnecessary shame about our differences in capacity. The cultural starting point is that we are all pretty much expected to be able to do the same bunch of things: study, work, have constructive relationships, parent, maintain our health, and not give people the finger when they pull out in front of us in traffic. Accepted exceptions include if you have cancer, if you’re going through a divorce, or if someone you love dies. Those should definitely be exceptions, don’t get me wrong. But I think if we as humans had a better understanding of how M&Ms and bowls work, especially for our own individual case, we might make better choices for ourselves and have more compassion and acceptance for others’ variations outside these acute and hopefully rare life events.

In their book Scarcity: The true cost of not having enough, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain the neuroscience behind M&M theory. They don’t call it M&M theory because they are grown up science men and prefer proper words like mental bandwidth and executive function, but I get it. We’re all talking about the same thing.

The authors explain what happens to a brain and nervous system under conditions of scarcity, whether that is scarcity of money, of time, of social connection, or even of capacity itself. They explain how downward spirals of borrowing from the future happen, and mechanisms like slack (in our parlance, not using all your M&Ms every day) that can interrupt spirals and stop them taking hold. It’s a great book and will probably be on the required reading list when I start my Brain School™, but I can’t relay all of it here now.

The biggest message I hope you take away, if you do not have enough M&Ms to read the book itself, is that M&Ms and bowls are real, and accounting for their fluctuations within your own life, and their variability across the human population, will go a long way to making the whole of life easier and kinder. When planning a thing, whether it is a day or a life, I urge you to account not just for the time or the resources available, but for your own M&M count at the time and the possibility of unforeseen events that will require M&Ms of their own.

No matter what your M&M allotment, a life lived borrowing from tomorrow’s M&Ms quickly burns out. I wish for you instead a sustainable and authentic life built on curious, non-judgemental awareness of the dynamics of your personal M&M ecosystem.

(It also helps, if you can manage it, to keep a treat size packet of M&Ms permanently hidden in your cupboard for emergencies. But that’s just good life advice.)



Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at Check out her website for more details at: Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.


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