“Compartmentalization: n. a defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments.” –(American Psychological Association)
First of all, in psychology, compartmentalizing is applied very differently for those with emotional trauma, depression or anxiety disorder. But the process of compartmentalizing can have many benefits for those enduring stress of separating their work / life balance, as well. It’s the same theory and same methods … just applied for different purposes.
“As an entrepreneur you’re going to have to compartmentalize your entire life. … Your ability to compartmentalize, prioritize, and focus enough time on each area in order to make incremental progress towards a conclusion will be your most important skill set to achieve significant success.”(Forbes, 5 Steps of Compartmentalization: The Secret Behind Successful Entrepreneurs)
A successful entrepreneur harnesses the ability to compartmentalize.
When you run a business, you quickly realize you will be wearing various hats throughout the day, even the hour. Whether it’s marketing your business, meeting with clients, financials, employee management or costs, customer service, business planning … the entrepreneurial to-do list never ends.
The issue you will soon realize is that when you’re handling one task, your mind is also occupied on several other issues that need your attention. As a result, your output will be comprised in quality and time to complete. If you try to multitask, you will not only prematurely exhaust your mental energy, but you’ll end your day completely stressed and overwhelmed. I’ve tried it and failed enough times to know it does not work towards the end goal of getting more done in less time. In fact, the opposite happens:
“Multitasking leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity. Multitasking causes a 10% drop in IQ.”(Harvard Business Review.)
If you still think you can multitask successfully, see what science tells us about the brain’s function:
“Studies show that the human brain can’t handle more than one task at a time. Even though we think we’re multitasking, our brains are actually switching rapidly between tasks.”(The Myth of Multitasking. Scientific America)
So how do you stay focused on one task at a time? How do you train your brain to block out distractions? How can you retain focus even when working at home? What is compartmentalization and how can it help business owners be more successful?
Turn off Distractions in Your Current Compartment
“To compartmentalize means you have the ability to shut out all distractions and other work except for the work in front of you. Nothing gets past your barriers. In psychology, compartmentalization is a defense mechanism our brains use to shut out traumatic events.” –Lifehack.org
When working on a project or in a meeting with a client or even spending time with family, make that activity the primary focus of the moment. It takes time but you can learn to mentally ‘turn off’ nagging reminders about the next item on your to do list until you have time to invest in that list item.
Initially, you may need to control environmental factors, whether it’s turning off your phone and email notifications, shutting down social media, closing and locking your office door or finding a quiet place to work alone. Soon, you will soon see you will need less and less outside interventions, as your ability to compartmentalize improves. Like any new skill, it can take practice and exercise for some, while others may have been doing this subconsciously for years without realizing the benefits or that it can be harnessed into increase their daily productivity.
Relieve your Mind and Rely on a Planner Instead
“Your mind sees things as separate rooms with closable doors, so you can enter a mental room, close the door and have complete focus on whatever it is you want to focus on.” –Lifehack
From time to time, fleeting thoughts will creep up and remind you of something that needs to be addressed (a phone call that needs to returned, an email that needs to be answered, a follow up task a client asked for). If that happens, write it down in notepad, calendar or planner so you can again forget it for now as you’ll have a visual reminder to address it later.
For many entrepreneurs, we have continually running to-do list in our minds that greatly disturb our focus, like that hamster on the wheel going nowhere but exhibiting precious energy. For you to mentally turn off that non-stop wheel in their minds day and night, you need to find a place to relocate those thoughts but feel as if they are kept safe for when you do have time to address it. Write those nagging thoughts, list items, tasks, projects and goals down on a virtual or written planner.
When I write down a list of activities that I know need to be accomplished in a day, week or month, I know I can temporarily forget it and review it later. One colleague keeps her planner by her bedside, so if her sleep is interrupted during the night with an idea or forgotten task, she can write it down and forget it and get back to sleep. It’s an idea that I’ve implemented as well.
Interventions that Help Strengthen your Compartmentalization Muscle
There are apps, software and websites that can assist you in improve your ability to compartmentalize. There are also some traditional methods that many entrepreneurs have used over the years that has made them more focused. If you have any other suggestions, please share in the comment section below. Thank you!
- Background Noise: There have several studies to suggest some personality types show improved memory retention and focus when there is soft, rhythmic noise.
- Focus & Time Management Apps: There are great apps to turn off distractions and keep a time for focused work sessions, including: Focus Keeper, FocusTime, Forest, Hocus Focus, Freedom, Motion and others.
- Physical Interventions: There are some basic interventions that can help you stay focused in each designated “compartment”.
- Shut out Distractions like shutting your office door, put on low music to drown out outside noise, turn off email notifications, and silence your phone.
- Resist the temptation to check your email, your social media engagement to your latest post, or answer that call. Finish that designated task or set focus time before you check all your communication channels. That way your head will be clear and ready to address the next issue or project.
- If you can, inform your workmates or housemates what your intent is, as to avoid them interrupting you needlessly, unless it’s an emergency of course. Give them a time when you will be finished and open the door to signal that you are ready to be available to them.
- Mindful Meditation: For those who are wearing many hats throughout the day, you may have the tendency to have those racing thoughts, rapid pulse panic moments that paralyze you and decrease focus. Regular sessions of mindful meditation strengthen your mental muscle to sharpen your focus and lengthen your ability to compartmentalize.
- How to start: “Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice that teaches you to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind and body.” – VeryWellMind
- Why it helps? “A more recent finding highlighted by the New York Times showed that just three days of mindful meditation — paying close attention to the tactile sensations of your own body — strengthens the connection between areas in your brain related to focus and those that process reactions to stress.” – CNBC
- Take Breaks and Give your Brain a Rest: All the techniques in the world are not going to strength our ability to compartmentalize if you’re exhausted. You need time to relax and unwind and turn your work brain off.
- Take a walk in quiet, peaceful location. Listen to sounds of nature, enjoy the solitude and acclimate to the quiet and stillness with no distractions.
- Sit outside, on your porch or patio, wherever you can find a change of scenery from your home office, where you can decompress for a few moments.
- Take a day off to pamper yourself, and indulge in a spa day (at home spa treatments are available).
- Find a creative outlet, whether painting, drawing, poetry, writing, crafts, cooking, gardening to utilize different sides of your brain, and give the overused side a break.
- Take a vacation, one where you can truly unwind, relax and explore new landscapes, history, culture, food and people.
- Keep a journal. This is not a planner, but a place to vent your thoughts, ideas, worries, concerns, fears, and end each session with at least five blessings you are grateful for.
Find a New Compartment in the Same Location
When working from home, it can be an extra challenge to move from room to room within your entrepreneurial brain when you are social distancing or moving your business to your home location as to save commuting time or overhead. Blocking out distractions can also mean blocking out change of scenery, location and environment. For the many of those currently working remotely or running their businesses from home, maintaining focus has become the number one complaint.
I’ve talked about methods of being productive while working from home in a previous blog (link below), but some quick takeaways were:
- Find a quiet, unused part of your home that is not in a common area where you or your family tend to relax.
- Make the space or room look and feel like an office with the tools that you will need at arm’s length. Keep it organized, clean and a place that energizes you and sparks creativity.
- Determine a realistic schedule, much like your normal work day, and stick to it.
- Take breaks after completion of a task to reward yourself but also to reboot your mental focus for the next item on your to-do list. Choose your break time activity carefully as to promote more focus: take a brisk walk, exercise, mindfulness meditation, check on your child’s schoolwork, eat healthy snacks and drinks (avoid sugary treats that will cause a energy crash in an hour).
- Keeping a running list of items that need your attention and need completion that day, in order of priority. Rewrite that list at the end of your day for tomorrow to keep you on track.
- Close the door and ‘shut down’ the office at the end of the day and do not return to that room/area of your home until the next workday.
Finding Work / Life Balance with Compartmentalization
Learning to compartmentalize is also advantageous for work/life balance. When you walk away for the office for the night, for a day off or a vacation, compartmentalization allows you to truly leave all your work concerns behind until you return. Compartmentalization is not only a gift for your own peace of mind but also for your friends and family, because they will appreciate your new improved focused attention on them. You will be a better parent, spouse, partner and friend.
Compartmentalization is the secret key to working from home, because mentally you need to shut out the distractions as well as your change of environment. This can be difficult for those who are new to working remotely because your professional life has moved to the environment that you usually relax and unwind in. Utilizing the techniques of compartmentalization with time and practice, I feel many will realize this ‘new normal’ or remote working/learning has more pros than cons. Here is more information on How to Work From Home and Still Get Stuff Done.
Wishing all a safe and productive Summer! Be safe, be smart, be kind and show consideration for other’s health.