Put it in a box

I want to talk a little about compartmentalizing today. Beware, this is different from multi-tasking – don’t confuse the two! Compartmentalizing is a survival strategy, multi-tasking is a surefire way to get stressed out and make mistakes.

So what is compartmentalizing? At its simplest, it’s the art and skill of putting things away for the moment, of switching context fully to the topic that’s at hand.

Put it in a box and leave it there until the moment when it’s needed again – then pull it out again and put everything else away.

Executives have mastered that skill – for good a reason – if they hadn’t, they would drown and go mad within a week. You can only be successful in an environment with multiple very different demands if you are able to focus on the one thing at hand and tune everything else out. (It might be different if your job is to review forms at the DMV for 8 hours a day.)

Why is compartmentalization important to us and when could it serve us? Well there are two very clear scenarios:

  • Staying on top of the task at hand – All of us are always getting a lot of small and independent requests and priorties. Our project and tasks lists seem to be ever growing. As we move from project meeting to project meeting, we will only be successful if we can put a mental pause on everything else that is not related to the project at hand. Un-pause as you move to the next meeting. Trying to think about everything at the same time will drive you mad.
  • Keeping your emotions at bay – All of us get into challenging emotional situations. They can be in our personal life, conflicts with peers, or things that we have to do but really hate. We can also be anxious about upcoming events. While those emotions are very valid, it’s not fair to bring them into the interaction with someone else. If a discussion with ‘A’ made me mad, I must put that away when I meet with ‘B’. Fully away.

Compartmentalization is hard. It doesn’t come naturally as we tend to dwell with no end on things that worry us. The good news is that it’s just a skill that can be learned like any other. The first step is to become aware of all the things we ‘carry over’ in our minds as we go from meeting to meeting and interaction to interaction. Then start training yourself to ‘put it in a box’. Visualize a box if that helps you. Write it down on a Post-It and put the Post-It away so that you don’t have to remember it.

Check yourself as you move through your day:

  • Am I  dwelling on the previous meeting and not paying full attention?
  • Am I bringing a negative mood over from the last meeting?
  • Am I able to fully ‘turn off’ and recharge after work?
  • Am I fully present in my current interaction or am I thinking about something else?

If you notice yourself doing anything of the above, make it a point to take a mental pause and put it in a box. You want to be able to bring your best to the topic at hand. You also want to ensure that you are not penalizing the person you are currently working with for something that someone or something else did to your mood.

In my former role, my team of 18 Product managers was serving an engineering organization of ~150 developers, and I was the senior leader for all product related questions. Topics changed 180 degrees every 30mins, back to back all day. Initially, I thought my head would explode, but learning how to compartmentalize saved the day for me. It will make your days much more relaxed and more efficient as well.

As it is the case so many times, the ‘old guys’ had that already figured out a long time ago – they just didn’t have the fancy terminology we like to use today…

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” — Buddha

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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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