The term “compartmentalize” is used most often in two spaces: psychology and business. That may seem like a concerning connection, but don’t fret. In psychology, compartmentalization is a subconscious defense mechanism to protect an individual from anxiety. It could be anxiety from a relationship, job, inter-personal connections or other stressors. By placing different stressors in segregated compartments, our mind is better able to cope with multiple inputs at once.
Compartmentalization takes on a more positive spin in the business world. There are many articles about compartmentalizing, mostly positive (read here) and inspiring. Many successful entrepreneurs claim to use compartmentalization strategies to separate anxieties in their work life and/or personal life to better focus on key tasks. Some CEOs and managers claim to “cut through the noise” and be able to juggle multiple responsibilities all at once, a seemingly impossible feat without some mental juggling.
But how does a leader effectively compartmentalize without long-term risks? Whether they lead an organization or a corporation, leaders will often find themselves “pulled” in multiple directions by competing tasks. With tasks vying for attention from a leader, it’s pertinent for leaders to take a step back, separate competing tasks, prioritize and then engage each separate issue with full attention. Let’s break it down (and add a letter).
Compart — Identify Responsibilities/Tasks
The first step is to take a step back and objectively view which tasks are causing anxiety or stress. A successful leader is able to look at issues objectively, at least for identification purposes, and determine which tasks are higher priorities.
Next, identify which responsibilities or tasks can be separated into different “buckets” or categories. This requires a leader to determine which responsibilities require the most work and attention. These tasks are “boxed up” into their own compartments to be dealt with separately.
A — A Choice — Prioritization
A leader must make a choice: which responsibilities/tasks get prioritized and in what order. Is talking to investors more important than starting an employee wellness program? Different leaders will answer that question differently, but it’s important to choose which “box” gets priority, when and for how long. Remember, the point of compartmentalization is to separate tasks so that they are isolated from other conflicting tasks. Deal with them in a priority that makes sense and gives them the proper attention to be resolved.
As a leader, one has to determine which tasks get elevated in the agenda and which tasks are pushed into the “subconscious,” or in business-speak “the back burner.”
Mentalize — Understand the Tasks/Responsibilities
This is the hardest part, and it goes back to the psychological roots of this concept. Understanding the purpose of compartmentalization is important when one is separating tasks and assigning priorities: isolation. By isolating tasks from one another, leaders can effectively creating space to deal with one issue at a time without other issues creeping in.
A leader also has to be aware that work doesn’t always go according to plan. Assigning three hours to hold an important meeting can be ruined by a last-minute emergency; it happens. But it doesn’t have to permanently derail the prioritized list of tasks.