Being Productive in a Multitasking World

The Art of Compartmentalization

I’m a multitasker. This is both an admission of guilt, and a exclamation of pride. Like everyone in the modern age, I have an addiction. It seems that me, along with many others have a problem focusing on one task at a time. If we’re having a conversation, than we are also looking at Facebook or reading an article on the web. If we’re eating a meal than we are usually watching television or sending an email. When spending quality time with our family and friends we are thinking about the emails we need to send or photos we need to post, and when we are trying to get work done, we are often trying to finish multiple tasks at once while following the scores of the latest sports game. We humans, always try to do more, but sometimes, by trying to do it all at once, we end up either not doing anything or doing everything badly.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how human beings strive for internal consistency. A person who experiences inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to try to reduce the cognitive dissonance occurring, and actively avoids situations and information likely to increase the psychological discomfort.

While multitasking is useful, it can be as a burden. Generally, trying to focus on too much too fast can drive you mad in the worst case, and in other cases simply make you unproductive, and this has been amplified by the age of smartphones and portable tech that has created an endless amount of accessibility in our lives. Both the constant access others have to us and the access we have to the many different parts of our lives through a few small devices, has caused many of us to renounce the art of compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization is a psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, fear etc. within themselves.

I’m not saying that multitasking is bad, I am actually a big fan of multitasking, but I have also understood over time the benefit of being able to simply close doors in my brain. Tightly. Not to be opened until the relevant time.

I don’t always compartmentalize. But often when I am stressed I implement this trick. I diligently divide up the tasks I need to do and the conflicting responsibilities I have so that they don’t overlap with one another. It’s similar to when you get a plate at a restaurant with both potatoes and steak, if you like steak and don’t like the potatoes (or don’t like the taste of them together), you will use your fork to push the potatoes aside and divide the two different types of food apart in to different areas of the plate. By doing this I can maintain an equilibrium. I focus only on the one thing in front of me, whether it’s the steak or the potatoes. In doing so, firstly, I redeem the ability to focus on each small task at a time. In other words, I don’t try to solve a monstrous looking problem that is a synthesis of all my different mixed up tasks and issues. Secondly, if one problem is not solvable, or is more challenging than others, I can still focus and solve the other issues at hand.

This is easier said than done sometimes, I know. But if you can master the ideas described here, you will retrain your mind to calmly zero in on the thing that matters most right now — even in the most stressful situations. You’ll soon find you can just pick up your fork and push all your potatoes into a neat little pile, so you can focus your attention on your steak, before it gets cold.

Now I am not saying that you should drop multitasking, rather, I am advocating that you have this skill in your tool box so when needed, you can use it.

As Aristotle said, “all virtues are a product of being located in the center“. In other words, being virtuous is walking the golden path, one of balance. Neither compartmentalization nor multitasking are right or wrong, bad or good. Both are useful and the trick is knowing when and how to apply them.


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