Compartmentalization: An Underrated Superpower

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

There was a time in my life when days were just alternate periods of light and dark, with nothing to mark where one day ended and the next began. I would wake up when I woke up, and start working almost immediately (because that's the productive thing to do, right?), eat when I was hungry and stop working only when I was too sleepy to go on or when the work was done. Don't get me wrong, this wasn't some gladiator-esque work sprint that allowed me to accomplish a large amount of work in a short amount of time. In fact, I hardly got anything done despite spending pretty much all day in front of my desk, and I constantly felt drained and washed out like an over-wrung cloth. I found out later that the technical term for this was a "burnout".

Every time I was struggling, I tried to work harder and harder, and threw more and more hours at the problem. Intuitively, it seemed like the right thing to do. Blood, sweat and tears. I was putting in all three in copious amounts. So what went wrong?

I did a bit of digging around, and I found I wasn't the only one going through something like this. I had a friend who was complaining of feeling under-appreciated at work, and that led to the burnout. Another friend felt like nothing they were doing seemed to be working, and they felt unmotivated to try again. All these seemed to align with my own symptoms, and I started noticing a pattern.

All of us were too invested in everything we did, and we let everything affect everything else. Someone commenting on my hair in the morning led to a less than productive afternoon at work. Or a less than productive afternoon at work led to a bad evening at home. Mood from fights with family bled into relaxation time, and relaxation times bled into work time, and work time bled into relaxation time, it was endless, and it all blended into one ambiguous, less than appealing mess of a life that I had to find the motivation to wake up to each morning.

The cross-bleeding had to stop.

So, I started compartmentalizing. What follows is a list of the different degrees of separation that I have identified as necessary in my life. Not all apply at all times in all situations, but this is a fairly comprehensive guide to how to go about it.

1. Separation of Time

We're starting with the big one.

All of us have different sectors in our lives. Usually, the divide is something along the lines of Work/Study, Socialization, Entertainment and Hobby. The problem is, we're duty bound to the first, peer pressured into the second, addicted to the third and ignore the fourth because "I have no time!". So depending on where you stand on how important a social life is and how diligent you have to be at working or studying, chances are one of the first three dominate most of your time and mental real estate. Of course, it's not a conscious decision. "I'll just check my phone for a second" while working quickly turns into a deep dive into the rabbit hole that is social media. Similarly, a "quick reply" to someone quickly turns into a full blown thumb war with your phone while your friend angrily glares at you for ignoring the movie you're supposed to be watching together.

Set clear boundaries. It's okay. We all have lives. We all know that there are multiple aspects to our lives. People will understand if you tell them you're at work and can't take a personal call, and people will understand if you tell them you're at home with family so you can't take a work call.

Separate your time. Work time, family time, friends time, me time, whatever you need. And once you do, barring emergencies, don't think about anything else. Give your full attention to whatever it is that you're doing, and you might find you have a lot more time than you think you do.

2. Separation of Expectations

It's hard not to have expectations. I'd even venture to say it's impossible. But the question you really should be asking yourself is "Where is this expectation coming from?"

Expectations are all around us. They're often thrust upon us by the people we interact with, knowingly or unknowingly. Society, friends, family, all of them contribute to this invisible push towards their version of what you should be. Not all of it is bad, some expectations such as your mother's expectation that you eat healthy no matter how much you want to dive into that fifth bag of potato chips for lunch, is very good for you. But sometimes these expectations are set by people who don't know you very well, or come from an outdated belief system, or any number of other reasons, and these expectations can feel like a pillow in the face. Sometimes even good expectations may not apply in your situation, or sometimes your own expectations for yourself may be flawed.

Separate expectations based on their origin. Ask yourself where each expectation is coming from, and you will be able to evaluate for yourself if this is a reasonable expectation or not. If it's coming from someone else, is that person someone you trust about this?

I have a friend who was working for someone with a background completely unrelated to my friend's job. Every time she talked to her boss, he would set unrealistic expectations of her because he didn't understand what she did, and she would measure herself by those expectations and inevitably fail them, sending her spiraling. Separating his expectations from her own more qualified expectations allowed her to evaluate herself by a more realistic yardstick, and she found she was pretty damn good at her job.

Separate and identify where each of your expectations is coming from and evaluate if they are reasonable or not. You just might find that things don't go wrong as often as you thought.

3. Separation of Emotions

This one's simple, if not necessarily easy, and it's the most impactful one on this list.

In a nutshell, "What happens in one sector of your life, stays in that sector of your life".

You can't control how you feel, only what you do about it. And if you're feeling any negative emotions, it's very important to identify where they're coming from.

If you're feeling angry, irritated, sad or unmotivated or anything else for no apparent reason, chances are it's bleeding over from some other sector of your life. If you're feeling negative, take a step back and identify if what you're doing is the cause. If it isn't, then you shouldn't be allowing those emotions to affect what you're doing.

Having a bad day at work is no excuse for taking it out on family. Come home with a clear mind. One project not going well? Your other project doesn't deserve to face the consequences of that. Separate your emotions from different sectors of your life and don't let one affect the other. You just might find that you're not as sad or angry or frustrated or tired all the time as you were before.

4. Separation of Outcomes

This has less to do with the different sectors in your life, and more to do with the process vs outcome debate.

If you're on the outcome side, you probably feel that whatever you do, as long as you get the result you wanted, nothing matters. But the hidden double edge to that is that if you don't get the outcome you wanted, you start feeling like a failure because everything is tied to the results.

I used to be on the outcome side for a long time, but when that stopped working for me, I swung to the other extreme to the process side: As long as I'm doing things the "right way" and to the best of my abilities, I'm happy, whatever the outcome. This too has a hidden double edge. I don't always fight as hard as I might if I thought my life depended on the outcome.

There's no right answer.

Sometimes a focus on outcomes is better, and sometimes a focus on the process. Which means that being invested too much in either one means ignoring the other and leaving yourself open to a lot of guilt.

Separate the process from the outcome.

Separate them and figure out if this is an outcomes kind of task or a process kind of task. Hobbies tend to be process tasks. Measuring them by outcomes just gets you worked up about how you're not there yet. Work on the other hand, tends to be outcome based. Being pedantic about the process will mean you get less work done and cause a whole lot of stress when those deadlines are looming.

Separate the two and you might just find you're not screwing things up as much as you thought you were.

5. Separation of Spaces

This is the simplest and easiest thing to do on this list.

Separate your spaces. You've heard the old adage: "Don't sh*t where you eat". I'm using it totally out of context, but the literal meaning captures the essence perfectly.

Don't work where you play, you won't be able to focus on work if that PS3 is sitting two feet away from you, calling out. Don't work in bed because you'll either not feel like sleeping at night, or can't stay awake while working.

Your mind is conditioned by habit. Having dedicated spaces for different things conditions you to instantly switch gears and focus on that thing when you enter that space. This is more important than ever if you're working from home, because without the natural distinction of "Home" and "Office", things can slip into ambiguous chaos very quickly. It's also why gyms work so well, because the physical separation between your home where you relax and your gym where you work up a sweat helps you switch between the two mindsets effectively.

Separate your spaces, and you just might find that you don't struggle so much to buckle down and focus.

6. Separation of Interactions

We all have expectations as to how certain interactions will go. We play it out in our minds and some of the over thinkers among us (me) can even have the entire conversation in our heads without the other person ever knowing about it. But as it so often happens, reality doesn't always follow your perfect plans. The people you're talking to almost inevitably go off script, and sometimes, they say something that rubs you the wrong way. Of course you can't expect people to stick to a script that exists only inside your own head, but with some people, almost everything they say puts you off. It's because of mismatched expectations.

If you expect your parents to connect with you and interact with you the same way you do with your peers, you're going to be disappointed. They come from a different generation with different life experiences and won't respond the same way your peers do. But that doesn't mean you have to choose between your parents and your peers.

Separate your interactions and set different expectations for each of them. Not all interactions were born equal. Approach each one differently. You just might find that the people around you aren't as bad as you thought they were. Or that you're not as bad at social interaction as you thought you were.

Quarantine Bonus: How I'm Implementing Compartmentalization

Way back when I thought this would blow over in a week or so (oh, innocent child), I was doing most of my work sitting in bed. I'd wake up, my laptop would be right next to me and I'd be basked in the glow of my screen until lunchtime, when the annoying need for the body to be fed would take over and I'd show my face to my family for the first time.

But as I realized this was going to be sticking around a lot longer, I decided I had

to stop living like a bridge troll in my own room.

With a bit of work, I converted a section of my garage into a home office with great ambiance, a desk and good WiFi. Separation of Spaces.

Then I decided that no matter what, I'd wake up, get ready and be in there before 10:00 AM, work diligently till about 8:00 PM, then shut down my laptop and not turn it on again until the next morning at 10:00 AM. Separation of Time.

Now I was very career productive before the quarantine began, working with full focus building my knowledge in Robotics. When everything came to a screeching halt, there was immense pressure both from myself and from my family to keep that momentum up and continue working. But working at home, I didn't have access to any equipment from my lab, nor could I find the motivation to improvise and make do with what I had. It began to create a lot of stress under the surface. So I questioned where these expectations were coming from. My parents were expecting me to work so that I don't fall behind. I was expecting myself to work because I didn't want to slip into complacency. But as I examined them, both seemed unreasonable to me. I wasn't falling behind because this wasn't a race, and I knew when the time came, I'd shake off the cobwebs and get right back into it, but I had no reason to bend over backwards right now. So I set different expectations for myself and began to focus on the things I couldn't spend a lot of time on before all of this. Separation of Expectations.

A lot of those things were hobbies. I picked up learning the guitar, continued my illustrations, read books, baked, cooked and gardened. But it wasn't happy going at first. I desperately wanted to be able to play long fast riffs on the guitar, but I was struggling with the fundamentals. And I desperately wanted to cook some fancy dishes, but the process was too long and complicated. I was judging my guitar by outcomes when it was a process oriented task and baking by process when it was an outcome oriented task. So I decided not to worry about how I play my guitar, but just play everyday. And I decided not to think about the baking process, but choose to imagine that first scrumptious bite. And I found my motivation returning in heaps. Separation of Outcomes.

Before I figured all of this out with my hobbies, though, I was getting very frustrated with my efforts. It used to come out as curt replies to family, ignoring of phone calls from friends, and generally being a wet sponge in the house. One day, things got to a head, I had a big fight at home, and I realized I was being unfair to them. Ever since, when I put my guitar down, I put my frustration down with it. Separation of Emotions.

Finally, the subtle one. I was used to seeing my closest friends everyday, spending more time with them than with anyone else. But suddenly, over the course of a weekend, my world turned upside down and I ended up spending all my time with family and only the occasional video call with friends. I tried to cope by interacting with my family the way I did with my friends, and was always disappointed by their responses. Of course I was, they're a whole other generation away. But it left me constantly feeling alone and frustrated. Understanding that I was expecting of them what I would normally expect of friends helped me alter my expectations and have a better relationship with them. Separation of Interactions.


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