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How to Compartmentalize For Productivity

Written by Ben Willmott
Productivity and Project Management blogger for at work and at home
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Imagine a day where stress doesn’t cloud your mind and you’re fully engaged in every moment. Sounds great, right? This is where compartmentalization can help. It’s a simple yet powerful way to bring order to your life.

Think of compartmentalization as creating mental ‘boxes.’ Each box holds different tasks, responsibilities, or thoughts. This way, they don’t jostle for your attention all at once. Instead, you can focus on one ‘box’ at a time, giving each task the attention it deserves.

This method is especially helpful in managing stress. By tackling one thing at a time, you reduce anxiety and tension. It’s a popular strategy for staying mentally agile in a world filled with differing opinions and constant demands. Compartmentalizing allows you to navigate through life’s challenges more calmly and effectively.

Understanding Compartmentalization

Have you ever wondered how to stay focused amid chaos? Compartmentalization might just be the answer. It’s like your brain’s way of organizing thoughts and emotions into separate ‘boxes,’ helping you stay calm and focused.

In simple terms, compartmentalization is a mental process where your brain deals with conflicting emotions or thoughts by keeping them in different compartments. This helps in maintaining peace of mind. Think of it as your brain’s ‘fight’ response to stress and anxiety, keeping you composed by segregating thoughts.

More Than Just a Coping Mechanism

While it’s known as a defense mechanism in psychology,[1] especially for managing trauma, compartmentalization isn’t just about coping.

It can be a powerful tool for boosting productivity. By focusing solely on the task at hand and shutting out distractions, you can achieve remarkable focus and efficiency.


How Successful People Use It

Leadership coach Robin Sharma calls this the ‘Tight Bubble of Total Focus Strategy.’ He shuts out all distractions, turns off his phone, and dedicates himself wholly to the task.

This method of deep, undisturbed work is also something I practice. When focusing, I tune into ‘The Anjunadeep Edition,’ a music podcast, to help me zone in on the content I’m creating. This approach has significantly boosted my productivity.

Compartmentalization in Everyday Life

The beauty of compartmentalization is its ability to help you focus, no matter what’s happening in your life.

Whether it’s personal troubles, business woes, or workplace conflicts, this skill lets you close the door on these issues and concentrate on the work that needs to be done.

Picture your mind as a house with many rooms. Each ‘room’ represents a different aspect of your life. When you step into one room and close the door, you’re fully immersed in that specific task or thought, without distractions.


Mastering this skill can lead to a significant increase in quality work and free up time for other pursuits. It’s not just about working hard, but working smart.

How to Start Practicing Compartmentalization

To get started with compartmentalization, try various techniques that suit your lifestyle and work habits.

Establishing rules, habits, and approaches will not only minimize stress but also give you a greater sense of control over your life.

1. Practice Through Visualization

Starting to visualize your journey towards a long term goal or vision helps you to begin compartmentalizing.

One approach is to visualize yourself going on a journey in a car taking on board whats going to help you achieve your goals and not taking on board what isn’t serving you.

Let me explain:

Any issues or stress in your life as you come alongside them, move them into another car or house that’s not on your journey or isn’t on your journey yet.


For example, you have a big pitch coming up at work, but it’s weeks away, and it’s already causing you anxiety. Place it in a house that’s much further up the road as you shouldn’t be worrying about it yet. Then focus hard on the house telling yourself it’s okay to have it there and you will deal with it when you’re ready. You then continue on your journey.

Keep going on this journey, moving each dominant thought into another car or house until you feel you have a place for each of your main worries or thoughts. Anything that you don’t want on your journey at all, say no to it and remove it.

You’ll soon feel more in control and calmer the more you practice this approach.

2. Focus on ONE Thing at a Time

This may sound obvious, but knowing you should focus on one thing at a time versus actually doing it are two very different things.

Multitasking doesn’t work and impacts your focus and productivity.

Pick one task. It doesn’t matter if it’s large or small, then set a timer which is a little promise to yourself that you won’t be distracted during this time. Entirely focus on that task until the timer is finished.

Use a Google timer, a stopwatch or an app. It doesn’t matter as long as it has an alarm once complete.

Practicing this which is named Deep Work by Cal Newport in the book called Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. The more you practice this skill, the better you’ll become.


3. Recognize When You’re Going within Yourself

You may be working on a task at work when something triggers an adverse reaction in you like a comment from a work colleague, or you’re reminded of a particular situation that impacted your confidence in the past.

At this moment, don’t go within yourself.

Practice recognizing when this happens, so that you can accept it in that moment, then let it pass.

You can literally talk to yourself, ideally in your head if you’re not on your own saying, I recognize this, but now I’m moving on as it doesn’t serve me.

4. Write it Down

No matter how focused you’re and well practiced with compartmentalization techniques, thoughts and ideas will still pop into your head.

To prevent these thoughts from repeating themselves, write them down by keeping a small notepad with you at all times.

Just a word or two is needed so as not to distract you from what you’re currently working on. You can then move on with what you’re doing, knowing you’ve recognized this thought.

By doing this, you stop the repeating thought in your head by acknowledging it with the action of note-taking.

5. Simplify What You’re Working on at Any One Time

At work or at home, some requests or projects can at times seem overwhelming.

When the task is large or complex, it’s hard to know where to start. This feeling of being overwhelmed triggers stress, and you naturally start doubting yourself. You think how you can possibly get this done with everything else going on in your life.


How do you solve this?

You simplify everything. This doesn’t mean the request has just become simple and easy to do, but you break it down into more straightforward tasks by compartmentalizing them.

If a project has multiple tasks, group them into different compartments or areas to break it down and name these areas. Then pick an area and move through each task one by one. If a task is too hard or complex, break it down again into smaller tasks until you can do them.

Focus on one area at a time. You’ll never complete all your tasks in one go, so why worry about them? Each time you complete a task, you’re one step closer from completing them all.

6. Focus on What Only You Can Control

Distracting thoughts or the actions of those around can often throw you off course either physically or mentally.

Being able to compartmentalize allows you to focus on what you can control at that moment and not let others move you into a stressful place or distract you.


Any external triggers like a driver with road rage, a rude pedestrian or a rude comment from a work colleague, remind yourself you can control how you can react at that moment.

One technique to help with moving on is showing gratitude in these situations. Sounds unusual, but let me explain:

A rude pedestrian is crossing the road at the wrong time, which causes you to slam your breaks on and get stuck at a red light. Rather than let the stress build-up, simply say thank you for doing that as this has helped me improve my focus for the journey ahead. It may have even prevented something more serious from happening further on in your journey.

By merely saying thank you and seeing the positive in the situation, it immediately reduces your stress levels and allows the situation to pass by.

7. Group Everything You Do Under Your Goals

Like the visualization technique where you take yourself on a journey in your mind and group everything into compartments, you can do the same with your physical actions.

For every action you plan to take, align it with a goal you’ve set for yourself whether that’s for work, personal or relationships. By doing this, you’re compartmentalizing in the physical world to allow you to stay focused and in control.

Compartmentalizing your goals also makes sure you’re working on what is bringing you the most value and getting you to your goals faster.


Now with this approach in place, if you’re tempted to work on something that doesn’t align with your goals, you can say no to it.

8. Create Time Barriers

Creating time barriers has multiple advantages to managing stress, your workload, and how productive you’re.

Designating time for yourself, when there are no work distractions, social media or any other type of distraction that might elevate stress levels is vital for managing life in general.

Everyone will have different times of the day when you can do this, but for example, blocking out 6 am – 7 am every morning for exercise, reading time or meditation is a fantastic way to start the day.

To do this, you need to do two things:

Plan your week every week and place this me-time in your diary and ideally what you want to do during this time, so you don’t waste it. Then share with those you’re close too when you’re doing this and why. Be open about why as they then can help you make sure you keep these times slots free.

9. Set Rules for Yourself

Look at the behaviors that could create stress, lack of focus or put yourself in situations that don’t serve you. Then create rules to either prevent you from acting this way or help you recognise the situations that make you behave this way.

Sounds like being back at school, but here are some examples:

You only work on a particular type of work between set hours as that’s when you’re most productive. Or between the hours of 9 am and 11 am on a Saturday, you do nothing but play with your children, no email, jobs around the house as the two don’t mix well.


Creating these rules for yourself quickly turns them into habits and then reminders are no longer needed.

10. Schedule a Time For Checking Emails

Having 24/7 access to work emails can negatively impact your ability to compartmentalize. They’re a stress inducer and never let you truly relax and focus on your home life once away from work.

The one sure way to fix this is once you’ve finished work is stop doing the ad hoc checks of your inbox. You may feel like you’re making it easier for yourself by checking email in the evenings, but the later in the evening you check, the longer it will take you to switch off and have a relaxing evening and peaceful sleep.

Set a deadline for when you’ll check your emails for the last time that day, ideally when you’re still at the office. You must make sure you have a few hours left in the evening, so you can say goodbye to emails until the next day!

You can also turn off notifications on your mobile to prevent the temptation to check your inbox. It only takes a few clicks to turn these on and off. If you can’t turn off notifications, then leave your mobile in a different room each evening, so you’re not tempted,

11. Recognize What’s Really Important vs What’s Urgent

Whether you love your job or hate it, work can spill into other aspects of your life at home and on holiday in some cases.

Even when you’re working, there is a constant stream of requests coming your way, and knowing the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important is critical when it comes to managing stress levels.


For example, emails are nearly always a request to respond with some information or perform some action or response. These are often treated as urgent because over the years, we’ve become accustomed to always responding to emails quickly.

For the majority of the time, emails may seem urgent, but few of them are important. Recognize what’s important versus urgent and then work on those important emails first as these will have a more significant impact.

When a request comes in, whether that is an email or any other request for your time, ask yourself do I need to respond to this now. Can it wait, is it more important than what I’m doing at this moment?

You can also put yourself in the requester’s shoes and think if they don’t get a response for another day, will that make much of a difference?

The Bottom Line

To reduce stress and be more present with those you love, practicing these techniques is critical. The more you practice them, the quicker they become ingrained as habits, and your overwhelming feeling of control will increase.

Compartmentalizing is a well-practiced approach to manage what life throws at you in a more manageable way that works for you.


The more control and focus you can create in the present moment will result in not only less stress, but improved productivity and more quality time.

Be prepared to adapt these approaches for your own situation, but the principles and expected results should remain the same.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

How to Compartmentalize For Productivity

Compartmentalization helps organize thoughts and tasks into separate ‘boxes’, reducing overlapping and distractions.Thus, improving your focus and ability to manage stress.

It acts as a coping mechanism for managing conflicting emotions and stress.

It is useful in managing life’s challenges by mentally ‘closing the door’ on unrelated issues.

Visualization: Mentally sorting worries into different ‘compartments’.

Single-Tasking: Concentrating on one task at a time.

Simplifying Tasks: Breaking down complex tasks into smaller parts.

Email Management: Restricting email checks to work hours to maintain work-life balance.– Prioritizing Tasks: Distinguishing between what’s urgent and what’s important.


[1]Harvard Business Review: Break Through Your Mental Bureaucracy
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