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The Fine Art of Compartmentalization in a Multi-Tasking World

July 24, 2012, 07:00 AM
Topic: Careers
Related: Career, Gni Grossman

I love my husband. When we finally find time to sit and watch some TV, he places the home phone, my smart phone, his smart phone, his work cell phone and the IPad on the coffee table in front of us. God forbid that we are not available to receive those all important calls and emails from anyone and everyone! Really, I love my husband, and although I think this is becoming the standard for many in life, isn’t he taking this staying in touch at all times a little too far? A little peace and quiet during our downtime – please!

There’s no doubt that society expects us to live life multitasking. At work where we attend meetings, watch and respond to emails via our cell phones and write reports on our pads all at once; at home where we watch TV, respond to emails via our cell phones, talk to and/or text our friends via our cell phones all at once, and even on vacation where we do all of the above all at once.  If this is expected of us, then we need to learn to compartmentalize in order to remain sane and capable of acting appropriately.

It’s not reasonable to assume that a person who is “live” at all times is also going to be able to perform at their peak as well. Multi-tasking means that something is not getting your full attention, and therefore is being slighted of your best.  Think about talking to Bob, the candidate on the phone and reviewing the resume of Pete at the same time – and then calling Bob, Pete! Ooh boy, that doesn’t play well (yes, unfortunately, I have done this)! Or how about when you are typing a memo and speaking to a peer at work (or worse, your manager) about next steps in a project, when it occurs to you that you didn’t hear the last few sentences and....uh oh, I think he just said something important! “Uh, would you mind repeating that last sentence?” Maybe you’re talking to your mother on the phone while looking at In the middle of her telling you about her visit to the cardiologist, you can’t help yourself when you see the headline and say “WOW!  Did you know the temperature in Phoenix is 125?”  The silence on the other end is stupefying.

How do we control this in our personal and professional lives? I believe it’s a matter of setting standards, controlling expectations (yours and those around you), knowing your priorities and compartmentalizing. 

If you take the bull by the horns and give the meeting you are in your full attention, you will set a standard for others in the meeting. When your responses are fast, smart and on-target it will make that other meeting-attendee – the one with his face in his tablet – look a little sluggish.  When asked why a report is not completed, or when it will be completed, control the expectation by saying “I want to be able to give this my complete attention and at the same time not slight my other responsibilities, so I plan on .....”

When you pass someone in the hall at work and they say, “Didn’t you see my email? I need your answer now!” –  let them know that if needing an answer is urgent, email may not be the best way to get your attention as it’s not always your priority to check email every minute. In doing so, you are setting a standard and controlling expectations, as well as making it easier on yourself to work within your priorities and handle them appropriately. So, yes, that means you may ignore your phone when it rings or not look at your emails every other minute.  Sometimes waiting for “that” call or “that” email, may be the priority.  Other times, it may be better to do the compartmentalization thing – this report is the most important thing to do right now, so I am going to put it in the “do it now” compartment,  while checking my emails is going in the “hold off until later” compartment. Other times, it may be the other way around.  It’s a juggling act, but a very important one if you are going to perform your best and maintain some semblance of order and sanity.

At the same time, we have home life/work life multitasking to contend with daily. There are many reports out there (just Google it!) that say everybody needs complete down time from work to refresh -- that without this time we will not (again) perform at our best. So when my husband puts his work cell phone on the coffee table, I wonder if he is expecting some emergency work call – at 10 PM! That would be the only reasonable work call to take when you are “refreshing” yourself. Or when he checks his work emails right before he goes to bed and then can’t sleep because one (or more) of the emails aggravated him. That certainly doesn’t help matters.

Compartmentalize: Set a time when you check those work emails at home (an unobtrusive time and only if you must) and be true to yourself – don’t cheat and check it at other times.

The same goes for your home life. If you are spending time with your children, give them that time – put all other things in a different compartment. Do you really need to take that call from a friend that wants to tell you about his/her shopping trip, golf game, etc? No, it can wait – let the phone ring.  When the kids are in bed and the dishes are done and you have an hour to be a couch potato – make it your priority to do so, don’t let non-priorities creep in. The only calls, e-mails, texts that you should pay attention to are those that are emergencies and believe me those people will know how to get in contact with you!

So now we are down to controlling your own expectations. Kind of a reverse example, but remember that call with Mom we talked about? How would you like it if the person you were telling your greatest concerns to was obviously not listening? Think about that the next time you are communicating with someone and handling another task at the same time. Yeah, feel guilty about it and then make a change to your actions!

Yes, multitasking is the way of the world and we have to learn how to do it without compromising our work, our home life, our families and ourselves. Actively compartmentalizing priorities versus non-priorities, emergencies versus non-emergencies and communicating these to the people around you will help you along the way.

Now, if only I can get my husband to understand..... I really do love him!

Gni Grossman
Founder | GG Companies
Gni Grossman is a principal at GG Companies, a human resources consulting and executive recruiting firm. She started this company after over twenty years as a human resources generalist with corporations such as The Hay Group and De Lage Landen and 5 years focusing on recruiting for the equipment finance industry at Molloy Associates, Inc. Gni holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

Readers may contact Gni Grossman at and/or contact Gni at 781-859-5157.

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