A New Kind of Compartmentalization

Photo of child playing peekaboo behind a door

By Jacob Hahn, Internal Consultant, Office of Strategic Consulting

A lot has changed in the past two weeks. Our world has flipped us upside down and dropped many of us off at home, indefinitely. And so here we are, trying to make each part of our lives work, all in one place while not completely obsessing over what is (and isn’t) happening outside of our walls.

Admittedly, I have been struggling to find motivation for and connection to my work since I began working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I suspect I’m not alone in this, although most people I talk to are playing it cool in a way that I can’t.

My work matters greatly to me, but more than anything, I want to be an engaged and positive dad to my two young kids. I also want to support my partner, whose work has become much more hectic of late. On top of all that, I want to find ways to put good into my community and world.

Creating New Expectations

I needed a reference for how to do purposeful, thoughtful work from home in the midst of everything (and everyone) around me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go far. My partner has worked remotely for the better part of a decade as a faculty member at a peer institution. We’ve talked about her challenges countless times, but I didn’t understand their depth until now, as I face the same reality.

Her most prescient piece of advice was to stop assuming that I needed to (or even could) work at home in the same way I could in the office. I needed new expectations about how and when I could realistically get good work done.

Compartmentalizing as a Solution

I am a compartmentalist by nature, and I found my solution through this knowledge. I am not a work-life integrator. I work at work, and I am home when I am at home. But, now that my work exists at home—making them both feel like part of the same stew— how do I reconceptualize compartmentalization in a way that works for me?

For me, compartmentalization means finding a specific time and place for everything on my plate that matters, while summoning the requisite energy and creativity to take on what I’ve put in front of myself. Compartmentalization enables me to identify and complete what needs to be done while allowing less important things to fall away for the moment. Moment is the operative term—I also need to create space and time to come back to what I have allowed to fall away.

Currently, I am no longer putting time parameters on my workday, nor do I have large blocks of time to work within. My work time has become compressed and exists between my kids’ meltdowns, keeping everyone fed and the house in order, the work needs and schedule of my partner, and taking as many opportunities as I can to breathe fresh air. It feels like an ever-evolving puzzle that can’t be solved, just moved through.

I envision the various lives I am living under one roof as separate rooms with closable doors. When I enter one, I give myself the permission to completely and deeply focus on what is before me. I am integrating my compartments based on what is needed and when. So far, it seems to be working. It is certainly not my ideal ‘MO’ (modus operandi), but it does feel like a solid coping mechanism, as well as an exercise in dialing up my self-management capacity, an important part of emotional intelligence.

How long will this brand of compartmentalization work for me? Hopefully as long as I really need it to. What I do know is that this experience has opened my eyes to the idea that just because I have always worked a certain way does not mean that that is my only option.

Our collective experience with this pandemic has already changed us in many ways, and it will continue to—but I am left with the belief that we can choose to change ourselves, our expectations, and how we operate. How we assess and respond to our circumstances matters just as much, if not more, than the circumstance we find ourselves in.