The Fallacy of Compartmentalization

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Today’s guest contributor is my friend Todd Henry. Todd is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He is also the author of a fantastic new book The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant At a Moment’s Notice.

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When life gets overwhelming, it’s tempting to divide it into manageable buckets.

We talk about things like our work life and our home life as though we can somehow slip out of our skin and assume another identity when transitioning between them. However, trying to compartmentalize the various parts of life can take a significant toll on our effectiveness across the board.

Every area of our life is hardwired to every other area. It is impossible to perform a task in one sphere and not have it affect another. Energy we put toward a work task is energy we can put toward a personal project.

Similarly, every personal commitment we make, even if it’s just a commitment to think about something, requires energy that will not be available when it’s time to focus on our work.

How does this affect our ability to generate ideas?

When we are in a very busy time at work, one in which we’re required to generate a lot of ideas in a short amount of time, we need tremendous amounts of energy and focus. But many of us make commitments and expend energy on other, less critical projects thoughtlessly during these times without considering the consequences.

We don’t realize that each commitment we make affects every other. We fail to plan ahead and take into account the creative energy that will be required by our work during a specific week and continue to make commitments, plan meetings, or allocate time to work on unrelated projects.

It’s easy to assume that as long as time is available, we can continue filling it up. This is how we have been trained to think about productivity‚ it’s all about efficiency.

But…

Mindlessly stacking unrelated activities and projects into a week where we expect creative breakthroughs on important projects only drains our energy and fractures our focus.

This goes for personal commitments, too.

We will miss critical insights that could lead to conceptual breakthroughs simply because we are operating at less than optimum capacity. However, if we take into account the season we are in at work and at home, along with all the associated demands, we will be able to make commitments wisely rather than by instinct.

I’ve met and worked with many people who blow right past this principle at great cost. In fact, I used to be one of them.

During one five-month period of my life, I was growing a creative team from five members to twenty-five, continuing to manage the daily demands of my very challenging fifty-to- sixty-hour-a-week job, dealing with the needs of our newborn second child (and his older brother), working on the adoption of our little girl from Guatemala, launching a nonprofit to fund international adoption and planning an associated benefit concert, working on a book with a colleague, working on the early stages of what has become Accidental Creative, performing with a band and writing music with my songwriter friends, and attempting to maintain some type of interpersonal health with my wife and close friends.

At the time, I remember feeling like I was being quite productive. I was accomplishing more than I ever had, seeing success across every area of my life, and feeling pretty good physically. Until I hit bottom. Hard. Because I technically had the time I needed to focus on each of these projects, I didn’t think there was any problem with pursuing them with full guns blazing. I would stack hour after hour with project activity and creative demands, but unknowingly my creative engine was burning oil.

One day, I realized that, though I was technically working on all of these projects, I was gradually becoming less effective in each of them. I stopped having ideas for the book I was working on, and I was straining my relationship with my coauthor. Team and organizational leadership priorities became fuzzy, and my team was suffering badly. Ideas weren’t flowing for our most important initiatives. My interpersonal relationships, including with my wife, were strained.

Most surprising of all, everything that I was once quite excited about felt like an obligation rather than an opportunity.

I was spent. I was a shell of myself. I wasn’t able to bring the best part of myself, my creative insights and leadership, to anything that mattered to me. I had to take time off from work just to  reground myself in what I was really trying to do. I had to trim several initiatives out of my life at the expense of the personal relationships involved just in order to get my head above water.

The worst part was that my family had been feeling the effects of my overextension for a very long time, and I’d not even noticed. My wife and I had to have some frank discussions about setting boundaries in my work, including the amount of hours I could put in.

The principle that I’d blown right past in my pursuit of creative invincibility was that each commitment I made, and each project I decided to take on, required something more of me than just my time. Each required my energy. And because I was not being strategic and purposeful about the number and nature of simultaneous commitments I was making, I soon found myself in energy debt. I was creatively inverted and no longer had enough energy to generate the ideas I needed just to keep my head above water.

When you are planning your life, you need to account for every commitment you make in every area.

This means that when you are in a busy season at work, you need to be disciplined enough to trim back the number of personal commitments you make. Similarly, when you are entering a busy season in your personal life, you need to be purposeful about the extra commitments you take on for work. While you can’t always choose what you work on, you can be careful and strategic about where you focus your energy outside of those core commitments.

To effectively focus on the most important work, we need to treat our life more like a portfolio and less like a set of mutually exclusive drawers.

Doing so will make sure we have the time, attention and energy we need to do brilliant work.

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Todd Henry is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He is also the author of the new book The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant At a Moment’s Notice.

[FTC Disclosure – You should always assume that pretty much every link on this blog is an affiliate link and that if you click it, find something you like and buy it, I’m gonna make some serious money. Now, understand this, I’m not talking chump change, I’m talking huge windfall in commissions, bling up the wazoo and all sorts of other free stuff. I may even be given a mansion and a yacht, though honestly I’d settle most of the time for some organic dark chocolate and clean socks. Oh, and if I mention a book or some other product, just assume I got a review copy of it gratis and that me getting it has completely biased everything I say. Because, books are like a drug to me, put one in my hand and you own my ass. Ethics be damned! K, you’ve been warned. Huggies and butterflies. ]

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16 responses

16 responses to “The Fallacy of Compartmentalization”

  1. dave r. says:

    in the “olden days”, we called it being “scattered”….personally i dont believe in the whole “multi-tasker” thing…its just doing a lot of “stuff” half-assed.

  2. T. Reed says:

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been guilty of “compartmentalizing” for ages…I just never sat down and thought about it from that perspective, probably because I used to be better at it;)Reading your description of your realization hit me in the face like a mirror – I finally reached my “Burning Oil” epiphany moment. I still find the complication in being interested in several creative territories and restricting myself to limited numbers of projects. Especially as a freelance composer/artist/writer in the creative realms where no single project has any guarantee of bringing return and all projects can cross media boundaries requiring multiple disciplines and/or team development & management. Does your book delve into offering deeper solutions to juggling multiple projects/disciplines? – Feeling overwhelmed and wishing I could stop the rest of the world for a few weeks just to catch up and organize my creative and business chaostrophy;)

    T. Reed – Composer @TAOXproductions

    • Todd Henry says:

      That’s definitely one of the most challenging aspects of being a freelancer – there’s often little definition around the work, complicated expectations and relationships, and no guarantee of long-term payoff. For freelancers, there are often loose boundaries between “work” and “personal” life, making it all the more challenging. The only thing I’ve found to be really effective is building practices – that create stability even in times of chaos – around Focus (effectively defining and refining the work), Relationships (having strategically stimulating ones rather than just relationships of convenience or obligation), Energy management (rather than just managing time), Stimuli (the kinds of things you allow in your head) and Hours (learning to use time effectively versus just efficiently).

      • T. Reed says:

        THANKS Todd! That says a whole lot in a little space, and all common sense, but it’s sometimes hard to see it straight with the mire of projects, partners, and juggling passion projects with payday projects!

        T.Reed – Composer @TAOXproductions

  3. “Most surprising of all, everything that I was once quite excited about felt like an obligation rather than an opportunity.”

    I’ve just struggled out of a similar swamp – I knew I was feeling unmotivated, procrastinating too much, unfocused but I just couldn’t figure out why. I had to make the decision to just STOP for a few days and regroup, even though it felt like I should be going full speed ahead. After a few days, it became clear what my priorities should be and what I needed to drop.

    I’m excited to read your book and see what other insights you have – good thing reading is on the priority list!

  4. Lynn says:

    About halfway throught this piece, I bookmarked five open tabs so I could close them — and the commitment of my energies each represents.

    Now, a refocus of the day’s energy to a project I’ve been meaning to jump into for two days.

    Thanks for the swift kick in the priorities!

  5. Marie Davis says:

    Yippie! This year I am going to be able to quit my “day job” to concentrate on my writing full time. Its taken me many years, but now I can really afford it! I can hardly wait to see how that is going to reflect in my creativity! yippie!

  6. David Lapin says:

    This article and its message that “each commitment I made… required something more of me than just my time,” is profoundly important and under-recognized. Thank you Jonathan and Todd.

    One of the things I find helpful in coaching busy people is to help them develop a single overarching purpose and world-view for their entire life that informs all decisions, priorities and trade-offs, and works across all of their life’s the “silos”. (Trying to do it in my own life too, but it’s easier to teach it to others!!)

    David Lapin
    Leadership Advisor & Author: Lead By Greatness (shortly to be published)

  7. Amy Volk says:

    excellent! I teach moms the concept of evaluating all that they are committed to and how that affects their life as a whole. Great to hear this from another perspective.

  8. Jim Weible says:

    Great concepts! I continue to battle my tendencies to over-commit and the accompanying loss of energy, brilliance, and creative ideas. Thanks for the great reminder!

    Your point about efficiency and productivity is very insightful.

    Looking forward to learning more from your book!

  9. Alex says:

    I think writing this post took courage.

    So many of us live this kind of frantic life where we ignore basic limits of time, energy and respect for boundaries.

    I don’t know whether this is a general cultural “virus” or a specific corporate malaise but I’ve hit this problem more than once.

  10. TomC says:

    “Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance”, is perhaps one of the most important ideas I have learned… but sadly do not live by.

    Anyway, this kind of sounds like New Years resolutions when people start out like gangbusters and then just run out of what? motivation? interest? belief? I think the bottom line for most people is energy.

    Without energy “ability” is just potential.

  11. Congrats on the book Todd – looking forward to reading it.

    Great post – I have lightened up so much on my commitments in the last few years – not sure if it is age or wisdom or a combination of both!

    Cathy

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