Capture their enemies. Win back your life.

Two skills are quickly emerging as the most critical, yet elusive, leadership skills in the dawn of a new work era. Prioritization and compartmentalization top the list of skills that propel leaders and teams to success. They sound simple in theory. Why, then, are they so challenging to really execute?

What’s the difference in prioritization and compartmentalization?

For simplicity, prioritization is about organizing your most important work. Compartmentalization is about letting it go.

You may not think of these two skills as being dependent on one another. However, when you reflect on your workload, achievement orientation, hours invested, lack of (literal) boundaries between work and home, and the consequences of reactivity, fatigue, mental overwhelm, and impatience, you may quickly wake up to the reality that there’s a connection and a missing link between these two attributes.

Let’s be clear: these are both skills and skills can be developed. We just need to find the link between the two and the best way to incorporate both into your leadership skill set.

Prioritization and Setting the Goals You Need to Succeed

There’s an entire industry, rife with acronyms, that is dedicated to prioritizing work. You’ve probably attended a training or workshop focusing on:

  • OKR (objectives and key results)
  • MBO (management by objectives)
  • SMART goals
  • Creating better to-do lists
  • Utilizing digital productivity tools.

There is no shortage of strategies and tools designed to prioritize your work. The problem then is clearly in the doing, not the knowing.

Prioritization requires an integral component that is often overlooked: it’s impossible to prioritize if a clear goal is not present.

Too often, I hear even very senior executives that are waiting for priorities and measures to drip down from the top, only to be waiting well into their respective Q1s (and often beyond).

Regardless of your level, it’s your responsibility to set your goals based on what you know for sure at the time. Goals can be shifted when you receive additional information but working without them in place creates chaos. Uncertainty is the enemy of prioritization and it’s now the currency of our pandemic-laden life.

How Do I Create the Right Goals?

You need to get clarity about your goals; the responsibility of gaining that insight is up to you.

In the absence of clarity from above, step into the leadership void with your vision and set your goals accordingly.

At best, you are recognized for initiative and leading in a challenging time. At worst, you surface the tension needed to gain clarity.

Taking this step on your own can feel psychologically dangerous. You worry that you might rock the boat or offend a key stakeholder. You don’t want to be an outlier. You’ve heard over and over that “this is just the way things are done here.”

You may feel concerned that pushing for goals could mean putting yourself at risk, possibly putting your job and career in jeopardy. Can all of this really be true and is this level of concern warranted?

Here’s the short answer; it doesn’t really matter.

At this point in your career and your life, you don’t have the time or the energy to be subject to priority churn at someone else’s whims. For most of us, this is not part of our role and it’s both sabotaging our work and depleting our vitality, energy and confidence.

Compartmentalization: Sectioning Your Life and Avoiding Distraction

While prioritization gets a lot of attention from those previously mentioned training classes and acronyms, compartmentalization is just as important a skill and just as challenging to develop.

Compartmentalization is the mental process of keeping information and emotions separate. It came into our business vocabulary during the industrial revolution, and the desire/ability to section and distinguish our lives has been top of mind for business leaders since the 1920s.

Why Do We Need to Compartmentalize?

To be blunt, if we don’t compartmentalize, we are not going to make it. Negative stress, fatigue and burnout are inevitable in the current work environment to which most of us are subjected.

We race forward to keep up with modern day work demands living in a word where urgency is the common vernacular and where we talk ceaselessly about agility, quarterly earnings, speed, transformation, disruption, and on and on.

We are expected to respond more quickly, get more done, juggle more tasks, while maintaining the capacity to take on more. We have been working progressively longer hours since the 1970s.

Recent evidence suggests it’s only getting worse, especially due to the pandemic’s acceleration of work from home and, for many of us, workstream devices being visible out of the corner of our eye at any time day or night.

We continue to see boundaries broken down year after year, with the tumult of past year completely demolishing any remaining pretense of separation between our work and personal lives.

We said that the biggest challenge for prioritization is a lack of clear goals. What’s the biggest challenge for compartmentalization? Overcoming distraction.

How Does Distraction Impact Our Ability to Compartmentalize?

We hear often about the external distractions that leave us half-present in conversations and relationships – the constant push notifications, chats, texts, status updates, and so on.

Yes, we would be best served to turn those off at specific intervals and times so we can be more productive and more satisfied. According to research on the productivity of computer programmers, the highest performers were only differentiated by the amount of distraction they allowed in.

The real crippler in our modern era of work is internal distraction.

When your mind races at 2 a.m. or you half-listen to your child, or you forget why you just entered a certain room to get something, or you always feel like there is something else you should be doing, it’s because you’ve developed a broken-down muscle of attention.

In this same vein, multi-tasking is destructive because it requires a constant shifting of attention, a perpetual re-orienting of your work efforts.

People believe they can or that they should be able to multi-task. When participants in Regenerate training sessions are asked whether it’s a critical skill, they all say yes. When the same training participants who valued multi-tasking are asked whether they’re good at it, they all admit they’re not.

And they’re not meant to be, even though our work culture ingrains a need to multi-task into all of us. We are moving so fast we rarely pause long enough to see if the skills we are attempting are even skills that build our capacity and our efficiency.

Multi-tasking isn’t some elusive skill. It’s really just fast and frequent context switching, which lowers your ability to produce good work or to truly evaluate your efforts. It’s proven multi-tasking is ineffective, promotes anxiety, trains the muscle of distraction, and dumbs us down.

What’s the Connection Between Prioritization and Compartmentalization, and How Do We Put These Skills to Work?

The links between prioritization and compartmentalization are clear.

We need to prioritize to understand what’s truly important and meaningful. We need to compartmentalize to keep the important items we’ve identified from bleeding over into each other and preventing us from ever truly regenerating or recharging.

When we don’t develop a mindset that incorporates these two skills, we don’t have a foundation for managing our work efforts and achieving our goals.

If we try to achieve too much without prioritizing and compartmentalizing, we feel an overwhelming, suffocating need to achieve – a drive to work for work’s sake, to prove our competency, adequacy and personal value. We use this same fear-driven achievement as a coping mechanism, a way to push away or avoid negative emotions that sit behind the dam of work, ready to break through during moments of life reflection.

We work without a clear goal and without boundaries, just doing as much as we can as relentlessly as we can. Why? Because we’re afraid we won’t earn the responses we want and that we’ll be isolated, ostracized or told we weren’t good enough. We feel like if we stop for a minute, we’ll let a ball drop and we won’t be able to mend it.

Does that sound familiar? These underlying psychological needs and fears are the chief issues that cripple prioritization and hinder the ability to let go.

How can you clear some of these obstacles, and help to clear them for your team, so you can work toward a goal of prioritizing and compartmentalizing? 

1.       Face your biggest enemies.

To organize our most important work and to use the capability to let go of work when needed, we have to fight off their biggest enemies: uncertainty, fear, addiction, and the desire to achieve, feel valued, and contribute.

From a logical perspective, we know these unhealthy behaviors shouldn’t be a part of our lives. However, they’re not simple to fix. They are psychological and emotional in nature, which can make them easy to identify but hard and painful to eradicate.

Think of this as a challenge – to retrieve a treasure that’s buried in the murkiness of fear and self-doubt without getting sucked under and losing your way.

To face the challenge, you need to unite your physical, emotional, and mental energy, making choices that energize you and build your capacity. Your choices across each energy spectrum affect one another, so be aware of which actions (like being tied to your phone, being overly fatigued or skipping your morning mindfulness) can have an impact on your ability to manage the rest of your day well.

2.      Acknowledge reality.

Accept that you are now working in the most difficult era in the history of work and ensure you are making the necessary adjustments to be more thoughtful about solutions.

Your time is valuable, previous and finite. Find ways to use your time and energy wisely in service of those goals that you set/prioritized.

Many people start this process with guidelines like “No Meeting Wednesdays” or “No Video Tuesdays,” and while those efforts can be a great start, that’s what they are: a start, not a solution.

3.      Discuss how people are feeling.

Take the time before every meeting to check in and ask how people are feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally. Share your story first and watch the team respond.

We tend to shy away from talking these things it because it can be painful or because we think we’re being too personal/making others uncomfortable.

If you want to help others move beyond emotional and mental barriers, you don’t have to have the solution. You do have to be willing to talk about personal challenges and issues that are impeding people’s lives.

You have no more important role as a leader than to ensure your people can work productively and effectively, and that starts with understanding and empathizing about their feelings.

4.      Invite others to contribute.

Everyone has a role to play in creating a workplace that works in the context of a life that works. Ask what people need, what they’re not getting and how they can help themselves, and be a great undistracted listener as they respond.

Be ready to hear what they have to say and to take even criticism with an open attitude. If you really want to get to the hear of what’s affecting your team’s ability to prioritize and compartmentalize, you have to be ready to absorb hard truths and handle them adaptably.

5.      Compile your notes.

Typically, you will need to hear a few people speak before others feel safe enough to let you get to the heart of the matter.

As you continue connecting with additional team members, organize your findings to capture themes and underlying issues.

Once you have pointed data, identify the organizational resources and offerings that may help.

It’s not your job to solve these kinds of problems. Instead, your job is to be able to identify the resources your team members need to solve them for themselves.

6.      Be consistent.

This process of listening and collecting feedback is not a one and done.

One person’s experience doesn’t speak for your entire team, and one meeting or conversation isn’t enough to shape a new policy around.

In fact, Leesman, a workforce consultancy, found wide variation on how people feel working from home, depending on their attitudes toward social connection, their at-home situation and their ability to collaborate effectively with peers. While many people envisioned work from home as a dream come true, they may have experienced a different set of feelings toward it as it became an abrupt reality this year.

Just like with work from home, things will continue to change and you’ll continue to be responsible for leading a group of people who have very different thoughts, experiences, and opinions. Regular check ins indicate you are caring across the whole base, listening, and attuning to the needs of your entire team.

Demonstrating this attentiveness will also give you very valuable information on how you manage the team across the work spectrum, ensuring everyone is motivated and productive toward a common goal.

7.      Unify your team’s prioritization efforts.

If someone asked your team members right now what their most important outcome is for the next 90 days, would it sync up with your intent? What about for the year in which that 90-day plan would be based?

You need to create a culture where everyone is working toward the same clear goal in order to hone your team’s prioritization efforts. Ensure team members receive information from the source, rather than waiting for it to trickle down or hit the rumor mill.

Give them insight into the organization’s strategic vision, then listen and guide them to prioritize team efforts and goals.

Once you’ve gotten on the same page and ensured goal clarity, choose one method for organization for your team’s work. Don’t expect people to fatigue themselves by managing projects across several different methodologies, platforms and meeting structures. Find something that works for everyone and reduce the mental workload of switching contexts to manage their day-to-day.

8.      Offer your team support and tools for their compartmentalization efforts.

Regularly develop and support your employees with compartmentalization skills. This development is both a personal responsibility and an organizational one. Your team’s/company’s culture will play an important role in ensuring your people are able to disconnect and regenerate themselves.

Simple tools like Calm or Headspace apps, box breathing, focus games like Lumosity, along with training/learning new skills, can be very effective in building the muscle of attention that is required for both work and rest.

As leaders, our greatest challenge is keeping up with and staying ahead of the pace of change, while also building in the time and space for the people and things that matter most to us.

If you agree with that core challenge, getting really good at organizing your work and at letting go of it will separate you as a true leader regardless of your position and will serve you anywhere. And, it may just save your most precious relationships in the process.