Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of North Texas. She works for Tarleton State University in Stephenville,Texas, in the College of Graduate Studies, and also as an adjunct faculty instructor for Tarleton’s College of Business Administration.
The semester that just concluded was undoubtedly one of the toughest semesters of my graduate career. Not only was the coursework challenging, but I also faced exciting new changes and opportunities in my professional and personal life. This spring I got engaged, my fiancé took a new job, and my job shifted upward into a managerial role. While these are wonderful changes, they certainly required adjustment on the fly.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t provide dress rehearsals. There were definitely times when I felt completely overwhelmed and like I had finally taken on too much. Somehow, however, I made it and did so without wrecking my GPA, breaking something important at work, or being disowned by my family and friends. I made some promising connections with faculty and future collaborators, and I also feel confident that I learned a thing or two from my coursework.
Recently, I started reflecting on my strategy when dealing with feelings of anxiety due to being overwhelmed. I realized that when I began to feel this way, I always turned to (hyper)organization to help me through the challenges. Keeping an eye on deadlines and deliverables helped me to prioritize my work on all fronts. It helped me feel like I was still in control. I realized almost innately that I could make progress by zoning in on one thing at a time. In hindsight, what really allowed me to accomplish everything I needed to fulfill was compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization is a psychological defense mechanism but also a mental tool to manage time and responsibilities. For most people, the term probably has a negative connotation: people typically think of it in terms of the military, which uses it to tackle extremely stressful situations, or for those who have undergone some sort of trauma and suffer from PTSD. Compartmentalization, like all things, has positive and negative aspects. However, it is a way to mentally isolate problems or tasks by breaking them into incremental chunks to which you can offer extreme focus. Many successful entrepreneurs and executives utilize compartmentalization but give the appearance of doing many things at once.
I’ve found that compartmentalization also helps me to be more mindful and present. It allows me to place things in “compartments” and open and close the door on what I’m working on at that moment. When I allow myself to focus only on what is presently at task, I actually feel more free to handle the work knowing that I have allotted and accounted for the time required to be accountable for each of my responsibilities. It also allows me to set boundaries - important when you’re juggling a full time job, a doctoral program, and trying to maintain healthy personal relationships. When I’m organized and working on focused chunks, I feel like I’m making progress even when I’m in the middle of a challenging situation. That, my friends, is good for morale!
Spring 2019 has only been over for a few days, but I’m currently savoring the sweet, albeit short, freedom of summer (my next courses start in three weeks). I’m allowing myself to spend a little more time with my friends and family, engage in healthy activities like taking my dogs on walks, and I’m even taking pleasure in long-neglected household chores like washing my windows. I look forward to the events of the upcoming summer. My summertime activities include going abroad, traveling to a conference, progressing toward my degree by another six hours, reading books for fun, and planning my wedding. It’s a priority for me that I work in some breaks spent with loved ones. These are my summer “compartments” and I plan to utilize compartmentalization so that I can be fully present for each moment while living summer to the fullest.
Do you compartmentalize? How has it helped you? Post your experiences in the comments!