Dominic Barton is the most influential man in the world you probably haven’t heard of.1
He’s the Global Managing Partner of McKinsey & Company, the prestigious management consulting firm. They work behind the scenes, and they sell a powerful commodity that’s quite literally changed our world in the last century — advice.
They were behind the turnaround at General Electric, and they helped rebuild Germany after the collapse of the Berlin wall. No other company creates more Fortune 500 CEOs.2
Given that their clients include some of the world’s largest corporations, as well as the most influential national governments, their appeal as an employer lies in the breadth of experience that they provide their consultants with.
Barton has been with the firm for over 30 years, and he still considers himself a student.
By his account, one of the great perks of his particular role is the sheer access he has to global influencers. Ever since he took over the top position, Barton claims to have met with at least two CEOs or government leaders every day. He’s learned a lot to say the least.
What’s his biggest takeaway?
Almost all of the most effective people engage in what he calls mental compartmentalization.
It’s a tactic used to break down the demands of time into distinct compartments to better direct focus to where it should be, even in the face of competing challenges. In plain English, it’s about effectively categorizing the different responsibilities in life to drive results.
It’s an incredibly practical method, and its appeal lies in the fact that it can be easily applied. If you want to succeed in life without compromising parts of your personal or professional life:
• Compartmentalize your responsibilities to organize clutter
• Learn to be where you are despite competing challenges
• Maximize your output with attention and not quantity
Too much noise in life is hard to manage. It makes sense to use systems that help you order it.
Compartmentalize Responsibilities to Organize Clutter
We all have different priorities that compete for our attention. They’re not easy to balance. They each bring their distinct challenges, and they all seem to come with a sense of urgency.
If you’re dealing with the sudden death of a childhood friend, can you still meet that aggressive project timeline that your client has set? Or if you’ve just had a particularly nasty fight with your spouse, will you be fully focused on the upcoming tennis tournament you’ve been training for?
These kind of challenges are never easy, but we often don’t have the option to pause. Life doesn’t work that way. Instead, we have to develop effective methods to deal with them.
Jeremy Yip is a lecturer and research scholar at The Wharton School, and his work centers around organizational behavior and emotional intelligence.
Based on his research, Yip believes that compartmentalizing helps us identify the origin of our stress, and this allows us to manage other unrelated factors in our life more successfully.3
In other words, if you think about the different aspects of your life that demand your time and resources as distinct compartments — family, friends, hobbies, work — you’re better equipped to understand the source of your stress.
It’s a practice that leads you to develop a level of comfort with background worries while your attention faces other responsibilities.
Now, this isn’t to say that just because you’ve learned to categorize the fight with your spouse as a stress factor in the family compartment, you’re ready to win that tennis tournament.
That said, by being aware, you’re a step closer to realizing that when you’re playing tennis, there isn’t much you can do about what’s going on at home, and that makes you a little more likely to let it out of your mind, even if only temporarily.
By neatly dividing your life into different buckets of labeled responsibilities, you can remove a lot of the scattered noise that lingers around in your life. It’s a simple trick to quickly identify the different forms of stress you face.
Learn to Be Where You Are Despite Competing Challenges
In interviews and lectures, when Dominic Barton speaks about mental compartmentalization, he likes to tell a story of the time he walked into the office of an insurance company CEO.
When asked about his personal nugget of wisdom, the CEO told Barton, “In my first three weeks of my job, I would have kicked you out of my office.”
He went on to explain that it would have been around the time his general counsel advised him that they were being sued for $6 billion, and his focus would have been very singular, in spite of other demands for his time.
The CEO finished with, “Now, I’m talking to you, and I have six of those.”4
Stress is often accompanied by a lingering sense of urgency. It makes us feel like our time is limited, and that’s why it’s difficult to focus on much else until we eliminate the source of our worry. The secret lies in realizing that the things that cause us stress often aren’t really urgent.
In the CEO’s case, yes, he had a pending $6 billion lawsuit, and yes, that sucks. That said, he also likely had a team dedicated to dealing with it, and the lawsuit likely also wasn’t the first thing on his agenda the next morning.
It was the fear of the lawsuit that paralyzed his focus, and it’s that fear that stopped him from actually utilizing a big chunk of his time over that period.
When you’re at work, and you have to be at work, there isn’t anything you can do about the passing of a childhood friend. Something like that is heavy, and it takes strength and courage to deal with, and there should be a time for mourning. But it shouldn’t extend beyond the compartment of your life that you’ve confined it to.
Of course, that’s easier for some people than it is others, and it’s also easier said than done. And there are times when certain stress factors really are urgent, and everything else needs to be left where it is while they’re being dealt with. This doesn’t extend quite that far.
This is really just about being where you are. If you’re the CEO of the insurance company and you’ve decided that it’s important for you to meet with the Managing Director of McKinsey, you should commit to postponing your thoughts about the six lawsuits you’re sitting on. If there isn’t anything you do to solve them in that time, it shouldn’t be a concern until you can.
Maximize Your Output with Attention and Not Quantity
Generally speaking, the cause of many compromises in life is limited time. The paradox, however, is that it’s rarely because there aren’t enough hours in the day. Mostly, it’s because we ourselves limit the time we have by wasting it.
Our focus isn’t where it needs to be, and therefore, our output isn’t where it needs to be. We find that we have more to do than we have room for, and that’s when the pressure builds up and the compromises begin.
The beauty of mental compartmentalization is that it separates and it eliminates. It divides the different responsibilities in your life into sections, and it relies on you to reduce the noise from all other compartments to concentrate on a single one at a time. It’s where attention begins.
More than anything, focusing is a process of subtraction. The more you say no to, the less you have left to say yes to. It comes down to working to minimize the two types of distractions: emotional distractions and sensory distractions.
Emotional distractions are inspired by inner dialogue and the things going on in our lives. A habit of compartmentalization is an effective way to limit them.
Sensory distractions, on the other hand, are influenced by environment. These require a more proactive effort because, in different compartments of our lives, we get different conditions.
If you’re at home and your purpose is to enjoy family time, turn your phone off and put the laptop in the other room. Similarly, if you’re at work and you want to leave before 5 PM, design your office to limit the things you could be doing to waste time. Little things make a difference.
One increasing trend in our media-dominated world is multitasking, and it’s the enemy of productivity. We’re not designed for it, and it’s been substantiated by research for decades.5
Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, said it best, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”6
Productivity isn’t about working every minute. It’s about getting more out of what you put in.
All You Need to Know
The purpose of this narrative was to highlight that whatever you define as success in one part of you life doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of another. If you’re an ambitious businesswomen, for example, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be a great mother.
Yes, sometimes, some of our ambitions really do require a heavier time commitment, but for the most part, our success in the different aspects of our life is as much reliant on how we divide our time as it is on how much we have of it. Time is more abundant than we think.
Mental compartmentalization is an effective strategy for taking control of your productivity, and it makes it infinitely easier to succeed in life. There are three main steps.
I. Begin by categorizing your life into different buckets of responsibilities like family, friends, hobbies, and work. It removes a lot of the clutter that lingers around in the mind, and it quickly helps identify the source of stress factors. It’s the first step in juggling the noise of competing demands.
II. Understand the urgency of stress factors. If nonurgent, as in most cases, turn it into background noise until it can be dealt with. It shouldn’t consume time outside of the compartment that it’s confined to. Be comfortable being where you are and dealing with the challenges there.
III. Most compromises aren’t made because of a lack of time, but because of poor use of time. The best way to limit that is by nurturing focus to maximize the output of your efforts in each part of your life. Eliminate distractions and design environments to guide your concentration towards what’s important.
None of this is magic, but it is a slightly more organized way of looking at life and its challenges. Some of the steps are hard, and they take time to stick, but it all begins with awareness.
Take some time to think about your life, organize it well, and then practice what works.
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