Compartmentalise your tasks

I’m writing this in turbulent times. If one looks at the newspapers or scans online news sites, it would seem that turbulence is a feature of contemporary life. Political unrest, violence of different kinds, social injustice, scarcity on the one hand and obscene levels of consumption on the other, competition for natural resources and a resultant politics of opportunism and short-term gain… we can go on with this endless list of wrongs.

Yes, there’s a lot to be depressed about, and, personally, I am finding it extremely difficult to find a calm and quiet space where I can think clearly about things and get some work done. Because if you’re a person who cares, even the quietest of spaces doesn’t protect you from the rush of disturbing thoughts that crowd your mind each time you sit down to do something that doesn’t relate to any of those big causes that the world is grappling with. Or, if not the whole world, your own neighbourhood, your city, your community.

We’ve all heard the advice: worrying about things doesn’t get you anywhere. If you can, act. If you can’t, then turn your mind to something else. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Especially in these days of hyper-connectedness, we are constantly reminded of everything we might be interested in or worried about. We find ourselves checking social media frantically, hooked to the feeling that even if we can’t really contribute, we need to mark our presence, we need to keep up with every post and tweet and comment on the subject.

It’s easy to be judgmental about people who are able to get work done in the middle of a big social or political crisis, who seem to be able to mark clear boundaries between spheres of activity. We often dismiss them as being uncaring or not sufficiently involved, that they have a cold, calculating approach that allows them to clinically isolate feelings in one area from the need to focus on another. But this ability to compartmentalise is not just a matter of efficiency; it is also a basic survival mechanism that helps us get through life. Some psychologists call it a “short-term solution” that makes it possible to deal with internal conflicts. When we compartmentalise we are not pushing the conflicting concerns out, we are setting them aside so that they do not interfere with what we need to do at a particular point in time. We’ve all heard stories about match winning athletes who perform at a high level despite dealing with personal trauma, or about doctors who must set aside personal preferences and politics when dealing with patients, or, at a more mundane level, homemakers who put food on the table despite being worried about something or other. In each of these cases, it is the ability to compartmentalise — to focus on the one thing that needs to get done and temporarily ignore the other concerns — that makes the task happen.

So while my deadline looms for the fortnight’s column, I can feel a hundred other thoughts jostling around in my head. I am worried about the events on the campus where I teach, I’m concerned about students, about the stability and resilience of the academic system, issues of social justice and human rights, the depletion of fossil fuels, political corruption, the five other deadlines that are coming up far too quickly… you get the picture. So how do I sit down and write the column?

Again, that word: compartmentalisation. When I sit down to accomplish a task, I need to put myself in a box and shut myself away from all the other boxes that my thoughts and activities might be flowing in and out of. For short periods of time, I focus on this one thing and do not open the other boxes until I feel I have made some progress. Then I pull myself out and let those other thoughts some free rein, until I need to box myself in again and get another task done. I’ve come to realise that this does not mean I care less about these other issues. Those issues are not going to get taken care of just because I spend time worrying about them, or because I am leaving other tasks undone. In fact, I’m often able to come back to a problem with renewed energy and greater clarity after I have spent some time away from it.

The various parts of our lives move in parallel tracks, and we can’t hold up one while we wait for another to be completed. Similarly, we’re often going to be in situations where our emotions are all tangled up, or where there’s cause for anger and dejection. Even when we are in the middle of major upheavals, there are things that need to get done. And not all these things relate to the cause that we might be fighting, but they need our attention — and they need to get done.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. Email:
IFL  - Kuwait 2024