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How this productivity coach uses 'compartmentalization' to focus and reduce stress

Productivity coach Carl Pullein says the key to getting things done is to treat different types of work like they're separate rooms.
Compartmentalization is really about reducing anxiety so you can focus on the here and now.
Compartmentalization is really about reducing anxiety so you can focus on the here and now. Jamie Grill / Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Productivity coach Carl Pullein is in deep work mode. His computer screen is dark, his phone is on silent, his email is off. For the next two hours, he’s focused solely on the task ahead.

It’s a mode of work known as “compartmentalization,” where he focuses solely on one thing at a time, he says.

“In a productivity sense, what it means is that you actually treat different types of work that you have to do as if you have separate rooms,” Pullein tells NBC News BETTER.

Pullein, 48, lives in South Korea. He teaches English classes in addition to online productivity and time management courses. He says compartmentalization saves him time and reduces stress. Here’s how it works.

Productivity coach Carl Pullein
Productivity coach Carl PulleinCarl Pullein

Block out time on your calendar for deep work

Each morning, Pullein blocks out periods of time — usually between 6 and 7:30 am — which he dedicates to deep work, whether it’s video editing or writing blog posts.

“You can look at your calendar and say, ‘Today, it’s early morning for me, and I can see what appointments I’ve got, and I’ve got maybe three appointments this afternoon,” he says. “And this morning, I’m relatively free to do writing work or video production or whatever. So I can now allocate time this morning to actually getting down to doing that work.”

Turn everything off

Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO — the anxiety that we are missing out on something big when we’re not on social media — has made it difficult for the modern worker to focus, according to Pullein.

“A lot of the reasons why our work seems to take a lot longer to do these days than it used to be is largely because we allow ourselves to be distracted by — it could be colleagues, it could be mobile devices and computers pinging all the time — anything like that can just take your attention away from what you’re working on right now, and so it’s really important to just focus on that one thing.”

To get into deep work mode, Pullein says, it’s important to turn off all unnecessary devices for a specific period of time. If you’re a social media junkie, weaning yourself off your phone will be a challenge, he says. He advises shutting off your devices for 15-30 minutes at a time to get started.

“You will need to start small, say with 30 minute segments, but gradually you can increase that time,” Pullein says.

Stop worrying

One of the biggest obstacles to productivity is anxiety, says Pullein. Compartmentalizing your day, he explains, reduces that sense of feeling worried about everything.

For example, when you block out specific time on your calendar to deal with a specific concern, you can better focus on the task in front of you.

“That’s where the calendar comes in handy, because I find scheduling things like that really helps me to take my mind off it,” he says. “If it’s scheduled, I don’t have to worry about it because I know I will be dealing with it at some time.”

Another way to get focused, Pullein says, is to ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do about it right now?”

Asking yourself this question is a powerful way to compartmentalize, he says.

“You can answer ‘Yes,’ in which case just do it,” he says. “Or ‘No,’ in which case you have to put it to one side and figure out a time when you can deal with it.”

Once you have it scheduled, you can focus on what you need to do right now, Pullein says.

“If you’re doing a very important presentation, you do not want to be thinking about the problem while you’re doing the presentation,” he says.

In other words, compartmentalization is really about reducing anxiety so you can focus on the here and now, he explains — whether you’re working on an important project or enjoying your weekend off.

“The whole process of actually starting to take action on something is what actually can relieve a lot of the stress and that feeling of overwhelm that many, many people feel today,” Pullein says.

How to compartmentalize your day:

  • Make the time: Each morning, block out time on your calendar where you will work only on one project at a time.
  • Shut out distractions: Turn off any unnecessary devices that might distract you. If you’re addicted to social media, this might be difficult at first. Start by turning off your devices for short amounts of time — say, 15-30 minutes — and gradually add more time.
  • Ask yourself this question: One of the biggest obstacles to productivity is anxiety. Again, this is where your calendar comes in handy. If you are worried about a problem, ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do about it right now? If the answer is ‘Yes,’ take action. If the answer is ‘No,’ block out time on your calendar for when you will deal with it, so you can focus on the here and now.

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