How I learned to compartmentalize: tactics to find work life balance and become a better designer

How I learned to compartmentalize: tactics to find work life balance and become a better designer

Someone once told me sociopaths are really good at compartmentalization. Bill Clinton was famous for it. I laughed it off because for me, while it is difficult at first to turn your work brain on and off, it is the only way I can get good work done.

It’s obviously an understatement to say that people struggle with work life balance — there are probably thousands of Medium articles about it — and designers are no different. As user experience professionals, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the day-to-day urgency of solving problems that directly impact other people.

The first step is to realize that no matter what you do, you are not the only person who can do that job. If you are, chances are it’s not the end of the world if the job doesn’t get done. That’s why there are always backups for brain surgeons.

This shouldn’t make you feel less important; your combination of skills helps you solve problems in a unique way. The same is true for your colleagues who bring their own skill sets to the table and can solve problems in ways you can’t imagine. It’s not necessarily better or worse, just different. If you can embrace this way of thinking you’ll become excited to see what your colleagues do with your work. You will build more trust in your team and it will become easier to step away from your work.

When I was getting my master’s degree in Design for Social Innovation, it was easy to feel self-important. As we learned to solve systemic problems with design, I started to see those problems everywhere, and I became convinced I was getting the qualifications I needed to solve them. As my conviction grew, it became hard to understand why others weren’t also 100% focused on these pressing issues.

I started to get annoyed with friends when they applied for jobs with companies I thought were immoral, or if they didn’t consider the broader impacts of their work.

It only took one or two fights for me to realize that if I wanted to hold the people in my life to my newfound standards, I would not have many friends left. I needed to put in a boundary, something that would help me focus on the big problems at work and prevent me from taking them home with me.

Spoiler alert — I did it! Rather than focusing on the exact steps I took to compartmentalize, (which are likely different for everyone) I will share some tactics that will help you set up your boundaries successfully.

There are big risks to compartmentalizing, including ignoring the broader context of a project and its downstream impacts. Before sticking different parts of your work and life in neatly labeled boxes you need to be intentional about the walls you put up.

Before starting a project, I try to understand and accept the downstream impacts of the software or service I am designing. They need to be in line with my morals, because if they are not, I know I’ll obsess over it when I get home rather than leave my work at work.

As a designer with the U.S. Digital Service, I worked on immigration projects at a time when immigration was a hugely political topic. I was stressed out by the possibility of designing something that made it harder for immigrants to get their benefits, and this stress started to manifest itself in existential crises at home. I needed to counter my fear of potential misuse of the system, so I went out into the field, watched immigration agents at work, and made sure they were using the system as intended. I learned the context for each decision as well as agents’ personal motivations, which helped me design a better product that I was proud to deliver. Best of all, as I learned more, the existential crises started to recede.

A strength many designers have is the ability to connect seemingly incongruous ideas. One project can impact another, or something your kid says at home can help you connect the dots at work. Any compartments you build should allow for this. In my mind, compartments are made of mesh walls — they are see-through and adaptable, and allow me to breeze through them and connect ideas subconsciously. Just because you separate work from life doesn’t mean good ideas will stop coming to you in the shower.

While you will be successful in setting up your boundaries, the people around you might not be. Your co-workers will call you at home to discuss a problem, email will interrupt you constantly, or your boss may expect you to respond to Slack messages at all times.

To combat this, have a clear conversation with your team and supervisors, as early on in your compartmentalization journey as possible. I recently started a new position and taking time to let my boss know that work life balance is important to me was a useful way to frame how we will work together. I’ll respond to email after work hours if it’s a busy time for my project, otherwise I won’t check email at home. For urgent matters she will text me. During slow times I will leave my computer at work. These details help me stop worrying about work when I’m at home.

Sometimes my work makes me anxious, and I take it home with me. When I feel lost, if there is a problem I can’t solve, or a decision I don’t agree with, I tend to spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about it. Sometimes I take it too personally.

For compartmentalizing to work, you need to realize when work is crossing over into your personal life and learn how to redirect your attention.

During the most stressful times at work, I take a “quiet time” when I get home, spending 30 minutes reading before joining in my home life. According to my partner, this makes me a much more pleasant person to be around. Find out what works for you, whether it is video games, exercise, or chatting with a friend. The key is to direct your attention on something else entirely, so whatever happened at work is tucked away in a space to be easily accessed the following day.

Before going into how compartmentalizing has made me a better designer, I want to emphasize that this strategy is not possible for everyone. I am in a privileged position where I can speak up at work, I have autonomy and plenty of opportunities for new projects. I also don’t have a stressful home life that crosses over into work. There are a lot of people at the other end of the spectrum, who have less choice at work and more stressors at home.

For those that can compartmentalize, it will make you better at what you do. This exercise helps prevent my mind from wandering so I give people my full attention. Whether I’m designing a new feature or trying to rekindle an old friendship, I’m a better listener when I can focus on the task at hand. I’m more in tune with the needs of those around me, which helps me succeed personally and professionally.

As I mentioned, there is danger that compartmentalization makes it easy to segment work and morals. I assume lots of folks do this, otherwise how could someone lobby against climate change during the day and take care of their baby at night? Compartmentalization can also make it easy to ignore context, scope your projects too small, and justify your actions as temporary. That’s why it’s so important to start this exercise with intention and planning.

That’s it — good luck on your compartmentalization journey! I wish you focus, intention, and success.

How I learned to compartmentalize: tactics to find work life balance and become a better designer

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