Overflowing DumptsterI used to think of my life like a box.

It was full of all the people I interact with and the things I do every day.  I was always trying to put it in order.  PA training is demanding — we’ve said that before.  But because of its demands, I’ve learned through trial and error that in order to get things done well, I need to compartmentalize what I do.  What this means for me, among other things, is that I don’t try to do more than one thing at once.  If that sounds obvious, consider this scenario, which has been common for me this year:

I’m at home, it’s afternoon, and I’ve just gotten home from picking the kids up from school (I have three of them, ages 4, 4, and 6).  The twins are snarky with each other about getting their turn with a toy and need me to mediate their dispute.  All three of them are due for a snack, and I have an epidemiology and biostatistics assignment that must be submitted online by midnight.

My old way of dealing with this was to put my laptop on the kitchen table and attempt to do my assignment little-by-little, and help the kids little-by-little.  It made sense to me because they sometimes play with each other, at which point I could calculate the age-adjusted incidence of breast cancer in California.  But I’ve tried this, and it’s the wrong answer.  What happens is I end up frustrated that I can’t concentrate on the assignment, and frustrated because I can’t do a good job as daddy.  It’s like trying to drive and play Tetris at the same time — each spoils the other.  The net result: I feel good about neither area of my life.

So lately I’ve been thinking of my life more like an ice cube tray.  It’s a trick I borrowed from psychology (I’m a marriage and family therapist in addition to PA student), and it’s called compartmentalizationIce cube trayEach requirement for my day lives in a cell like an ice cube.  I d0n’t try to study when I’m with the kids.  And I don’t try to parent when I’m doing an assignment. Doing one thing at a time sounds simple, but the more things you have to do, the more tempting it can be to “multitask.”  If you read the research on multitasking, you quickly learn that some people can do more than one thing at one time, but they aren’t doing any of them as well as they think they are.

The result of my shift in thinking is that I feel like I have less time for everything, which may not seem like a good thing.   But although I have less time, I make better use of the time I have, and I am more present.  From time to time a little worry creeps in (“I should be doing ___ .”  “___ isn’t going to get done.”)  So when these worries come up, I put them in a cell in the ice cube tray.   If figure if I need to worry, then I should give that its own time, shouldn’t I?  No, I’ve never actually sat down to worry because it’s on my To-Do list – I don’t really have time!  But that means I’ve eliminated the worry, and besides, things always get done somehow. This is one of the principles of compartmentalization: some things in your life don’t deserve a compartment at all.

The other advantage of this thinking is that the areas of my life that need attention become much more clear.  It’s not a perfect system, but this shift in thinking has helped me keep my balance in the PA school vs. life balancing act.