When I first became an entrepreneur, my father, a lawyer and seasoned executive, gave me some advice that I didn’t fully appreciate until much later on. To be successful in business, he said, I’d have to learn to compartmentalize. 

I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but I did know that in engineering, we talked a lot about toggle switches. Toggles have only two positions: “on” and “off.” Over time, I came to wish I could toggle my life. I wanted to be working on sales and business development or hunkering down with my scientific team - not sitting in a sales meeting and worrying about lab results at the same time. When I was with my son, I wanted to be totally focused on him - not getting irritated that it was taking him forever to tie his shoes, because I need to get to my email, pronto.

A big part of the answer, as Dad knew, is compartmentalization. It is the ability to put disparate or conflicting thoughts in two distinct mental boxes and keep them from mixing. Much of former President Bill Clinton’s and President Ronald Reagan’s success has been attributed to his extraordinary ability compartmentalize-;to focus on one thing, and one thing only, at a time. For me, compartmentalizing means that if I have a lousy day at the office, I put that experience in a mental box and keep it shut when I get home. Then, I can enjoy my family, and they can enjoy me. Granted, it is easier said than done.

Compartmentalization is a skill that takes practice, and it can be learned. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me and for other entrepreneurs I know.

Calendar compartments

Some people literally block certain days of the week for sales and business development and other days for focusing internally. They then have the discipline to not let one bleed into the other. Or they might choose certain times of the day to focus externally and others to focus internally. Pick a strategy that is practical for your situation and practice it until it becomes a habit, even if it is uncomfortable at first.

Shift gears in steps

Switching between family time and work is challenging in so many ways, not least of which is pace. It is hard to shift from first gear into third without a transition. Create a little space for yourself--a mental second gear. So in between dropping your child off at school and diving into that huge pile of email, try taking a walk around the block.

Clear your head

Perhaps something is nagging at you and you’ve shoved it into a mental box, but the lid keeps popping off. It is essential to get the lid on so you can wrap your brain around a new challenge without distraction. This may require more drastic measures. Exercise. Music. Something to change the channel, change your mindset, and perhaps change your pace. Moving around, and even changing where you are working, may help. Sometimes, to focus effectively, I have to make a list of the things I’m setting aside, knowing I will not lose track of them in the long run.

Turn off Email

Does your computer ding at you every time a new email hits your inbox? What could be more distracting and more effective at yanking your attention all over the place? If your email is on, learn to use rules to sort it. And don’t turn it on when you need to focus. You will be far more effective.

Because I’m very deadline-driven, compartmentalization is easier for me to achieve when I create impeding events. I might schedule an internal review of a customer, well ahead of a customer visit, to help me focus on it. Compartmentalization also helps me draw the line between when I need to do and what needs to be delegated, which is also always helpful.