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Rule #3: Compartmentalize

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The Startup Rulebook

One of the features of running a startup is the feeling that hyenas have grabbed your extremities and are all pulling in different directions. They all want a piece of you, and if you try to dislodge the hyena gnawing on your foot, the others make headway (so to speak). So you thrash around, trying to keep them all at bay. Which only makes hyenas laugh.

Startup Rulebook

What are the hyenas (with all due respect to the list that follows)? They’re different for different entrepreneurs, but often they include: cashflow, sales, operational issues, staffing, cashflow, employees, customers, spouses, children, friends, parents, and cashflow. To say nothing about the pressure on you to be a full-time cheerleader.

How do the best survive? They compartmentalize.

Compartmentalization is the ability to prioritize the issues facing you, focusing fiercely on one issue, moving it forward in a meaningful way, then closing the emotional door on that issue and dealing with the next one in the same way. That’s to say, you poke the hyena gnawing your foot in the eye – enough to make him wonder if you’re worth the trouble – then trusting you’ve done your best for now, you forget him and move on to the next hyena for suitable treatment, knowing you’ll be back. The effect on you is that you feel less stressed and more in control.

A very effective approach to compartmentalization, which I adapted from Stephen Covey’s work many years ago, goes like this:

  • Have a clear sense of your goals for each aspect of your life (personal, family, social, work, community – as appropriate to you). With your goals in mind, place your burning issues / priorities (a.k.a. hyenas) into Covey’s Quadrant:

Startup Rulebook

  • Create 7 compartments and place the 7 most important issues from Q1 and Q2, as measured against your goals, into each compartment. You’re going to struggle to deal with more than 7 issues effectively any one time, so prioritize against your goals, knowing that you’ll be coming back to the ones which don’t make the first cut.


  • Block off a solid one hour of time throughout the week for each compartment. Do your blocking on Sunday for the coming week. As Covey points out, if you treat your compartments like rocks you place in a jar at the start of the week, you’ll be amazed at how much filler (meetings, paperwork, proposals, travel, firefighting) can be poured into the space around these rocks in your jar. But addressing these rocks is the key to your feeling in control, so the rocks can’t be moved under any circumstance. This might cause you to book meetings with yourself at 6 in the morning or 9 at night, but try it for a few weeks and see what happens.


  • Give your best attention to each compartment for that one hour. Shut everything else out. Move the issue ahead in some way that is both important and meaningful.
    Want to make your spouse feel he/she is important to you? Spend that hour thinking and setting-up simple ways you can demonstrate the truth of that over the next week. Maybe you end up sending a postcard from the airport, flowers on the Thursday night, and booking a bike ride, run, or wine tour together on the Saturday. The next week you come up with a new set of ideas. (For a truly inspirational look at how entrepreneurs can make relationships work, see Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor’s book, “Startup Life”.)
    Maybe sales aren’t where they need to be. In the compartment dedicated to dealing with that issue, you might decide that it’s time to have a face-to-face meeting with your best and your worst customers, focusing entirely on what’s working and what’s not for them. So you start booking them. Those customer meetings can become your one-hour compartment for the sales issue in coming weeks.
    When you focus on one thing and one thing only, blocking out all the other noise that gives rise to your stress, it’s amazing how much progress you can make against your priorities – and how good you feel about it because you’re moving the important things ahead.


  • Shut the compartment door after that one hour and focus on the other things that make up your day. Because you know that you moved an important issue ahead, and that you will be dealing with your other compartmentalized issues similarly through the week, you’ll likely feel less stressed, more in control, and better able to do the firefighting and cheerleading that awaits you.


Control of your destiny is exhilarating. Instead of being a hyena play-thing, you’re purposefully choreographing your hyenas’ actions, one step at a time. They’ll never stop pulling at your extremities, but by improving your ability to compartmentalize, you’re walking the hyenas instead of them walking you. Over time, some might even say that you wear your hyenas well.



About Drew Williams

My name is Drew Williams. I’m an author and marketing entrepreneur. “A what?”, you say. I call someone who’s passionate about building businesses a marketing entrepreneur. So that’s me. Full Profile | Google+

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