Very recently I asked a question about how to focus when in emotional distress. One answer that caught my attention (and yet I often hear as an "unwritten rule") was that of Joe Stazzere:"At work, concentrate on your work. Leave your home life at home."

I wonder how people manage to do that as I am likely unable to do that. What exactly do you do to achieve that?

Do you become a different person while at work and "put the rest in the background"? But what if the thoughts/worries keep coming regardless?

Do you put a thick mask to hide your distress and act like you're focusing on the job?

Is that even normal to be able to "compartmentalize" like that, especially if the emotional issues are, well, serious?

So my question is: how do I focus on work when I have major personal issues that are unsorted?

Note I'm not asking "what", but "how".

  • [productivity.se] might have some useful related posts
    – AakashM
    Oct 15, 2014 at 13:31

6 Answers 6


This question strikes me as a case where other-optimizing is dangerously easy to do.

One useful approach might be the following steps:

  1. Seek professional counseling services to resolve the best coping strategies for you.
  2. Be open and honest with yourself, your family and close friends, and your counselor when it comes to determining your natural proclivities for handling certain forms of stress.
  3. After you have come to an understanding about how stress management works for you, you can create and follow a strategy at work, probably involving a long talk with HR and possibly your manager, to explain the ways the issue is effecting you and to ensure that the business responsibilities of your role can be covered (by you or others) in the event of any issues. This may involve taking unpaid leave, using more vacation time, reducing your hours, changing your job responsibilities, etc. Don't do this until you've worked on 1 and 2, so that you have as much information as possible when you seek to explain the circumstances to your employer.

One thing that will likely not work is to "just try to focus." Depending on who you are, your natural sensitivities to different issues, and a host of other idiosyncratic factors that are specific to you, your response to a concerted effort to "force it" may or may not work -- and if it doesn't work it can lead to spectacular burn-out or failure if you aren't careful.


Do you put a thick mask to hide your distress and act like you're focusing on the job?

No, you don't act like focusing, you just focus. Imagine someone asking you something and you answering "not now, please come back in 5 mins". This is the mental model you need to have with your problems while at work. Then stretch it to longer periods with "I'm in the middle of something, let's talk in an hour" until you finally reach "Sorry, busy day, I will call you back when I'm out of the office".

Important part is to let them in again once you hit the clock and are on your way home. So you could see it as being two people (warning, incoming split personality), but it is more like being one person that just doesn't care about personal stuff while at work and that doesn't care about work while at home.

Think of it as being Batman. He is not putting up a mask, he is becoming what everyone sees, in your case a crime-fighting, .. erm, I mean focused manager, who takes care of his team.


What exactly do you do to achieve that?

Recognize what is important in each situation as well as what really can you do in each situation. At work, there is much you can do about an issue at home away from home? Worrying about the problem isn't likely to be productive.

Do you become a different person while at work and "put the rest in the background"? But what if the thoughts/worries keep coming regardless?

Yes, people will have a mask at work where things are answered more professionally and formally than they would at home.

Do you put a thick mask to hide your distress and act like you're focusing on the job?

I wouldn't call it thick but rather having a different hat to wear just like when one is driving that one has to be aware of things to note around them.

Is that even normal to be able to "compartmentalize" like that, especially if the emotional issues are, well, serious?

How serious are we talking here? If they impact your quality of life and require major professional attention then chances are clinics may be a better place to be than free in the world.

So my question is: how do I focus on work when I have major personal issues that are unsorted?

This is where having various coping strategies would be important as well as knowing what to do in case of things escalating. I do have some chronic conditions where I have to have more than few tactics to manage them as well as letting my co-workers know in some cases as it may affect them to some degree.


How to leave home/personal life issues at home and focus on work while at work?

For me, the key is to have the right kind of job.

Some jobs demand real attention and focus. Some jobs benefit from attention and focus. For some jobs, it doesn't matter either way.

I'm pretty lucky. I have a challenging, engaging job. At least for me, it requires concentration and attention. While there are always dull periods in any job, in my job, I can get into the zone - and the time just flies by.

When I shower and shave in the morning, I'm thinking about my workday ahead, and prioritizing my anticipated tasks. I get in early, so I can talk with our offshore team while they are still in their office, and so that I can concentrate on some important tasks before others arrive and the meetings start.

As I drive home at night, I start to unwind, and usually only then start to think about what will need my attention at home.

In my profession, and for many professions, it's simply not that hard to choose to be engaged. Some folks might just need practice. Like most things that are worthwhile - practice makes it better.

As djechlin correctly points out - different types of jobs work for different people. For some people a job where you don't have to fully engage your mind might allow you to feel that it won't matter what happened to you the day before. For some, a more engaging job let's their personal life invade. In this line of thinking, it's all about the kind of job that works for you.

And as EMS points out - for some, the job doesn't matter. Even in an engaging job, they cannot get in the zone when they have personal issues.

I was just relaying my own circumstances in case it would help. For some (like me), the solution is to get the right kind of job. For others, that wouldn't help.

  • 1
    Great answer Joe. It does indeed boil down to whether you have a job or a career. If you have a job you hate where you have plenty of time to think, then thoughts about home life will unfortunately intrude. If you have a role that demands your full attention, this will be less of a problem.
    – Robbie Dee
    Oct 11, 2014 at 23:10
  • -1 for two related reasons. Firstly the situation is dead opposite for me. Brain off? Great, it won't matter what happened to me the day before. Brain on? Let the personal life invade. Secondly the answer sounds elitist. Do you have a job where you can "switch your brain off"? That doesn't mean it's a bad job yet you're implying you should get a better one. The logic of this answer is that there are good jobs without problems, and bad jobs with unsolvable problems...
    – user1084
    Oct 12, 2014 at 10:26
  • My conjecture is that the ability to get "in the zone" varies from individual to individual, and from circumstance to circumstance. Some people cannot get in the zone given their personal life issues. It might be solely dictated by their circumstance. If you took away their personal life issues, they might the zoneiest zone getter of them all, but then you add the personal life issues and they absolutely cannot focus. These intrinsic sensitivities matter much more than the particular job at hand and how much attention to detail the job requires.
    – user12818
    Oct 12, 2014 at 15:38
  • 1
    @EMS can I use "ZoniestZoneGetter" as a handle? /offtopic
    – user1084
    Oct 12, 2014 at 18:39
  • 1
    upvoted now. it might be better to frame as "some jobs actually are harder to get in the zone if your circumstances are rough. If this is a long-term problem for you, just think of the job as potentially a bad fit based on your personality or lifestyle (not necessarily "issues") and consider a switch."
    – user1084
    Oct 12, 2014 at 18:40

One of the short term answers to your question would be to switch roles from "worker" to the "family-guy" and vice versa. But in the long run it doesn't work in many cases. Because getting used to be like that way, takes much pain. Some succeed and some fail.

Here is an answer which will work in the long run.

Disassociating your self from problems (which now you think your problems. Do you own the problem.? Or the problem owns you.?) is the first step of all problem solving. Let take an abstract case, lets say there is a person called X,

The more control X has in his life, the less stress he will feel. He has to be the leader of his life. I believe when X is facing a problem, its not the problem makes X feel worried but the fact that the problem is not lead by X (when it is not) makes him worried. There is a thought from a book called "Total Leadership" by Stewart D. Friedman which says everyone have to lead there lives in four aspects, and allocate resources in all four,

  • Family
  • Work
  • Community
  • Self

When X is interacting with one of these aspects he uses a specific, unified and unique set of values. X has a resource called y. Y should be allocated to one of those aspects. In the evaluation to make the decision where to allocate y, If X's value system is unstable he will have to take some emotional pains and waste some resources. And allocating y based on that evaluation will only keep the value system unstable and there will be more pains to come. That's how people like X become "always work" kind or "Emotional-family" kind or "unstable role switchers". But the author explains that it don't need to be like that. Many people think that life is a zero sum game.But author says, it don't need to be so.

In your case all you have to do first is, evaluate your life. You have to think what are the aspects you put more weight on and what are less. No one can possibly do that for you. I will do that for my fictitious man X.

  • Family -40%
  • Work -25%
  • Community -5%
  • Self -30%

Now clearly, weights are not balancing. Second step is. What X can do to balance weights.?

Putting more weights on Community and reducing the weight on the family and self. Weight on the work don't need to be changed.

This is how X does it practically. He stops being more worried about family and he starts strengthening bonds with community. He involves himself in community projects so his mind now thinks about community more, but it is done at the cost of reducing the time spent on thinking about self and family. Still he attends the work and the time he spent on family while working is now reduced. His consideration on work remains constant.

Now X is reevaluating himself. This is the third step.

  • Family -25%
  • Work -25%
  • Community -25%
  • Self -25%

Now X's mind is balanced. His value system is stable like never before, because valuation seems fair between all four aspects. Hence values are stable X is more stable. This stability helps X to increase his focus on family while keeping the portion of total weight of consideration at 25%. (wight of consideration means portion of resources and thoughts allocated for a specific aspect of life) This focus and stability helps X to lead his life in family aspect and now X is the leader of his family problems. And he does the same with other aspects too. More lead, less problems and less worries. (Now it seems ,more risk is associated with X, but you know its always better if X is leading his problems than letting others do)

This is the kind of framework I work these days, and this seems promising. Hope this helps you too.


If you keep thinking about your life at home while you are at work, then your mind is at home while your body is at work. I try not to focus on things I cannot do anything about for the moment, so I usually leave my life at home where it belongs - at home, until I get back from work.

I am a role player and I think of my life as playing a series of roles. including playing one role at work and playing another role at home. I am the hard driving senior engineer at work, and my late mother's dutiful eldest son at home. Each role requires that I play it well and each role requires my full attention, even though I am quite capable of multi-tasking. Am I faking it, am I putting on a mask? Hell no, each role is one face of the real me! :)

I don't worry either at work or at home about things I cannot do anything about - worrying is a great time filler and it can be an all-consuming hobby, if you like it that way :) I am into taking either preventive measures, countermeasures or scenario prep for those cases where the other shoe falls bur I am not into worrying :) My attitude is pretty much "What me, worry?" Worrying is for wimps and wimpettes :)

When the big picture goes bad and there is nothing else to do - say I have taken the countermeasures and it takes a while for them to take effect. then I shorten my time horizon and live my life minute by minute and enjoy the moment :) I may look light-headed and care-free to others but who cares - that's how I stay sane in the midst of that insanity and I intend to stay sane in the midst of that insanity :)

One big asset that I have is that I don't need to feel happy to be effective. The other asset is my Buddhist faith, which gives me the foundation to look at personal disasters with a large amount of emotional detachment, and even some amusement as I have a pretty well developed sense of gallows humor :)

Putting up a mask sucks - it takes energy to do it. And knowing myself as I do, I am both too ham handed and too lazy to fake it anyway :)

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