Many design leaders come to me frazzled and worn out. A recent client was a design leader with 14 reports — a necessity of hypergrowth, a recent leadership departure, and competitive recruiting — and as such, his oversight extended to every product area across the company.
He was constantly running to meetings with engineers and PMs while also maintaining one-on-ones with every direct report. But the context switching between products, stakeholders, and team members left him with few mental resources for strategic work and clarity.
Many design leaders can relate to these broad responsibilities, back-to-back calendars, and the desire to show up at every meeting. They also know the feeling of working all day but getting nothing done. Context switching hurts productivity and creates mental overload that can consume 40% of one’s productive time.
My client’s calendar was fragmented — and, therefore, so was his mind. By defragging his calendar, he was able to find focus and the energy for strategic work.
How to defragment your calendar
1. Color code it
The first step is to see what’s going on. Try color coding your calendar to quickly visualize where your energy is going. Just like the old computer defrag tools (yep, dating myself), you’ll be able to see where you’re context switching and make informed choices to reduce your mental fragmentation.
For example, a design lead might use blue for reviews, green for crits, and yellow for one-on-ones. An agency director might use different colors for client work versus internal work. In my business, I color code personal development (e.g., morning yoga or classes), billable client calls, business development, and creative projects.
2. Use themes to group similar activities
Next, group related colors/topics so that you can go deep into one mode for a few hours. A great way to aggregate recurring meetings is to use themed days or blocks.
For example, my client thought it was impossible to reschedule meetings because so many people were involved in them, which was true for many cross-functional meetings. But he realized he did have control over team meetings, like one-on-ones and interviews. And one-on-ones cause a ton of fragmentation. Because they’re so short, they tend to fall into 30-minute slots between other “more important” meetings.
So we established “team time” on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. He aggregated one-on-ones and interviews into blocks and scheduled half an hour before and after each block to prepare and synthesize his notes.
This small change had big effects. He started his days with more control and less anxiety, and he could go deeper into product work on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays without one-on-ones punctuating his concentration.
One-on-ones benefited as well: by grouping work with his team, he noticed patterns he’d previously missed. It became clear that his team had indirect communication issues, so he scheduled a team feedback training. He saw that his reports needed growth opportunities, so he introduced Design Lead roles. Previously, he couldn’t pause to connect the dots before running to the next conference room.
3. Balance your energy
As you re-organize your calendar, introduce balance between activities that energize you and drain you.
I’m an introvert, and as a manager, one-on-ones depleted my energy. So, I scheduled an energizing activity on the mornings of my team days, like an hour to write or think, and a full hour for lunch before meetings in the afternoons.
Figure out how many one-on-ones you can handle per day. Do you need breaks in between? Do you need extra prep time for your 1:1 with your manager?
4. Schedule time to defragment your calendar
Defragmenting your calendar takes some upfront work and a little maintenance each week. Block out an hour on Monday morning or Friday afternoon to defrag the upcoming week, prioritize upcoming work, and synthesize insights from the week prior.
A few small changes to your calendar won’t just shape your day — they’ll shape your mindset. The key is to stop, look at what’s really going on, and question whether it’s serving you.