Design Leaders Should Design Their Time, Too

February 19, 2020

There's an inherent tension between being an individual contributor and a product design leader. Your time is torn. It’s ok to love both sides of the work— but the balance is always a challenge.

I recently had to admit this: I'm torn between two identities.

In one life, I'm a hands-on designer and I get to focus on one or two projects MAX at a time. It's gorgeous! I have time to research, talk to customers, talk to my peers, and design multiple solutions.

In another, I'm moving from meeting to meeting on multiple projects. One-on-ones with my team, design reviews, and operations meetings pile onto my day. I might sneak in responses to the emails clogging my inbox and Slack. It's a push to energize the team and work toward shipping product, but I still love it. I’m not a micromanager and am mindful not to hover over my team while they work. Still, if I’m not doing enough hands-on design, impostor syndrome starts to creep in. I want to get my hands dirty now and then!

So how do I find a balance?

Try to do less.

It's not a new idea. When you're pulled in all directions, you'll experience cognitive overload. If you’re spread too thin, everything takes a hit. The quality of your design diminishes along with your ability to be a good manager. Your relationships can suffer at work and at home.

“In my own experience, the tension is between growing into a leader vs knowing where I've traditionally provided value. That tension then causes the pressure of overworking/doing too many things.”
Ryan Le Roux, formerly an advisee at Metalab, now a great friend

Your time is a project.

Context switching is inevitable. To save time for meaningful work, hang the do not disturb sign by time blocking your day for deep work. Color code these blocks so you can see where you’re spending time at a glance. Time tracking/blocking apps also help a ton since they’re specifically built to help people understand how their time is spent.

Color coded calendar
My color-blocked calendar.

If you’re new to deep work, it’s the concept of setting rules for focus in our super distracted world. That means removing pings from social media and immediately responding to email even if they give that little dopamine hit. You'll need time for uninterrupted work whether that's writing, research, strategic planning, or hands-on design. 

I'm not saying you can get out of meetings and email entirely, but proactively block your calendar before, after, and whenever possible. Spend your time on high-value work. If you can train a computer to execute a task, then it's not deep work.

Make both teamwork and deep work possible.

If you're part of a remote team, align deep work for when your coworkers are mostly offline. Make sure to remove remote work distractions. At home, the laundry can wait. If you’re using a co-working space, make sure to book a room.

If you're co-located, think about the pace of the office and plan deep work for the most mellow part of the day. In a shared space, collaboration is as easy as shouting out to your teammate, but that’s why it’s also so incredibly distracting. In open spaces, establish a headphone policy— when they’re on, that means *please* no distractions. 

However you plan it, try to start by giving yourself at least two hours a day of deep work. Two hours doesn't sound like a lot, but you'll be amazed at how productive you feel. From there, try to step up as needed while balancing that with your team's collaboration needs.

Ruthless prioritization.

Find your product management partner and collectively take a hard look at your roadmap. You’re not in this alone! Run every initiative against your product vision. If the story or task doesn't drive meaningful value toward that vision, then backlog it immediately. There are so. many. models. for prioritization. If you want your team to adopt the model, you'll need to think about it from a designer's perspective.

You know this— prioritization will relieve you and your team of meaningless tasks. Don't be afraid to review the senior team's pet projects. You should be asking the simplest, hardest question: Why? This method works regardless of your project management style and should be part of your process. Be collaborative and flexible. What was critical yesterday could be a maybe today.

You don’t find the time to do something, you make the time to do things.
Debbie Millman, Time Well Spent

Check in with yourself.

How's your health— mentally and physically? Whatever you do to keep yourself fit, do it.

I count my 3x weekly hour walks as deep work. It's where I get my best, problem-solving ideas. A Stanford study found that walking can increase productivity by 60%. I'm not telling you to walk; I'm telling you to find the place your mind is most free. There's a bonus if that activity is physical.

Are you spending time with family & friends? An 80-year-long Harvard study found that strong relationships are the key to happiness. That happiness extends to the team you manage.

It's critical you're taking care of yourself. If you're not, you won't be able to lead effectively.

Continue to write your story.

If you love hands-on design, and hate work without it, you'll be better off managing a small team or being an individual contributor. You can spend more time on the hard product stuff—actively pushing your technical ability to deliver high-quality work. Keep in mind that there’s no one path to leadership. You don’t have to manage people from an HR standpoint to lead. Look for or establish a role where you can execute at a senior level with minimal direct reports.

If you’re a relationship builder and love mentoring designers, then you're primed for a role where you can manage & scale teams. Removing barriers for design is a full-time job; whether that's advocating for more design sprints before shipping, selling the value of design at the enterprise level, or negotiating sensitive workplace politics so the team can get back to design work.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but as a design leader, you'll need to be honest about which checks your "happy in my career" box.



Lead Image: @jessynite. Clock image: Society 6.

Do you have a team in need of design leadership?

Let’s chat.

get in touch