Manager Energy Drain

One of the most frequent questions I hear as I coach managers is, “How do I handle how tired I am as a manager?”

Some managers find themselves working long hours to do hands-on “work-work” after full days of one-on-ones. Some managers find that the labor of managing or more strategic thinking drains their energy significantly faster than the work they did as individual contributors. Some find the context-switching between meetings super taxing.

I offer three experiments to try to address this energy drain:

  1. Defrag your calendar
  2. Delegate messy and unscoped projects
  3. Say no

Calendar color coding and defragging

(I wrote about this tactic about a year ago for The Human in the Machine.)

Step one: Color code your calendar based on the kind of brain you use in each event. For example, in my week, I’ll have:

A while ago, I began color-coding my calendar based on the kind of brain I was going to be using. As a manager, this looked like:

Color-coded calendar

This helped me begin to get a sense of in what ways I was spending my mental energy each day. (And the colors can only be seen by you; no one else with whom the calendar is shared can see the colors!)

Step two: Use those colors to analyze how much context switching you’re doing each day. Also analyze how much you’re drained at the end of the day when there’s large blocks of the same brain.

Are you finding yourself using different mental energy every other hour? Is there a way to make shared-brain meetings follow each other in your day?

Relatedly, if you have a day where you JUST do one-on-ones, maybe you’re far more or less drained on those days than the other days. Make a note to yourself at the end of each day for two weeks how tired you are, and what the calendar colors looked like that day.

Step three: Defrag or reorganize. Move some things around so you’re doing less context-switching, and see if that helps. Or scatter the super draining events throughout the week to see if that makes it a little less taxing.

Here’s a handy worksheet for you!

Like all of the suggestions in this post, this may not help you at all, or it’ll give you a brand new helpful insight! Try it and see how it works for you.

Delegate messy and unscoped projects

Often as managers we want to give our direct reports beautifully packaged, cleanly wrapped gifts of leadership work. It feels like this way, we can take care of them and support them in the best possible way! After all, who wants a messy, hard-to-measure, totally unfamiliar project where you might fail?

Ha. Sorry to break this to you, but the best gift you can give your direct reports is a messy, unscoped project with a bit of a safety net. This kind of project creates the biggest opportunity for someone to grow as a leader, as it:

This means that it’s not just okay, it’s important to hand off bigger, scarier projects to budding leaders. It also means that you need to offer support to them in the following ways:

Tell them how and in what medium you will support them. “DM me on Slack if you’ve spent more than 1 day stumped on how to move forward” or “shoot me an email if Person B is unresponsive to you for 3 days; I can be your muscle there.”

Tell them that you expect this to be a stretch for them, and that’s the point. You trust that they are capable of doing great work with this project, and that they will raise a flag to you if they get stuck.

Release yourself of being involved in the decision-making. Your report will make different decisions than you would! They might mess up more than you would! But they’ll also grow so much, and they’ll learn a ton in the process, and maybe (just maybe!) they’ll end up with a far more creative solution than you would have.

My favorite metaphor for this is Molly Graham’s “give away your legos”:

“There’s a lot of natural anxiety and insecurity that the new person won’t build your Lego tower in the right way, or that they’ll get to take all the fun or important Legos, or that if they take over the part of the Lego tower you were building, then there won’t be any Legos left for you. But at a scaling company, giving away responsibility — giving away the part of the Lego tower you started building — is the only way to move on to building bigger and better things.”

What Molly Graham hits on there is something most (including me) don’t realize up front: that by giving away your legos, you’re also creating space for you to pick up new ones. In the meantime, it could help significantly with your energy drain.

Say no

I know, I know. This is the least favorite one for nearly everybody.

But it’s possible that the best way to troubleshoot your energy drain is to reduce the amount of things you say “yes” to - and start to get more practice saying “no” or “I know I said yes before, but after more time thinking about it/doing it, I need to say no.”

I don’t need to tell you this: saying “no” more allows you to more effectively do the work that you say “yes” to. As Ron Swanson says,

Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.

However you prefer to be held accountable, lean on that system to start practicing saying “no” more. Ask your manager, product partner, or someone else you trust to hold you accountable to saying “no”. Make a calendar item at the beginning of the day to spend twenty minutes figuring out what to say “no” to. Write down draft emails you can copy and paste from to say “no” clearly and gracefully every time you need to and feel hesitation.

Color-coding and defragging your calendar, delegating meaty work to others, and saying “no” are all tactics you can try over the next few weeks to data-gather and troubleshoot what’s contributing to your energy drain. Each person’s management strengths and fears are different, which means the source of your tiredness may require some more work to uncover. I’m rooting for you!

Lara Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Engineering Director at Etsy.

I champion engineering management as a practice, getting comfortable giving presentations, and celebrating career achievements with donuts.