Begin Your Leadership Design Journey

Leadership contains common themes, uniquely expressed in each leader. The design elements shape who we are as leaders, informing what kind of leaders we become.

Discover your design today

Visually, our designs need room to breathe.

Negative space is the space around the subject of an image. It provides balance and focus to the image, drawing our eye to the intended target. An image with significant negative space also has a sense of peace about it.

As a leader, we often feels like our work is never done; there is always more. We don’t set out to overwork, but the little extra here and the little extra there become the new normal. Then we continue adding a little more until our work-life balance has snowballed out of control.

If this you, I get it. I’ve been there.

But you don’t have to stay there, there is another way.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Good design isn’t about adding more.

It’s about taking away what’s unnecessary to elevate what is essential. Similarly, in cooking, you’ll get better results from a reduction than from adding more seasoning.

We usually don’t need more. We need less. But what does less look like?

We’ll explore three ways we create negative space in our life?

  1. Quiet the noise
  2. Choose rest over distraction
  3. Do a detox

If you want to get into a flow and create something great, you need to make space to work.

Quiet the noise

Technology continues to integrate more deeply into our lives, from our pockets to our wrists to our cars and bedrooms. Technology can be a tool that helps us connect, engage, and be more effective, but we’ve become a slave to it.

We live in a culture where we are always on call, always engaged. It’s so easy to be one buzzing vibration away from needing to respond to an email in the middle of dinner or a kid’s basketball game.

Here are three very practical steps I’ve used to quiet the noise of my devices.

  1. Disable all notifications. Then re-enable only a few.
  2. Create a rhythm of engagement and disengagement.
  3. Give your devices a home.

Notifications off to create negative space in your attention

This one works better to start with a clean slate. I turned off all the notifications on my phone. Then I began adding the ones I wanted back in my life.

I started with real-time communication apps and travel apps. If someone is texting me, I want to be notified so I can respond. If my plane is boarding or my Lyft has arrived, I also want to be notified.

Be most ruthless with your phone and watch. I allow more work notifications on my iPad or laptop because I’m usually working when I’m on them.

On no device do I enable email notifications.

Email is asynchronous communication. It can wait. If it can’t wait, then the person sending the email should have used a different channel.

I have found that a few apps require a little more nuance.

  • Slack. I work on distributed teams, and Slack is a vital part of our communication. So I leave the notifications on, but I set quiet hours for when I want to be seen as away.
  • Asana. Similar to Slack, this is where my teams engage with work. So notifications are on for my iPad and laptop but limited to work hours.
  • Google calendar. I use google calendar to schedule my work and personal life, so I leave these notifications on my phone and watch.

Be careful with badges.

Badges are passive notifications, not interruptive but letting you know something is there. This can be helpful, but it can also a dangerous temptation. You get on your phone to do one thing, click on that badge to see what it is…1 hour later you realize you still haven’t done the thing you picked up you phone to do.

Especially if you are just now trying to reduce notifications, I’d suggest turning off the badges too.

If we are to find needed negative space as leaders, we may need to take more drastic measures to break our current habits.

Create rhythm of engagement and disengagement

Quality work requires focus. If you want to get into a flow and create something great, you need to make space to work.

I try and do my focused work in the mornings because that is when my creative energy is the highest. I use the afternoons for meetings, and I end the day with my inbox zero routine.

This structure gives rhythm to my day, manages my attention rather than my time, and allows me to focus on the right thing and leave the others until it’s time.

If you want to see an example, take a look at how I’ve structured my daily, weekly, and sprint schedules. I have to flex this schedule as things change, but it gives me a place to start designed to maximize my attention and energy.

And lastly, don’t have your email client open when it’s not time to check email. Closing that channel of email stimulus is critical for engaging in focused work.

Does life ever feel like a hack rather than on purpose?

You want your life to have meaning and impact. Daily life is made up of the spaces we gather and the moments we interact with one another.

What if your spaces, moments, and interactions not only felt natural and intuitive but also aligned with your priorities and positively impacted those around you?

Discover your Everyday Design so you can focus on what’s important.

Give your devices a home

I used to keep my phone on the table next to my bed.

That’s where I would charge it. It would function as my alarm clock. During the day, it lived in my pocket, ready to distract me.

I now have two homes for my phone, one for the day and one for the night.

When I come home, I place my phone next to where I place my keys. This serves two purposes. First, I. don’t have to look for my phone when I need it, it has a home. Second, it created just enough friction to help me get out of the habit of looking at my phone whenever there was a free moment.

Homes for my devices
2 homes for my phone

At night my phone, watch, and AirPods all get their own space to recharge away from my bed.

I got this lovely little recharge station to give the devices their own place. This keeps me from staying up later than I should, looking at my phone. I also get better sleep not having stared at a screen just before going to bed.

Next to my bed I usually have two books and an alarm clock (because I moved my phone). On a side note, I really like waking up to the light rather than sound. This alarm clock has been great for that.

Choose rest and recreation over distraction

At the end of the day, we often describe ourselves as needing to unplug. But what actually happens is that we come home and plug into something else. As a culture, we primarily confused distraction for rest. Binging Netflix is not the same as rest, not even close.

You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep.
- Neftlix CEO Reed Hastings

Rest is not a bad thing.

We were designed to rest. We also were designed for recreation, to re-create. Recreation encompasses those things that give life rather than things that enable us to disengage.

For me, recreation involves sketching, going for a hike, writing, learning something new, conversations with friends, or designing/building something.

Todd Henry has a great article How Unnecessary Creating Changes Everything that does a great job illustrating the power of what I’m describing as recreation.

Maybe you can’t do a full detox, but is there something you need to step away from, even if just for a season.

I’m not saying you should never watch a show, but this next week do an audit of your discretionary time. How is it split between rest, recreation, and distraction? Evaluate what you discover and see if it’s something you want to adapt.

Master Class has been a great discovery for me. It has the production quality of TV but allows me to learn something of interest.

Even better, watch it with others and try what you learn together. I’ve watched Steph Curry’s basketball series with my kids, and we practiced together what we learned. My spouse and I watched the mixology class. 😉

Do a detox to learn to build negative space

For many, it’s moved to the point of addiction, our phone providing us with dopamine hits when we get a notification. If we are to find needed negative space as leaders, we may need to take more drastic measures to break our current habits.

How do you know you need to do a detox?

  1. Is it difficult to be home but away from a screen for an hour?
  2. How many days a week are you trading sleep for distraction?
  3. How many days a week does work come home with you?
  4. Is it hard to take a day off without something to accomplish?
  5. How long has it been since you felt refreshed?

If you find yourself unable to slow down, and your only reprieve from work is a distraction, then a change is likely needed.

You need to slow down, be still and quiet for a season. To learn new rhythms of life. Not the rhythm of a task master’s drum, but rhythms that invite us to stroll or to dance and sing.

We usually don’t need more. We need less.

I love how in the book of Matthew, Jesus gives this invitation, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

You may be thinking, “I’m too busy, I can’t take time off for something like this.” Many leaders are losing vacation every year because they haven’t taken it and have already maxed out how much can rollover.

This was me in 2019. I took 4 weeks off to recalibrate, to rest, to re-create. If you want to see how I spent it, check out my post, A How to Guide for Planning Your Own “Gap-Month.”

Maybe you can’t do a full detox, but is there something you need to step away from, even if just for a season.

Last year I gave my garden a year off. I love gardening, but I realized it had become a to-do list in a growing stack of to-lists. Two years ago, I canceled our Netflix account, and now I can say I don’t really miss it.

My wife and I have each taken seasons where we chose to stay off all social media, giving ourselves a mental break and evaluating how those habits were affecting us.

Next Steps in creating negative space

There was a lot in here. Take time to consider your next step to creating negative space in your life and leadership.

Start somewhere, even if it’s small.

If you’re not sure where to start, do a time audit. Then evaluate where you want to adapt first.

Next we’ll look at the design element of rhythm to help us create a cadence to our life and leadership.

Let’s connect on LinkedIn, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience.

Begin Your Leadership Design Journey

Leadership contains common themes, uniquely expressed in each leader. The design elements shape who we are as leaders, informing what kind of leaders we become.

Discover your design today


This post is part of a guide called Leadership Design where I unpack the design elements that compose a leader.

You find my current and future guides on