Defragging Your Emotional Hard Drive

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By Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

When I was younger, one of the greatest pleasures I got out of anything was running the defragging program on my family’s massive desktop computer.

(Yes, I was a big nerd. No, I didn’t have a lot of friends.)

All programs and games (what up Carmen Sandiego) would be running glacially, cripplingly slow, stuttering electronically, and after executing a magical whirring program in the background, it was like the computer had been given a new lease on life. I could play Carmen Sandiego again without the map of North Africa freezing all to hell!

You remember what defragging means, right? If not, here’s the official definition:

verb (used with object)
1. to reorganize files on (a disk) so that the parts of each file are stored in contiguous sectors on the disk, thereby improving computer performance and maximizing disk space.

Cool, it maximizes the way the computer runs to make things more efficient and free up space. Sounds great!

Well, I think we might be able to defrag our brains in the same sort of manner to run more optionally, too.

I was first introduced to this concept by the writings of Lara Hogan, who I think is taking some of the most interesting and novel approaches to workplace management out there today. In particular, a post of hers about the ways we get emotionally drained at work attracted me. She discussed the idea of taking the approach of defragging our work calendar by a color-coded system, thereby acknowledging types of events that have a particular drain on us, then re-ordering them so that we can space them out more evenly throughout the week. Here’s an excerpt from her blog post:

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

  • one-on-ones where I’m coaching others (listening/empathy brain)

Hogan goes on to explain that she then visually lays out her calendar and takes note of how she’s feeling at the end of each day, then looks back at her appointments:

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?

She then adjusts as necessary. For example, if she finds that she finds her personal one on ones very draining, she may space them out over each day of the week instead of doing them all in one day. It’s a great post, and her management advice in general is just really thoughtful and excellent. Definitely check her out.

But brilliant, huh? So simple. So often we know we are exhausted at the end of a particular day, but don’t put effort into figuring out and naming what has drained us. And the opposite can be true, too. Days we’re exhilarated and inspired, we may not put together the full picture of why we feel that way. Could those days be replicated? What pieces came together to make the day feel full of energy?

So let’s take an approach to defragging our emotional states overall, not just at work, as inspired by Hogan’s color-coded work calendar concept.

My thoughts on how to do this are a little more old-school than using Outlook, though. I’m a real proponent of doing things longform and by hand when possible, so this is what I recommend:

Step 1: Figure out what kind of “brains” you use in a day, ie, the kind of mental engagement you need to have when doing a particular task. These are my “brains”:

  • Exercise

Then assign each of your brains colors. Please note: your “brains” are going to look different than mine. You may be going on a lot of first dates, spending time with your child, or caretaking, or never have alone time because you live with a partner or roommates. But try to break out your brains into 5–10 types, based on an average day and events in your life.

Now it’s time to get manual. Print out two weekly calendar templates and get you some markers. Here’s a simple template. This is going to take a bit of time and work, but I believe it to be worth it. At the end of every day, review every kind of activity and brain that went into your day, and assign them the proper colors and write them into your calendar. One more things: at the end of each day, pick a word for how that day went and how you feel. A word could be “exhausted” or “normal” or “blah” or “sparkly.” The word itself doesn’t matter so much as really thinking about the feeling you are having behind it at the end of that day.

Then after a week or two of doing this, take a look at your calendars. Are there a ton of one color on the days you felt “blah”? A lot of another on the days you felt neutral, or the days you felt content and well-rested? There may, ideally, be patterns. You may find that a lot of alone time really sucks for you, and also you hate work meetings. You may find deep work to be invigorating, or exercise makes you feel purposeful.

Now, none of those things are particularly insightful taken on their own. You may even already know the things that motivate or exhaust you. What you’re looking for here is a way to either do more of the positive ones and build them into a routine in your life that happens every day, or a way to spread out the draining ones over the week. We often can’t totally rid ourselves of the draining tasks in our lives, but we can be more intentional about trying to spread them out so they don’t all hit us on one day like a crushing tidal wave of exhaustion. The idea is to balance your days and weeks more effectively.

One example of how this worked for me: I have standing social obligations on Monday and Tuesday nights. What was happening was that every time I also made social plans on Wednesday night, I would constantly end up canceling because I just couldn’t. I eventually realized, by looking at my calendar, that if I have two evening social obligations in a row, I can’t handle a third. So I block out Wednesdays — or any evening after two social evenings — for introvert me time.

What do you think? What kind of “brains” do you use, and how often are they being incorporated across your weeks? Let me know if you try this exercise and if you find it useful. Hopefully, by the end of two weeks of recording this and rearranging your tasks and brains, you’ll be running as fast as a 1995 Dell that’s just been defragged. Time to go see what Carmen Sandiego is up to…

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Teaching awakening + healing through vulnerability + self-compassion. Finding hope in a messy world. Author of the Sunday Soother.

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