The Top 4 Modules in a Life Operating System
A Day Job Inspiration
For almost a decade, I have been on a personal journey of improvement and mindful development. I was getting things done, as they say, but I was flying from the seat of my pants, taking random courses, building random skills, losing engagement with personal stakeholders as I struggled to manage an increasing network, etc. So, I asked myself, ‘How can I make my personal development more productive?’. To answer this, I looked at my experience from my day job. My day job has always involved the oversight of change initiatives and the designing of work systems. I have been blessed to travel the world and help others achieve their goals through programs in spaces such as technology, finance, and customer service.
I found the most success when everything was ‘on the table’ and the ‘why’ was visibly threaded through all the activities. This happened when the system was designed to be transparent.
So that’s what we will talk about here, how I approached building a system for my own life, which many aptly call: a Life Operating System (LOS). My LOS has been helping me stay on top of what I want to accomplish for many years now. If you are looking for an extra boost in life management, a structured LOS can help you too!
Transparency by Design
As noted above, the success I have seen comes from the transparency of what and why. When we think about transparency, we tend to simplify it but stating that if you write something down, it becomes transparent. However, that only makes the ‘what’ transparent, not the ‘why’. In order to make the ‘why’ transparent, you need to be able to make the connections visible. If you write a list of to-dos on a piece of paper, the only connection between them is that they are on the same piece of paper and that you want to do them. That may serve the purpose for something of small scope, but our goal is to operate the development of our lives with transparency, not just operate the development of a meeting agenda.
Our goal is to operate the development of our lives with transparency
Therefore, what is needed is a relation. To achieve relation, we need to have a system that can link one item to another. In something as large as your life, this linking cannot be facilitated with a ballpoint pen. We need something built, or flexible enough, to accommodate a spiderweb of operations.
We want to be able to, at any point in time, look at our lives from 30,000 feet and visualize it like a map, evaluating our fundamental beliefs and values, while at the same time be able to drill through a particular value, adjust what we think ‘good looks like’, what initiatives we will work on to drive that objective and even see what we must do tomorrow to move the needle forward.
Charting the Course
I visualize this much like being a captain of your own ship. You start with a chart of the ocean. You plot two points on the map and chart out the course you will take. Once you are out at sea, you constantly check your coordinates and adjust your heading based on currents, weather, other vessels, etc. When you finally reach the destination port, you reflect on the journey and write what happened in the captain’s log that future voyages can reference. This used to be done with pen and paper but now the art of captaining large vessels across the world connects an absurd amount of data to ensure the maps, vessel bearing, vessel speed, and ship crew are all exactly as they should be. We should be no less connected when charting the voyage of our life.
I have tried many tools over the years to try to achieve this and have even hacked together my own. I am not here to tell you one tool is better than another, just want is currently working for me. What I am advocating for is that the tool must provide a rhumb line between what you are doing today and where you want it to lead you.
Okay enough analogies, let’s get down to business…
Notion is my LOS foundation
I have built my personal LOS in Notion. I do use other tools but this is the one that I really ‘operate’ in. The top 5 reasons I use it:
Endless relationships — I get to treat it like my own application, being my own architect, relating databases without any serious programming knowledge
Page concept — Once I saw that each database record was in fact its own page with the same possibilities as any other page I was sold. I see a lot of tools transitioning to this concept because having the same rules for everything is much simpler than most task managers with simple description boxes
Hacks — I really like the communities that have built around making Notion customized, especially around the desktop app with mods like Notion-Enhancer
Visuals — Some of my Notion influences got me on the train of using cover photos and colors for representation and I really see the benefit. One example is putting a photo on my weekly review card as a cover that encapsulates how I felt or the best part of the week so when I look at the last month, I see 4 pictures of my best moments
Cheap — Like most of its start-up competitors it is dirt cheap for the value it can potentially bring to your life, even going as far as being free on a certain plan! Though I am on a paid version because I really like paying for tools I enjoy, but I’ll have a separate article to rationalize that.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. I cannot say that much of my LOS is my own trademark, nor do I care that it be. What I have done is to take inspiration from my own professional experience and leaders in system design.
I know that nothing of significance is accomplished in a vacuum.
To visually design the system, I started with a diagram. I am a very visual person. So, I started with another tool called draw.io. As you can see in my diagram, the first thing I started with was the flow of personal development: Plan, Act, Learn and Grow.
This leads to 4 core modules: Live Navigation, Action Center, Mind Palace, and Reflect & Improve.
1. LIFE NAVIGATION
A teacher of mine once said, ‘It’s not about the plan, it’s about the planning’.
He said it in passing, rather naturally, not knowing it would be a quote that I restated hundreds of times in the years to come. The reason it stuck with me is that the concept of a plan is usually seen as a noun, not as a verb. Therefore, I call this navigation. This module contains your ‘why’ and ‘how’ but like any good captain, you always must check your map and log any changes. Just because this module is at the highest level in the hierarchy, does not mean that it remains untouched. Using a powerful tool like Notion allows you to view the other modules through the Life Navigation module so you are always ready to make tweaks as necessary.
Your life map should consist of a vision and some definition of values. I implemented this through a Vision Board and a database of Life Themes that help tie in the other modules of the LOS.
Then you need some sort of measuring stick for your ‘how’. I went through a large implementation of the OKR framework in my day job the last few years, so for the sake of consistency, I leverage the same framework for defining my ‘how’. I recommend it as it is easy and allows for simple creativity.
2. ACTION CENTER
The Action Center adds the ‘what’ to the above ‘why’ and ‘how’. The design of this I must give most credit to the great August Bradley. He helped me visualize the action dashboard. However, underneath the views, you will find the typical setup of Projects & Actions. Projects are defined groups of tasks over a certain period which further a particular goal.
It may happen that an action may not always fit into a project or the action is simple enough that it is not worth the effort to build out a whole project. Therefore, actions can be related directly to Objectives so that your Objective overview can show Project Actions and Ad Hoc Actions. Another item to mention it is often the goal of many personal development projects to end with a habit being formed. Therefore, I manage my habit separately from tasks to signify that they don’t need special reminders, but that they are now baked into everyday life.
3. MIND PALACE
Here is where the power of a LOS becomes most visible. Given that our society is constantly pushing data into our faces, it gets difficult to keep everything organized. You may have heard of Notion or similar tools being ‘a second brain’ to help supplement your long-term memory. I watched a documentary called Memory Games and after hearing memory champion Yanjaa Wintersoul talk about the storytelling elements in her Mind Palace, I fell in love with the idea.
Hence, the Mind Palace is where you will organize all the external data that you think you will need to retain. Learning from memory champions, here we create ‘mind rooms’, or areas of knowledge such as ‘Notion’ or ‘Meditation’. The rooms will tie in the training of the mind, linking data stores such as Notes, Education, and Media. But storing information and walking away is not what we do here. We create an entire module for the Mind Palace and make sure that it supports our actions. Therefore, everything in the Mind Palace is related to the other modules in some way, so we can reference it in our actions, plan out our education objectives, or reflect on improving our learning experience.
4. REFLECT & IMPROVE
If the Mind Palace module is where we primarily learn from others, the Reflect & Improve module is where we learn from ourselves. While I have always been an introspective person, I rarely formalized it enough to enable systematic improvement. This was not going to be good enough to get me to the places I wanted to be. So, I spent almost an entire year habituating a journal and review process.
You can see a generic setup of tables that I would recommend everyone have, Daily-Weekly-Monthly-Annually. I will share in future discussions what I put into each but one point I want to make here is that you should not feel pressure to find the ‘Golden Questions’ you should be asking yourself every day. I spent a lot of time trying to find the right questions or prompts to put in my review journal, but I found that over weeks or months the prompts I gave myself to reflect on change. I suggest you find a starting point with mine or other suggestions and allow yourself to come up with your own review questions. Only you know what questions will elicit the right mood and responses from yourself.
LOS Conclusion: It’s Only the Beginning
For those of you not working in a LOS right now, I know this is overwhelming. It was for me. I thought, ‘How can I keep all this together when I have a job, family, soccer games, etc.?’. Well, if you have made it this far in the article you must have a desire to get more organized, create better connections, and make sure that you are progressing to the life you want.
I am not here to tell you that doing any of this will make you superhuman.
What I am here to tell you is that, since I have implemented a LOS, I have been able to physically feel the reduction in stress.
I can analytically see the progress I have made in my relationships with others. I don’t forget birthdays, I have created fantastic habits, increased my reading productivity 10x, managed an education program where I am enrolled in courses near every day of the year. I have successfully managed moving houses 5 times in 2020, with one of them being to a whole new continent, Europe, where I am based now. I have a vision for my family, and we work together every day to inch closer to it.
If you think this is something that might resonate with you, then I would like to share more with you. I am not doing this because I am bored. I am doing this because I want to share what I genuinely feel proud of my Life Operating System.
I will be building up additional content on the LOS setup and other general ideas on life management from here on out. I have several projects in my LOS for it ?, but the priority is based on your feedback so let me know below what you are most interested in and look forward to next time!