An Intentional Life — Part 3: 5 Design Principles for a Personal Operating System
If I had to boil down the various parts of my operating system to principles, these would be it. They are closely related to the insights in Part 2, with a heavy dose of lived experience on implementing the system.
Principle 1: Reflect on what’s important to you on a regular basis
It’s difficult to achieve what’s important without defining “what’s important” first. Without that definition, there is no benchmark for determining how well you’re doing and whether you need to make adjustments. This is the absolute core of my system. Any process to develop your own system should start here.
And once you have a clear definition of success, one needs dedicated, regular time to reflect and measure yourself against that definition of success.
Clarence Otis, former CEO of Darden Restaurants, put this well in his Corner Office interview:
“…in senior leadership positions, one of your jobs is to reflect, and you have to schedule time to do that.”
Principle 2: Continuously (re)focus on what’s important
A core belief of mine is that anything you do that is of low importance steals time and attention from things that are of high importance. The operating system is all about implementing that idea. So the principle is to have processes that enable focus on what’s of high importance and actively eliminates everything else.
Geoff Vuleta, former CEO of Fahrenheit 212 describes this iterative process of (re)focusing:
“I realized I had become a creature of habit, and I needed to reinvent myself. …Companies around us were growing faster than we were. And I began to realize that I simply wasn’t at enough tables to pitch new business. And then it became a question of, what am I doing that I’ve got to stop doing in order to ensure that I’m at more tables? …So I stopped doing a good number of things at the firm that I’d been doing before.”
Principle 3: Start with a clean sheet
Art of War is an evergreen source of wisdom on strategy. One of my favoring lines is this:
“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”
How does that apply to a personal operating system? Because circumstances constantly change, a key mistake is setting out a plan for today based on what was important yesterday (or this week, based on last week). For me, the best way to avoid this mistake is to start with a clean sheet of paper each week and each day when writing out my plan.
In contrast, electronic tools make it easy to leave the least important items on yesterday’s to-do— the ones not important enough to get done then — as the first things on your to-do list for today. Many times, that’s fine — #4 on the list is problem still important enough. But it leaves a lot of room for stale thinking, especially if your situation changed since yesterday or you learned something important.
Principle 4: Seek work-life alignment (not balance)
To state the obvious, personal success and professional success are intertwined. Being healthy, high-energy, and happy enables you to focus on work. And when work is a drag, it’ll drag on your personal life as well.
Two quotes that tie together work and life success:
Sun Tzu, in Art of War:
“If you are careful of your men, and camp on hard ground, the army will be free from disease of every kind, and this will spell victory.”
Barack Obama, as quoted by Michael Lewis in a Vanity Fair interview, is even more stark:
“This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. ‘You have to exercise,’ he said, for instance. ‘Or at some point you’ll just break down.’”
It makes no sense to draw stark lines on the calendar for Monday through Friday 9am-5pm and relegate your personal priorities to the time (and energy) that are left over. That’s a recipe for failure and isn’t even how most modern workplaces and families function.
Instead, actively put personal tasks on the same priority level as professional tasks, so that the latter does not crowd out the former — either in your mind or on your calendar.
Principle 5: Blast away administrative stuff in batches
There’s no way to completely avoid administrative tasks, household chores, or any number of activities that don’t readily fit the definition of “most important.” That said, actively working to reduce the number of those things outstanding reduces mental clutter and the mental energy to keep track of them. Hence, the goal is to get rid of these items quickly or eliminate them as tasks in the first place.
Barack Obama also mentioned reducing mental energy spent on non-important items as a key to his strategy:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits….I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. …You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”