An Intentional Life — Part 5: Designing Your Personal Operating System

Charles Moore
Jan 3, 2018 · 4 min read

This is the last post in a series. It won’t make much sense, unless you’ve read the previous: Introduction, Stumbling Into My Operating System, 5 Design Principles for A Personal Operating System, and All of the Tools.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Getting Started

Hopefully, the design principles and tactics from previous posts have given you plenty of ideas about where to start your own system. Keep in mind the Big Caveat from the start: that my system is optimized around my goals. No one system works for every person, for all seasons. Figure out what works for you.

Similarly, my system evolved over years of tinkering. So it’s not a matter of designing the perfect solution. Just get started on whatever you think would help you right now, even if it’s a small step.

That said, a few questions that might help you get started:

  • What matters most to you, and why? (Ask yourself “why” 5 times to get to the core answer!)
  • What in your life makes you happy? What detracts from your happiness? (“Happiness” might manifest itself as joy, contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, relaxation, absence of stress, etc. It doesn’t have to be the same kind of happiness that comes from, say, ice cream or a freshly fried donut…or an ice cream sandwich with a donut as the bread.)
  • What are the barriers to accomplishing your goals?
  • What’s the #1 thing you could do to reach your #1 goal?

Don’t Just Add. Subtract.

It can often be difficult to add new processes to your life and to change habits. On the other hand, lots of research suggests that stopping, eliminating, and saying “no” can often be the easier path to success. Below are three great takes on this concept.

Derek Sivers on setting a high bar for saying, “yes”:

“If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no’. When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then say ‘no.’”

Drew Faust, President of Harvard University on strategic focus:

“I found some of Michael Porter’s work really helpful…. When I was at Radcliffe, I remember coming across some of his writings, and one phrase in particular was, ‘Strategy is what you don’t do.’”

Greg McKeown, in Essentialism, on respectfully saying “no”:

“Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Yes, saying no respectfully, reasonably, and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost. But part of living the way of the Essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run.”

Some tactical ideas of how to implement these concepts:

  • Stop doing activities that you don’t value. If you hear yourself saying, “I have to…,” ask yourself, “why?”
  • Stop going to meetings that don’t matter. I ask my team members, “do you need me for this one, or do you have it?” #LazyLeadership. And if title of the meeting doesn’t convince me that’s its worthwhile, I’ll email the convener asking, “what’s the purpose of this?” or try to nudge them to create an agenda with, “what do we want to accomplish?”
  • Start saying no, respectfully.
  • Get rid of possessions that don’t bring you joy. (And read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up).
  • Unsubscribe from email lists, to reduce the amount of information you need to process each day.

Final Thoughts

I started this blog series with a note that the principles and tactics above were specifically designed to overcome the things I’m bad at. There’s nothing particularly magical about the combination of them.

That said, my experience is that there is magic in the process. Regardless of how you do it, I’m confident that implementing some form of the design principles would enable you to better achieve your goals.

Principle 1: Reflect on what’s important to you on a regular basis

Principle 2: Continuously (re)focus on what’s important

Principle 3: Start with a clean sheet

Principle 4: Seek work-life alignment (not balance)

Principle 5: Blast away administrative stuff in batches

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a journey, not a destination. My operating system started in 2007, and is still evolving 10 years later. In fact, if done right, it should constantly change. New family situations imply new challenges. New projects at work imply new priorities. Getting promoted implies new expectations and a new definition of what’s important.

The principles above should help you identify those changes — both general evolutions and discrete pivot points — and figure out the best way to adjust to them.


You have any comments about any of the strategies here? Did you try any of them? Let’s chat about it.

Charles Moore

Written by

Product and analytics guy. Here, sharing a bunch of random insights from a bunch of random experiences.

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