Some of us aspire to be the hustle heroes in our heads who quickly nail business goals just like ours, while killing it on keto, cold press coffee, and a sleep-when-I’m-dead mantra. Some of us want to be more like mindful and meditative fully focused flow ninjas ticking off tasks stacked into projects that build a better world. Whatever flips your switch, having a way of connecting what we do to who we really are and what we value makes a huge difference.
Start talking about living well, and a purpose commando will tuck and roll into the room asking, “What’s your purpose? What were you put on this earth to accomplish? What’s that unique connection between you and something the world needs? Say it! The universe won’t dent itself! Go! Tell me! Now! Now! Now!” You might know your purpose. You might not. No problem. It doesn’t really matter.
Even the lucky kid, whose 6th birthday haul included a big bucket of purpose, needs to answer three questions just like the rest of us.
#1) How might we keep an eye on what matters in life?
#2) How might we make choices that help us live in accordance with what matters?
#3) How might we consistently act on our choices and goals?
These are questions worth answering. Life asks us to answer them over and over. The answers to these questions turn out not to be answers, but instead form a little machine for creating answers to these questions: an operating system for life. When I realized I needed one, I wasn’t happy. It felt like way too much to manage and do the living part too. Procrastination came to the rescue.
Backing into a System
Efficiency procrastinators like me spend time looking for faster, more effective ways to get something done before diving in. If you give a programmer 3 hours of repetitive work, expect 2 of those hours to be spent finding a way to do the work in 20 minutes. Faced with the Good-Life OS challenge, I spent my productive procrastination time reading widely and sketching systems. Next, I started applying what I learned — and had everything backward.
I started with Core Habits. Who we become and what we accomplish are determined by the small things we do every day. Starting with habits was a good call, right? I looked at habit formation research and what learning scientists are revealing about how learning works. I mapped out daily, weekly and monthly habits. Since the brain is a terrible place to store information, I found to-do software to do the reminding while I played the obey-your-checklist game.
It worked, but I was making too many complicated decisions about which habits really mattered and how to act on them. I didn’t have a way to adapt when the world changed. I was also a bit fuzzy on how my habits connected to my goals. I was doing goals wrong.
I had written goals. I had SMART goals. I had goals that weren’t too clever but they worked harder than the other goals their age. What did I do wrong? I left out change. Over time, we change and the world changes. Our big goals might remain the same, but the intermediate steps will shift as we change along with the world.
I took my goals and broke them down over five time periods — 6 weeks, 6 months, 18 months, 36 months, and 72 months. Regularly adjusting the dates and the goals as things that were farther out moved closer in let me dance with time and change. Setting up goals this way gave me a better way to adjust my daily, weekly, and monthly habits and how to act on them.
I also made sure each goal and habit included a binary measure, a clear, yes-no measure. Compare these two habits: “Do more research each week,” to “Read and annotate 3 journal articles each week.” The second habit version is harder to weasel out of because it leaves no room for maybe; it’s done or not done.
A Big, Blue Rat
There was still something missing. I had great goals, but would they help me live well? We’ve all seen people seduced by the big blue rat. Everyone’s big blue rat is different. Yours might be wealth, status, work, ego, illicit chemistry, diversions, sensual delights, or fear. The big blue rat makes us feel great while nibbling at our heart.
I heard the pitter patter of little blue feet often and saw too many crumbs. I needed a way to cope with that natural, but dangerous, part of being human. I looked at my goals and habits and saw that if I checked off each goal and held to each habit, I could still end up, nibble by nibble, becoming someone I didn’t like. To help keep my last words from being something like, “This is not who I was supposed to be,” I didn’t need better goals. The goals I had were good, but they were Secular Goals. I needed a different kind of goal.
Value Goals help us express what it means for us to live well and be a good human. I thought about older me looking back on my life. Who do I want to be then? How would I like to feel about the life I’ve lived and am living? The first versions of my Values Goals looked like this:
- Love and nurture.
- Live in flow states.
- Build deep connections to people.
This list was phrased like stuff to get done, like Secular Goals list but without dates. As written, these Value Goals were saying, “Hey pal, add these things to your list of stuff and do them. Good luck.” They weren’t giving me a quick way to regularly ask myself if I’m living, acting, and choosing in accordance with my values. One small change made a huge difference.
- I am someone who loves and nurtures.
- I am someone who lives in flow states.
- I am someone with deep connections to people
- I am someone who/whose/with …
When we use the “I am someone who/whose/with” format, we’re able to look at our Core Habits and Secular Goals and ask if they are consistent with our values. If I am someone who lives in flow states (I’m much more fun to be around when I do), I probably don’t have a schedule peppered with calls and meetings. If I’m someone who loves and nurtures, I probably protect my family time and bring my full self to those moments. You get the idea. Each time we steer toward living in accordance with our values, we shoo the blue rat away. Values Goals make sure our Secular Goals and Core Habits don’t take us on a wonderful journey that neglects what we value most.
Three things kept my Values Goals, Secular Goals, and Core Habits from being a complete Good-Life OS: tunnel vision, bandwidth, and context. Scarcity and crisis do predictable things to our thinking. We lock onto tasks or objectives we think are related to getting us safe and secure again. In this mode, other ideas and options are obscured or even invisible. Since some of those hard-to-see things might also contribute to our safety and security. We sometimes chase the thing we think we want right past the thing we need.
As our stressors and environmental complexity increases, we have less mind to devote to thinking about living our Values Goals. When life’s storm is raging all around us, there are some thoughts that just won’t occur to us unless we trigger them. Even in good times, we might miss important questions we should be asking ourselves because we are focused on enjoying the good times.
To this, add our multiple personalities. We show up differently in different contexts. The conversation with a neighbor and coworker each follow different norms and nuances. We bring a slightly different identity flavor to each interaction. For the Good-Life OS to hold together, it needs a way to integrate these varied identity expressions with everything else. Fortunately, in addition to forming a barrier, contexts offered a solution.
Adding a list of the contexts where I express my Values Goals, seek my Secular Goals, and perform my Core Habits, provided the vigilance I needed. Scanning our lives gives us a way to counteract tunnel vision and reallocate bandwidth. When we scan each context we’re pausing and focusing on what’s happening there.
Scanning fuels the Good-Life OS. For example, one of your contexts might be friendship. While exploring this context during a Life Scan, you’ll start by asking yourself what’s happening in this area and pay close attention to the thoughts and emotions that arise. Next, use your Values Goals to ask if you are living in accordance with your Values Goals with your friends. Do your Secular Goals support your friendships? Do they present conflicts with those relationships? Are your daily, weekly, and monthly Core Habits helping you show up as a good friend? Your answers to these questions will help you choose how to adjust your Values Goals, Secular Goals and Core Habits.
Life Scans are a weekly Core Habit that develops into a quick way to see where you are living well and where you might experiment with changes. You’ll need more than 6 and fewer than 15 contexts to start. For example, you might begin with Health, Work, Learning, Family, Fun, and Community. Maybe you fall in love and add Love. Maybe you have a child and add Parenting. (Pro tip: If you fall in love and welcome a child, then separate those contexts from Family. They are different worlds.)
Life Scans give a Good-Life OS cohesion as a system. Daily living becomes checking off our daily, weekly, and monthly Core Habits. Core Habits, including periodic Life Scans, help us adapt as we change and our world changes.
An Experiment in Better Living
To create the starting version of your Good-Life OS, start with contexts for your Life Scans like these: Health, Work, Learning, Family, Fun, Love, and Community. Look across those contexts to draft a few Values Goals. Add your Secular Goals broken down over the next few years. Then add at least 3 monthly habits, 5 weekly habits (5 + a weekly Life Scan), and 7 daily habits. Creating your first Good-Life OS will mean asking yourself tough questions and making difficult choices, but it’s worth it.
Once you have your first version, your weekly Life Scan will help your Good-Life OS make living well, as you’ve defined it, the source of your actions, decisions, and vigilance.
I’ve created an Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool to help you create your Good-Life OS. Download it here. I love hearing stories from people who create and install their Good-Life OS. I’d love to hear yours.
Download the Thinking Tool
Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tools make it easy to apply what you learn.