Write an Operating System for Your Brain

Jan 1, 2017 by

Let’s face it. We all have to interact with organizations and systems of relationships in which we might not “fit” perfectly. We can choose to stay and try to thrive, or leave and find another path. Both are valid options. If you are choosing to stay, you will likely have to make minor (or sometimes major) tweaks to how you interact and function within that system. It is unreasonable to expect a system with thousands of employees or a family with 4 people in it to all change and adapt to you when you are unwilling to make changes to adapt to it.

What if you began approaching your brain like a computer system? Suppose you could load in a set of operating instructions at the beginning of every day to govern how you operate in the world around you. As you find “bugs” (character flaws) in your system, suppose you could write new code to help you begin to correct those bugs. I think we can actually do this.

Computers boot up with an operating system that tells the hardware (printer, mouse, monitor, etc.) how to function and runs the software apps. The operating system is the first program the computer loads when you turn it on. In a sense, the operating system directs everything else in the computer system.

You can write a personal operating system (POS) that directs your physical and mental functioning. The POS can be a very powerful tool to help you change behavior that is holding you back in your professional and personal life.

Here’s the basic idea:

  1. Write a set of instructions (the POS) that you want to be your governing principles.
  2. Read the POS every morning out loud.
  3. Each evening before bed, celebrate the wins from the day as you reread the POS.

Aspirational Lines of Code

Since this is you talking to your own body and brain, it’s important that you are kind to yourself. Negative instructions tend to focus on past behavior. The personal operating system should be a set of instructions on what TO do in the present and future. The instructions you give yourself every day should be affirming and aspirational. Any instruction can be written in a negative or positive way.

Here’s a line of code for running your brain:

Negative code: Don’t brag.
Positive code: Be humble.

And another line of code for running your body:

Negative code: Don’t eat crap.
Positive code: Choose healthy food.

A personal operating system should consist of approximately 5-15 lines of code that set up instructions for your brain and body. Here are several lines of code from the personal operating system I used last year, when I worked with a very large team in a leadership position:

Schedule impulsive things.
Support the leaders around you.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.
Do something scary every day.

The goal for a personal operating system is to create a set of reminders that become so well-known to you that they pop up in your mind when you are confronted with situations that run counter to your operating system.

Writing the First Draft of your POS

How do you go about creating your own personal operating system?

There are several questions you can use for reflection that will give you a good first draft:

  1. If I were to ask people around you to describe you, what would you want them to say about you?
  2. What are the characteristics of the people you you admire and look to as role models?
  3. What are the character flaws that are keeping you from moving up or into new roles at work?
  4. What are the character flaws that are keeping you from having more meaningful relationships with your partner, children, or friends?

As you identify flaws, remember that you need to find ways to write affirming statements (not negative ones) for the operating system.

Getting Feedback on the POS

This may be too scary for your first POS, and if that’s the case, just skip this step. However, it can be a really valuable way to nail the instructions that will be the most powerful in transforming yourself.

To get feedback on your draft POS, you want to identify 2-5 trusted people (friends, family members, or former work colleagues) that will read the POS and tell you what you’re missing. Ask them questions like:

  1. What is holding me back at work?
  2. What is holding me back from deepening our relationship?
  3.  What should be on this list that isn’t?

Approach the feedback you get with this mindset: I will listen to what they say without argument.

Now revise your POS in a way that you think is appropriate. You can take it or leave it with respect to the feedback you got, but you did ask for it, so I’d consider taking it if you truly asked people you trusted.

Finalize the POS

As you get the POS ready to be used, consider how it should be written on paper. Do you want your POS to be loaded from shortest statement to longest statement?

Be humble.
Choose healthy foods.
Schedule impulsive things.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Do something scary every day.
Support the leaders around you.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.

Does it make more sense to you to group the POS so that personal and work goals are separated?

Be humble.
Choose healthy foods.
Do something scary every day.

Schedule impulsive things.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Support the leaders around you.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.

Or maybe it makes more sense to you to organize the list so that the hardest instructions always come first.

Be humble.
Choose healthy foods.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Schedule impulsive things.

Do something scary every day.
Support the leaders around you.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.

Finalize the order. Print the list (you may need a few copies depending on your morning and evening routines). You might want to laminate the list (packing tape works well), mount it on cardboard, decorate it, or do something else to make it feel more like a permanent structure in your life. It’s your POS, figure out what makes sense to you.

Loading the POS in the Morning

The POS will only work if you actually READ it every morning. So you have to find a place to put it where you will have the time to read the list out loud with minimal disruption to your normal routine. Try to think of a time when you’ll be likely to be able to read the list. For me, the ideal time is when I’m drying my hair, so my list is in the bathroom. For you it could be while you wait for your coffee to brew, when you are making your breakfast, or while you drive to work.

Find a home for your POS, and make it a part of your routine to read the list of instructions every morning.

Reread the POS in the Evening

Now find a time in the evening that you can skim your list and celebrate the wins and small corrections you made during the day. Again, the bathroom might be the right place (I reflect while I brush my teeth). You don’t want to beat yourself up if you didn’t manage to execute all your instructions. The goal is to find where an instruction did actually lead you to a new behavior during the day. You want your mind to begin to deliver the correct instruction at the moment you need to hear it. For example, at the moment that you are about to brag about an accomplishment at work, “Be humble.” floats into your mind and you congratulate the team on a job well done instead of bragging. That’s a win to be celebrated at the end of the day.

Of course, you might also identify moments in the day where you could have done better, and that’s okay. You simply need to acknowledge them, and then dismiss them with the thought that you’ve now recognized these types of moments and can improve another day.

Tuning Up the POS

As time passes and jobs and relationships change, your POS will need tuning up. Don’t operate on an old POS when your life has had significant changes. The example POS I’ve shared makes little sense now that I’m self-employed and no longer working with an enormous organization with a large team to manage. I’ve revised it. You should too as your situation changes.

I would love to compile a list of instructions that people can choose from to write a POS. What are some of the “lines of code” you’re writing into your own personal operating system?

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The Four Processors: A Neogeneralist Problem?

Dec 22, 2016 by

My husband has been joking for years that my brain has 4 processors. He says I can’t relax unless at least 3 processors are turned off, but that’s not an easy thing to do. When one processor can’t solve the problem it is stuck on, my brain brings up the next-most-interesting processor and begins working on that problem instead.

Often, I wake up at 5am to find that one processor has kicked out a solution to a problem and then it is impossible to go back to sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep because the processors are occupied with such interesting problems they won’t turn off.

The interesting part is what happens if I do not have enough interesting topic matter to supply to the 4 processors. They don’t seem to redistribute existing problems and work in parallel. The other processors are uninterested if one processor is handling the problem. Rather the remaining processors become unsatisfied and depressed – they feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled.

Recently, I read The Neogeneralist, by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin. Neogeneralist “are people who are able to find connections across fields, to continuously learn specialties and apply their learnings across disciplines.” As I try to figure out how I want to be spending my time (for neogeneralists, where you go is what you do), I’m starting to frame this problem as a 4-processor issue. Suppose I can (have to) focus on four major areas/problems/realms.

As Director of Learning Design at WGU, there were four major realms my brain worked on:

  1. Instructional Design
  2. Learning Technology Design
  3. Infrastructure/Organization Design
  4. Process Design

While these were all worthy problems, I felt increasingly locked into the job in a way that made me feel as though I was suffocating. None of the problems gave me the chance to interact directly with learners or faculty (which is odd, I know).  In this position, I was solving problems every day, but so far removed from “users” (students) that I couldn’t ever see whether the solutions would bear fruit, even at a small scale. I am used to having a “petri dish” to experiment in (a MOOC to teach, a course at a college). While my job originally encompassed “Improve Learning at WGU,” there became organizational and technological barriers to actually improving learning from this position as the organization grew and reorganized.

The other thing (but pretty normal at a growing organization) that happened at WGU was that we began to carve out some of these major realms of focus to other parts of the organization. Theoretically, this would be great because as an employee I’d have more time to focus, but here’s the reality of what happened:

  1. Processor 1 is unfulfilled and sad
  2. Learning Technology Design
  3. Processor 3 is unfulfilled and sad
  4. Processor 4 is unfulfilled and sad

Normally, this is where I would find some other project to work on in my free time to keep a processor or two occupied, but WGU had a very strong “no outside work” policy. There was a startup I wanted to spend time pursuing, but this would be “outside work.” I could teach as an adjunct somewhere, but this would be “outside work.” On top of that, Processor 3 became completely occupied/obsessed with a fundamental problem of the design of the organization and could not find any way out of the problem (and also lacked a position with any possible influence over this issue).

  1. Processor 1 is unfulfilled and sad
  2. Processor 2 is trying to figure out what job actually is
  3. Processor 3 is trying to solve organizational design and is stuck in an infinite loop
  4. Processor 4 is unfulfilled and sad, starts to catastrophize about T presidency

As organizations grow, they necessarily want employees to be more focused and less of generalists, but that is a problem if you happen to be a neogeneralist. Our unique abilities come from being experts in several areas and using cross-pollination of those areas to solve problems. If you’re going to shut down our ability to focus on multiple areas at work, don’t also shut down our ability to seek out new and interesting problems in our free time. It’s going to end in disaster.

Self-employment can also be rough, because if your processors aren’t fully occupied, then at least one of them will spend time in panic mode about not finding enough work. For the first month, the processors were occupied like this:

  1. Startup
  2. Trying to find clients to sustain income
  3. Trying to find long-term plans that would still work if 1 & 2 fail
  4. Unfulfilled and sad

Now onto the new problem. If I intentionally design my life, what do I really want the processors to be occupied with? Are they all fulfilled? Can I convince cofounders, investors, etc that I am simply not going to be happy with extreme focus? Probably most people keep at least one processor completely focused on their children, but I don’t have childeren. So I really do have 4 to allocate.

I also have a pretty strong history of allocating 4 processors. Here’s the processor allocation for my undergraduate work (I got 3 degrees while working close to 30 hours a week):

  1. Math
  2. Chemistry
  3. Biology
  4. Improving learning (TA, tutor, grading papers – payed the bills)

Here’s the processor allocation for my Masters graduate work (2 degrees, plus working):

  1. Math
  2. Business
  3. Improving learning (TA, adjunct for another college, doing learning research)
  4. Math curriculum work (writing texts, learning the assessment world, curriculum production)

Here’s the processor allocation for my PhD work (1 degree, full time faculty, consulting on the side). I still feel sorry for my PhD advisor for having to “manage” me. There were two years where “PhD” basically got bumped out when something in category 3 became a full-time processor job for a time.

  1. Teaching for MCC (5-5-2 load, typically 2-3 preps a term)
  2. Improving learning (experimenting, reading, writing, speaking)
  3. Math curriculum work (writing curriculum, building paper and digital math games)
  4. PhD Higher Ed Leadership

So what am I doing now?

  1. Startup (curriculum / learning design)
  2. Client work (product management / UX / LX, software) – also pays the bills 🙂
  3. Improving learning (teaching, reading, writing, speaking)
  4. Math curriculum work – also pays the bills and an area where I have a lot of time invested

As the startup grows, it will likely have to occupy more than one processor, and then the hard part – what goes? I don’t think I will be happy if I “improving learning” is not a category. It seems to be a consistent theme throughout the last two decades. My brain finds “Improving Learning” to be a fun distraction – what others might consider something akin to a “hobby” (though to most people, it is a job not a hobby).

I have strategies for managing conflicting priorities (good ones, in fact). I’ve always had strategies that keep my brain balanced.

If you’re still reading, wow. This is really an attempt to work through my own “post mortem” of why I felt so compelled to leave WGU a few months ago. There were a few other reasons (loss of authority, changes in leadership, nasty colleague) that probably just pushed me over the edge of the cliff, but not worth sharing the details – those things happen and there wasn’t anything I could do to change things. If I had been fundamentally happy, I would have stayed.

I’m trying to do a more intentional “Life Design” now, which I’ve come to realize is possibly different than what we traditionally consider “work life” balance. Yes, I should get exercise every day (I do). Yes, I should spend time with friends and family (I do). But those are necessary conditions, not sufficient ones. Sufficient, for me, means having a brain that is fully occupied solving problems that makes it happy.

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Strategies for Escaping the Echo Chamber

Nov 29, 2016 by

After the 2016 U.S. election ended, we all got a rude awakening to just how bad the echo chambers and filter bubbles have gotten. Our social networks are streams of one-sided news stories. News outlets are increasingly biased. Viral fake news spreads like wildfire and the implications are scary.

In light of recent events, I decided to make a conscious effort to escape from the echo chambers and redesign my consumption of news to try to get a better sense for what is a reflection of true reality and what is not.


In case you find yourself in the same situation and would like to try to escape your echo chamber, here are some of my strategies:

1. De-newsed Facebook: One by one, I removed every single news source I encountered from Facebook using the “Hide” feature in the upper right hand corner of shared posts. This means I removed news sources I considered biased as well as those I consider legit. I will no longer allow Facebook to decide what news I see and what news I do not see. I just don’t want to see any news on Facebook. Period. On the bright side, Facebook has returned to a state where I actually do see pictures of friends, rants about “new math” and cute cat photos – which is a nice haven from what it had become. This removed my largest echo chamber source of news.

In case you don’t know how to turn off feeds from sites in Facebook, here’s what that looks like:


2. One reliable news source: I read a single reliable news source each morning (for me that is the New York Times. In particular, I read using the “Today’s Paper” app, which delivers the paper in a very similar fashion to the printed version, without ads. This is important because if you just visit a news site, you still fall victim to following only the stories you’re likely to click on instead of seeing a list of all the stories of the day. While the NY Times might not be your choice for most unbiased news, I figure this is balanced by living in conservative Utah. Don’t judge. Also see #3.

3. Highly-biased contrast bumpers: After reading my daily dose of news, I  go to Blue Feed Red Feed, a project from the Washington Post. This provides the most extreme liberal and conservative “viral” posts on a variety of topics. While seeing some of these stories makes me a bit ill, I find it better than seeing delivery from friends and family on Facebook (with additional commentary from them that makes me even more ill). What I’m starting to find is that often both “sides” often tell an incomplete story, the part of the story that makes them look good or the other side look bad. One day last week, the blue feed had stories like “Trump has only lobbyists in his cabinet” and the red feed provided stories like “Trump fires all lobbyists from his cabinet.” Reality was somewhere between those two stories – Trump did seem to have developed a cabinet with a lot of lobbyists AND he then fired most of them.

“Truth” is somewhere in between the bumpers of the most liberal stories and the most conservative stories. But knowing what the bumpers are on these extremes helps me rationally evaluate the stories I see throughout the day and also helps me with #4.

4. Avoidance of clear click-bait: Armed with the most atrociously viral clickbait of the day (from step #3) I can more clearly avoid stories I see on Twitter and banner links to stories that are the viral nonsense of the day. Clicking on this stuff means the world will just produce more of it. Making these sites profitable to advertisers is how they stay in business. If I had not read some of the viral headlines on Blue Feed Red Feed, I would be more susceptible to clicking on stories that are obviously designed to goad one side or the other.

5. No TV News: TV news is designed to be entertainment. So if you’re watching TV News, I’d really consider stopping all together. You don’t realize how bad it is until you remove yourself for a while. When I am forced to watch it in airports, I find it hard to believe that it provides any real value other than making us all terrified of each other (see #6).

6. Actually talk to people who are not like you: I am making a more active effort (see Lean in to the Discomfort) to try to talk to other people who are not “just like me” more: At the gym, in the grocery store, and while out on walks. I am trying to seek out those who are from other generations, other educational backgrounds, other religions, etc. and engage in conversation. We have got to put down our echo-chamber-filled devices and apps and get to know the people in our physical proximity again.

Those are my strategies, what are yours? And if you don’t think you’re in an echo chamber … well, how do you know you’re not?

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Lean in to the Discomfort

Nov 22, 2016 by

When you walk in to a room full of people, choose someone who seems the most different from you (on the surface) or the person that seems the “scariest” to start a conversation with. Start there. Lean in to the Discomfort of having that awkward first conversation. In all likelihood, you DO have something in common with the person – seek to find it. If you always start with the conversation that you perceive to be the most difficult one to have, you will, over time, reduce your own fear of talking to strangers.

Diagram showing 10% of the iceberg above the surface

90% of an iceberg is unseen beneath the surface of the water

About 90% of an iceberg is unseen beneath the surface of the water and likewise, the majority of who we are as a person is beneath what you can see or hear on the surface. Consider all the characteristics of a person that you can’t “see”:

  • what sports do they like
  • what do they do for a living
  • what is their family like
  • what do they do for fun
  • where do they live
  • what do they do when they hang out with friends
  • what are their favorite foods

Whether at a conference or having Thanksgiving Dinner with far-flung relatives, there is so much to learn from the people that surround us. But we have to actually engage them in conversations and interact. If we want our students to interact more to learn, we need to get better at modeling this willingness to have conversations with strangers or those who differ from us.

When I walk into a room and feel the first uncomfortable feelings of having to mingle or that I will be alone in a room full of people, I remember the phrase “Lean in to the Discomfort,” take a deep breath, and begin the first conversation.

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Steal Back Your Time and Accomplish Your Goals

Nov 14, 2016 by

I began a “sabbatical” from regular work-for-someone-else life about a month ago. I work from home. I have a startup. I want to accept just enough work to get by financially (but not more than that). I want to achieve that some kind of illusion of work-life balance. I want to exercise more. I have several passion projects that I’ve wanted to spend time on for a very very long time.

If you’ve ever had a period of time like this (or if you just work remotely), you know that finding some kind of structure to your hours, days, weeks, and projects can be daunting. If you’re not careful, you always feel guilty about what you’re doing. I spent two years working remotely for a European company, and found that tracking the hours I actually worked was helpful for bringing balance to the remote working life. But I hate bookkeeping and so I evolved a simple system of moving glass pebbles for each hour I worked during the week.

Now I’ve modified this system to include a breakdown of how I want to spend my hours, and specific goals I have. At the beginning of the week, I have a clean slate for hours/goals I want to accomplish (and it can vary from week to week):


The full slate for last week included three exercise goals (hit daily step goal, meditation/yoga three times, strength training three times). Also in the work-life-balance category, I had a personal writing goal of 6 hours a week. You can see the bulk of my time for the week should be spent in working on the startup (roughly 3 hours a day) and accumulating some billable hours (roughly 4 hours a day).

As each day progresses, I simply move the right “pebbles” into the accomplishments for the day. This creates a nice feeling of accomplishment, and as I look back over the week, I can see the patterns to my days. Here are 4 days from last week.


When I’m not feeling very “work” productive, I simply focus on getting other goals I can accomplish until I feel more productive. On some days that means I can absolutely justify going for an hour-long walk outside in the sunshine, because I have a step goal to reach. Other days (like today) it means permission to spend an hour writing a blog post (personal writing). Sometimes, the pebbles validate my feeling of not being productive enough, and motivate me to do better. Other times, the pebbles show me that I’m spending too much time on a particular project and ignoring other places where I need to focus my attention.

I’ve tried using apps for doing something like this (HabitBull is a good one), but I find that an app is too easy to ignore. If I put the collection of pebbles for weekly hours and goals somewhere visible, it is a daily reminder of what I want to be doing with my time and helps me to meet those goals.

I think this same sort of strategy can be helpful for anyone who is trying to steal back their time to reach a goal, whether that be studying for a degree, trying to meet an exercise/diet goal, writing a book, or spending time with your family. We live in an age of distraction. You have to actively steal back your time from the Internet and digital distractions in your life to accomplish your goals.

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Demo with a Magnifying Glass for MacBooks

Nov 12, 2016 by

If you own a Mac and do software demonstrations or do presentations for people, you might want to learn this nifty trick for enabling a magnifying glass that can follow your cursor. It’s incredibly useful when you need to magnify just a small section of the screen for a brief moment (magnify the URL, the icon you’re clicking on, the code you’re examining).


Here are the steps to locating and turning on the magnifying glass that follows your cursor in macOS Sierra:

Find the Zoom preferences window:

  • Go to System Preferences
  • Select Accessibility
  • Select the “Zoom” section


To make a magnifying glass:

  • Select the box next to “Use keyboard shortcuts to zoom”
  • Select the box “Zoom follows keyboard focus”
  • Change “Zoom Style” to “Picture-in-picture”


To change the size of the magnifying box:

  • To the right of “Zoom Style” click on the “Options” button.
  • Click on the “Adjust Size and Location” button.
  • Drag the edges of the example magnifying box that appears until the box is the size you want. Then click OK in the center.


To change the magnification power:

  • To the right of “Zoom Style” click on the “Options” button.
  • Drag the slider next to “Magnification” to the desired power.


To use the magnifying glass

  • Press Cmd-Opt-8 to turn it on (it will follow your cursor).
  • Press Cmd-Opt-8 to turn it off.

Maybe you prefer your tutorials in video form, in which case, here you go!


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