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?

Possibly Related Posts:

read more

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?

Possibly Related Posts:

read more

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.

Possibly Related Posts:

read more

The Watch: Killer Feature of the FitBit Force

Jul 6, 2014 by

I recently lost my FitBit Force in a Canyoneering mishap (Joel did say “Are you sure you want to bring your FitBit into the canyon?”) and now I’ve been downgraded to a FitBit Flex.

After many years of not wearing a watch, I’m finding myself yearning for my Fitbit Force and it’s “killer” feature: the watch.

I grew up with a watch. I taught the first few years with a watch. But somewhere along the way, the phone in my pocket and the ever-present time in the upper right-hand corner of my computer screen replaced the need for a watch. Or so I thought …

Since my loss of the Fitbit Force (which would helpfully provide the time if you tapped it), I have found myself missing a watch:

  • in the mornings, when I am too blind to see what time it is on the clock across the room
  • at dinner with others, when it is too rude to pull out a phone just to look at the time
  • on a run or walk with the dogs, when it was easy to check my wrist, but too difficult to unpack the phone from a waistband

I found myself regularly checking my Force in airports, but it was relatively useless when traveling (too difficult to change the time).  I hope that when Fitbit brings the Force back, it is able to reset its time by syncing to the time on the phone it is paired with. That would make it even more awesome.

Of course, you might tell me to just wear a watch, but I’m already wearing a Flex and don’t want to be one of those dorks wearing what appears to be two watches (though I predict this fashion coming back as we all try to make sense of the different feature incompatibilities of various wearable technologies).

When I was a college instructor, my reliable black & white laser printer was one of my most well-used technologies. Now it just sits and collects dust (along with my CD and DVD collections). While the world does seem to be moving away from “things” and towards online services in many industries (music, journalism, movies, education), there are places where the technology pendulum seems to be swinging back to practical things (like the watch).

I wonder if we’ll find the same thing happens in education? Right now online education has been “discovered” by the elite universities and is all the rage (ahem, MOOCs). Maybe in 5 years, small in-person class sizes will be back in vogue.

Isn’t it funny how the perceived usefulness of different technologies changes over time?

Note: I solved this problem with the FitBit Alta, which I love.

Possibly Related Posts:

read more