An essential part of productivity is to learn how to act, to perform, to do. The journey usually starts with tips and tricks, tools and hacks before moving into systems and organizational philosophies. Eventually fluid workflows emerge and start tying into each other. The next phase of this journey is designing a Life OS, an interconnected set of workflows that contribute to your top-level goals.
At the outset, let me tell you that this is a long article on an important subject. I’ve included a Table of Contents to help you navigate. I’ll do my best to keep this engaging and informative
Table of Contents
After spending a lot of time refining the atomic units of productivity I became disappointingly aware of how disparate my systems had become. I have:
- appended scans and emails to OneNote
- Handwritten notes in Notability on my iPad
- Tasks being logged in TickTick
- my Finance being tracked by a Power-query supported Excel Sheet
- this blog being developed using Notion as my back-end
- various subscriptions and playlists for my knowledge hub
- new articles are being recorded in obsidian to research bi-directional linking
- and there’s ClickUp…
Parts of the operation are powered by my file systems maintained in OneDrive and Google Drive.
Individually efficient, but collectively at odds. Time for an overhaul.
This article follows my first steps in reconciling my ongoing experiments with various productivity tools. It’s an invitation to follow along if you would like to know more about what a Life OS and to decide if it is for you. If you decide to get onboard, then this article becomes Part 1 of an ongoing series in creating and maintaining a Life OS.
This particular post will help you understand what it is, how does it stand apart from standalone productivity techniques. You can read use cases of it and access a few starting points for your own Life OS journey. I will also provide details of my personal Life OS structure and how I plan to go about it.
What is a Life OS?
An operating system is the central platform that integrates and executes all your programs and utilities. It assigns hardware resources from your computer where needed. It lets programs piggyback on the core capabilities of the system letting them extend their function. It allows them to function independently as well as collaborate flexibly in a familiar environment with a unified design language. A life OS is just that, but it includes things that live outside of your phone and laptop as well.
At its core, a Life OS is a place for everything in your life. It assimilates all the key ideas, information and tasks that come into your life, either from within or from external sources. It then stores them into the appropriate spheres of your life allowing you to find it easily when you want it. It also sorts through your action items and presents them back to you in the order of priority that suits you.
Life OS vs Productivity Hacks
Initially, people defined their daily productivity techniques as a Life OS, but that narrowed the definition. Checking off a few boxes became a part of a larger ecosystem that grew to include habits, knowledge, goals and values. Things like the Pomodoro technique, Time Blocks, “Don’t break the Chain” and similar are ways to make you effective at day to day work. They do not, by definition, address a comprehensive approach. Most of them specifically address action items only, telling you how to focus on the activity at hand but not how to choose that activity in the first place. While they can be part of your Life OS execution as a module, they cannot, by themselves, help you create a place for every sphere in your life.
This leaves out a large swathe of events and passive data streams that are part of things that run your life. Records must be kept, Itineraries and wishlists must be made, Knowledge must be gathered, Family and friends expect you to be a custodian of part of their lives (and reciprocate too). Life must be lived.
That is where an all encompassing system is required and now more than ever we have the technical bandwidth to approach this gargantuan exercise with systematic confidence. The expanding definition of a Life OS is approaching the limits of what software, today, is able to provide. Which is a good thing. Just like the game of one-upmanship between hardware and software in the gaming industry, the community of Life OS architects and Productivity platforms are in a tight exchange of information to match features to wishlist.
Benefits of having one
- Comprehensive Day Planner – The current claimants to my schedule lie scattered. A Life OS brings it under one roof
- Dashboard of your life – Key metrics can be seen at a glance to know if you are on track to achieve your goals
- Proactive Notification – Having information under one roof allows for intelligent analysis and intimation of upcoming opportunities or constraints
- Serendipitous Discovery – Creating a networked knowledge hub promotes discovery of new relationships between items and also promotes retention for your brain when you refer to them
- Second Brain – My digital brain keeps my ideas and the one within my skull makes the ideas. It’s a healthy partnership
Why I need one (and you might too)
While I am not asking you to become a cyborg like this guy (very cool, btw), a Life OS can help you lead a quantified life. I live by the belief that if it can be measured, it can be improved. As I said at the beginning of this article, I have a scattered digital footprint. It’s not something I am proud of but I do not apologize for it either, it is an essential part of my curiosity that powers my interest in productivity. But that doesn’t mean it needs to spin out of control to the point of being an impediment to the core purpose, Productivity.
So, I need a Life OS to bring the “Thinking Me” and the “Doing Me” under one roof and aim for synergy. This does not imply that I have to leave all the systems that I love, but it does mean that I have to Marie Kondo my digital (and parts of my physical) life. There are some tools that have become redundant, some who are the appendix of the system. These need to be severed as painlessly as possible. I have to narrow down to a platform that reconciles the remaining tools into an interconnected system and allows access across all the platforms that I actively engage with.
It is important for you to define your specific need for a Life OS as well. Use a notepad to focus and jot down where each of your work tools lie today. What do each of those tools do? What workflows need each of them? Are there overlaps? Now define what your ideal system should do for you. Now read along.
My Life OS structure
I did the first part and put down my thoughts, before I share that with you, here’s a look at the structure that emerged.
The system is designed to be simple with just 4 key spheres. I call it my “Goal-driven Life OS”. This is how I expect it to work:
A. Tasks and Notes as the Atomic Units
B. Goals at the Top of the system
C. Knowledge Hub provides the resources for taking A to B
A typical journey of the atomic unit would like this
If you correlate this with the infographic above, each sphere of my Life OS contributes dashboards that are linked to specific goals. the Knowledge Hub powers all the spheres through relational databases. here are a few examples of the kind of metrics I expect to track:
- Health & Nutrition: Sleep Score/ Activity/ Calorie Intake
- Personal Finance: Expense Pie Chart/ Budget vs Actual
- Work: OKRs
- Leisure: Project Status/ Committed vs Actual Time spent
Goal driven Life OS in practice
Every serious goal can be broken down into key tasks and metrics. Metrics can be measures (some, automatically). Essential knowledge and tools for completing the task can be curated and linked through the Knowledge Hub
Start a Blog:
- Create a dedicated folder for the Project
- Create Subfolders: Admin/ Content/ Marketing
- Mind Map name and Niche options
- Initiate research, curate necessary courses, web-tools to design and publish a blog
- Learn about blog administration and SEO
- Lis and compare hosting options
- Start a Kanban for the content development pipeline
- Commit to a content creation schedule, hard-coded into my calendar
- Pin a Live OKR to the Life OS Dashboard
That’s my personal example, you could Streamline your Kitchen, Improve physical health, Start a Vegetable Garden, you get the drift.
So, if this is what I want the system to do let us see how that translates into the expected system capabilities.
Features of a Life OS platform
Consciously assessing the spheres of our life that need to be part of our Life OS tells us what this platform should be capable of.
You can’t have a competent Life OS if it cannot help in recording any and all Tasks, Events and Notes that come your way. the best of them should be able to capture inputs through your email, weblinks, quick notes, calendar and messages.
Purely because of early designs of organizations and computing, our brains are very familiar with a folder structure of organizing and storing data. Everything from libraries to companies rely on a hierarchical structure to organize their resources. While newer philosophies have emerged in recent years, a capable Life OS must allow the user to replicate their work environment to be mirrored in this space.
While organizational hierarchy is a legacy system that has its uses, the digital world has benefited from numerous updates. Today’s knowledge systems demand multi-dimensional tools to sort, search and visualize their data.
Tools today boast of rich tagging, relationship and dependency creation, kanban views, gantt charts, sorting and filter options, grid views, list views, views upon views. While on one hand it looks like a mountain of features that can obscure data, a quick understanding of what you need will let you customize your data the way you absorb best.
Having that flexibility ensures that you are not tied to a singular system that forces everyone to conform. This also means that, if you are new to the system, you are encouraged to experiment with the options until you settle on a workflow that suits you best. Fortunately, there’s a sincere community of content and learners who create a positive circle of inspiration. You can start here and here.
Networking and Collaboration
Many of the modules listed under the “Elements of a Life OS” topic above have two things in common. They need to talk to each other and they need you to collaborate with outside entities for your inputs. Getting modules to talk to each other requires bi-directional linking, rich tagging and relational databases. Involving others require real time collaboration capabilities.
Luckily these are some of the most in-demand features and the industry has risen up to the challenge to deliver these. The ability to create a task assign it to a team member and then watch it’s progress is critical to enable remote work.
But it is important to take note on permissions under the collaboration feature, the ability control how much or how little of information do you wish to open up to the collaborator. Remember, the Life OS has access to pretty much your entire life (go figure). Security of the details are pretty much paramount.
Integration with other tools
At this stage I want you to understand that we are not thinking of our Life OS as a single tool. No single tool that exists today excels at all the things we need. So the next best thing is to whittle down to the bare minimum tools that do the whole gamut of these tasks well and get them to talk to each other.
This saves you a lot of repetitive action of importing and reorganizing the data manually. Many inputs into the Life OS system is being captured automatically by objects or systems around you. Such as your fitness band, your favorite blog, your smartphone.
Having smart integrations allows these devices to contribute to the relevant module and saves you from the trouble of manual input. While the existence of zapier, ifttt, automate.io and iOS Shortcuts have stepped into help discrete programs talk to each other using triggers, many of the advanced programs have native integrations with some of the most popular tools out there
The other essential function to note is automation. Many inputs into your productivity platform may be repetitive and routine. Often triggered by an external event. Having a macro function that records and replicates commonly executed routines is one way to shorten the input time. the other way is to have a function that supports creation and invoking of templates for repetitive inputs.
Having shortcuts like these make it easy to record the event and encourages you to keep updating. If input becomes a chore then the system collapses inversely at the rate of your lethargy.
No productivity system is complete without integrating a system to capture time-bound tasks, queue them within relevant projects and bring it to your attention when necessary.
This is one of the aspects of the platform which deserves a multi-platform approach. Unless synchronized and timely reminders are delivered to the device at hand, the efficacy of creating a collaborative workspace starts to diminish.
An underlying principle
A critical approach to this system is to ensure that the central data repository and the reports you generate from it are stored in interconnected but separate modules. This allows portability. When you test or migrate into more efficient platforms, it would be much easier to move your raw data into the new platform and use their tools to generate reports natively.
Alright, so now we know what capabilities to look for. But we need a core organizational philosophy (or a set of them) to govern how we process our daily life through the Life OS. Following are the key contenders I am looking at.
Now you know what goes into a Life OS and the raw capabilities you should shoot for in such a comprehensive system. It is time to ask how does one go about creating a system to assimilate this deluge of data, make it accessible and more importantly, generate intelligent output from it.
Fortunately, there are excellent approaches available that have cult followings. This means that once you grasp the basics of the system there are multitudes of forums that can guide you through the step-by-step of how to implement it in your life.
I do not intend to make this the point of this article. I will address them at length later. For now I want to leave you with the broad philosophies of whole-life productivity and point you to the resources, should you wish to explore.
Published in 2001, David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity created a polished approach to time management. The proposed structure was so flexible that it was adapted into the age of advanced digital productivity that followed over a decade later. The heart of the book lay in brutally cutting out clutter and having a simple flow chart of decision making for the tasks that demand your time and attention. Here’s a quick summary of the process:
- Capture: Create a unified inbox to collect all the items from the physical and digital world that need your attention
- Process: Cut the clutter at the first stage by filtering items that need you to take action versus things that need to be stored or discarded. Discard the stuff that has no value at this stage. Out of the action items, sort standalone tasks that can be performed within 2 minutes or less and just do them already! So now you are left with two principal piles of information, actionables and archivals
- Organize: Collate the actionables and reference generated in the previous step. Tag them with what? where? who? context. Actionables are then sorted into piles of of related tasks (projects) and standalone items. Record deadlines and reminders into any actionables that are time bound. This where the capability and flexibility of your digital tools come into play.
- Review: Create a priority ranking of these by weighing the urgency (time) and importance (criticality) of each actionable. Reference should be stored in accessible folders for periodic review to see if anything actionable emerges from them later (the next big startup idea, maybe?). Schedule a periodic audit of your entire system if any of the projects or task categories is getting too bloated (neglected)
- Engage: Create a distraction free environment. Start with the most urgent and important actionable, chew through it. Then the next. Then the next.
GTD has its supporters and detractors but it’s role of igniting a whole life productivity approach is undeniable. With modifications this can be adapted and updated to meet the digital-first world we live in today.
With GTD having originated in the early days of digital productivity, it was inevitable that a new generation would emerge soon. Published in 2017, this 4 steps wide and 4 levels deep system of digital productivity suite is the brainchild of Tiago Forte. It is now part of his very popular Building a Second Brain course. The PARA system divides your digital landscape into Projects, Areas, Resources and Archives
- Projects are defined as a collection of tasks meant to achieve a common goal within a time-bound framework (Prepare and submit Team appraisal Report)
- Areas are larger departments of your life that have standards of quality and practice but not a specific time limit (Marketing, Sales, Blogging)
- Resources is the repository for the current subjects that are of interest to you
- Archive is long term storage for items from the above verticals that have completed their cycle or have faded out of your attention currently
Tiago recognizes the need to have a task manager, note taker and project manager app all supported by cloud storage to pull off this method. The PARA folder structure can be mirrored across all the platforms to ensure that they pair perfectly in day-to-day execution The system recommends having no more than 4 levels of hierarchy within each category. This is based on the commonly agreed cognitive limits. Your mileage may vary. A good example of hierarchy is what we see within ClickUp (Spaces, Folder, List, Tasks) or Evernote (Application, Stacks, Notebooks, Notes).
The Bullet journal is, in many ways, the antithesis of the methods suggested above. It takes a step back from the hyper digital approach towards productivity. It does not have many of the features listed above. What is it and why is it in this list at all? Bullet Journal is a system proposed by Ryder Carroll, made famous through his book The Bullet Journal Method.
The system takes productivity in the opposite direction by making it necessarily manual and injects mindfulness into the practice. It is that last element that adds a much needed humanization into the practice and wins it the adulation across its loyal followers. By converting a humble notebook and pencil into the center of your productivity system, the bullet journal method is instantly more accessible to everyone. But accessibility should not be confused with efficacy. By disconnecting from your digital tools, the bullet journal doesn’t update itself, it has no reminders or snooze buttons or prompt.
Depending on your propensity to discipline, that’s either a plus or not. The bullet journal coaxes you into actually doing your tasks by making you more involved in the process. It uses simple methods to convert you primary note-taking into a timeline of your experiences and action items. Here’s the gist of how it works in practice
- Buy a journal/diary exclusively to maintain your bullet journal and keep it with you at all times
- Against each day, log in your action items, experiences and notes using commonly agreed symbols
- Record completed actions by end of day
- Migrate unfinished action items manually into the next day’s log
- Create an Index for your ideas about running projects on a static page by recording the page numbers where similar ideas are explored
That’s it! Here’s where you can see it in action. While it can capture ideas, notes and tasks originated by you, it does not allow for external data input or collaboration. But it can be combined with a task manager and a cloud based file storage system to become the engine of your Life OS.
I cannot imagine giving up my dependence on Notability for open ended notetaking and Excel for their unparalleled number-crunching and data collection and transformation features. But these systems do not talk to each other, nor are they good at tracking action items. So, my aim is to pick a system that unites some of the tools I cannot work without, while replacing others and collectively elevating the overall productivity of the system by enabling connected workflows.
This is a work in progress for me and I welcome suggestions from those who’ve crossed this bridge. But these are the programs I am considering as worthy contenders for becoming my central Life OS platform.
I intend to do a deep dive and compare some of these tools and how they match against my workflow in a later post. But here’s what we know about these tools today
The original do-it-all that everyone has seen but has either never used or grown out of. It still has some tricks up its sleeve. Incidentally I’d moved into OneNote after Evernote changed their pricing structure (I know…I know…that was a long time ago…I’m old..yada yada..)
My initial experience was positive and that early college-book-with-divider approach made it less intimidating with a easy learning curve. It had handwriting support and fast search built in early on. The free tier was feature packed (still is) and worked very well with my Office 365 subscription. It has a more than capable iOS app. On paper it ticks many boxes for becoming a hub for uniting my Life OS. It still enjoys the support of a few experts
Yet, while it has free features that match up to the paid tiers of other products in this field, it fell short on some simple things that force me to search the market. Poor task management tools, inflexible workflow structure and more importantly, lack of multidimensional data access. It doesn’t help that Microsoft is unable to make up its mind on what it intends to do with this platform that has hidden promise. If this becomes a core expression of their upcoming Fluid architecture with a committed update cycle then it has the potential to stand its own amongst competition.
For now, it is a wait and watch for me
A mighty titan that has had a roller coaster experience. A widely discussed case study in the world of business strategy and pricing models. This was my first love when it came to looking at productivity. The friendly green elephant migrated me out of folder-based thinking of windows into the powerful tag-first workflow that was quite an eye opener in the early days.
I discovered the Secret Weapon technique (part of me just went for the name) and was able to integrate GTD into my workflow for the first time in a completely digital environment. The initial setup was a bit tedious but it had potential to take tags to a whole new level. For while… It was good
Reminder capabilities were non existent. App support was weak with disconnected usage experiences. The desktop app, while clean and aesthetic, could not rise beyond being just a flexible filing cabinet. Evernote stayed away from actively thinking about workflow. Their Evernote business plan, starts to bring in AI capabilities and more robust collaboration, but happens to be worth $14.99 per month (Premium is $7.99). It may be worth it for those who are already committed to an Evernote centric workflow. But standalone Life OS is outside of its grasp.
It can be your document vault that talks to the overall system. It does have robust integrations.
Another old-timer in this group. But more agile and action-oriented than any of the ones mentioned above. This one is a true blue project management system.
Built with GTD as it’s beating heart, OmniFocus eats tasks for breakfast and crunches through projects for lunch. Has a tried and tested interface that has gone through evolutionary improvements. It is very easy to onboard your tasks and learn the workflow that OmniFocus has adapted to its platform. It still has a loyal following that is willing to shell out $9.99 a month.
But…and there’s a big but, all this task, project and goals goodness is exclusively for the Apple universe only. With laser focus on individual project management, OmniFocus goes soft on collaboration and also document handling (which is an essential part of being a Universal Inbox). These can be solved by integrations with external tools. Have a look at DevonTHINK 3 if you’re interested, It already comes with the necessary tool to interface with OmniFocus. It also does not allow for customizations beyond a defined limit (a true Apple companion). It also doesn’t have anything more than a 14 day trial before you have to choose to pay, that’s insufficient timeline to see if it has Life OS capabilities
For the freelancing Apple fan, yes. But I’ll take a rain-check.
Digital asset manager and publisher. Powerful Notetaker with Markup support. Lightweight RDMS app. Formula powered table generator. Project Manager. Web-first remote work platform. What exactly are you, Notion?
A polarizing diamond in the rough, that’s Notion in a nutshell. On one hand, we have the growing universe of people who are discovering this swiss army knife and designing entire ecosystems out of it. The same community has come together to create one of the most positive support environments to help newcomers into the system. Notion is all of what I’ve stated above and still hasn’t exhausted its list of surprises. The free tier of Notion recently received a boost making it very approachable to experiment. This blog’s content management workflow is currently powered by Notion.
But on the other hand, it’s open canvas, make-your-own-sandwich party can also deter people from stepping in. While I could get into trouble for saying that it has limitations in its task management structure, that has been my experience. It is a desktop first environment with some glitches on its android app. Task rollup into projects is still not as robust as some of the other options in this list. But it has a superlative web capture system that has the potential to power a Life OS Knowledge Hub. Notion also is weak on third party integrations (promised rollout awaited) and is only the second best embed platform in this list.
This is my running experimental platform for now
Originally devised to mimic small to medium office workflows, the growing modularity of this system has been making this a more attractive Life OS in recent times.
With a colorful interface and a powerful Chrome extension ClickUp’s flexible office workflow modules can be adapted to your personal spheres. With automations and wide integrations to choose from this has potential to become anything you want to make of it. Support for multiple platforms and an above average free tier make it easy to experiment with. truly a no code system where the workflow in your mind and the available modules can find some common ground to work together.
Early interaction with it has shown some bugs and lags in the system. Their mobile apps are still far behind their web interface.
But they’re also very promising. this is what I’m using as my A/B with Notion for now
5 Years ago, this was the emerging hero of productivity. Remember Chris Dancy from the link above? A large chunk of his hyper connected life is based off Airtable. That’s about as much boost as it needs
Airtable bridged some of the gaps between Excel and MS Access and made it a lot more accessible. With a built-in Calendar, Kanban, Gallery, Grids and Forms it became a flexible tool with a database at the front. Add to it a superlative embed of Google Drive and you have a promising Life OS contender. Then there’s the Blocks feature, that’s just icing o the cake (if you can afford the cake). Blocks allows Airtable to plug and play third party features in a contained environment.
However, with great power comes a great price-tag. Getting a pivot table or some responsive graphs requires one to get the $20 per month PRO version. It also does not have necessary task management and reminder features found on ClickUp, Notion and OmniFocus.
I haven’t yet decided on this one, so this one is on a waitlist for me.
Ah, bi-directional linking! The current darling of the five families of productivity. Begun as a research tool with benefits to students, journalists and writers this has now taken a life of its own.
A fast web-based navigation with powerful backlinks, graph view and an utterly simple interface just begins to scratch the surface. Roam’s simple façade hides the powerful tools lying beneath. Early adopters and influencers have created quite the buzz about the uncluttered environment that allows them to focus and create clean research hubs.
But as much promise as bi-directional linking holds, in my workflow, it becomes just a part of the knowledge hub for now and not the Life OS HQ. The learning curve to harness Roam’s powers is steeper than the others. Then there is scant support for task management & data views. Being in early stages of API development means that while promise exists, there’s still a long way to go. I also wish they had an easier access to experience this style of knowledge management. Outside of the discontinued beta, the only way to try Roam is to buy Roam. Inconvenient. Alternatives exist, look at Remnote and Obsidian
Promising approach. Will keep an eye on it
We now understand what a Life OS is, what we can achieve by having one and who the key players in the market are. Well then, what next? If you’ve read till here then I assume that you’re interested in testing it out. This is where I can hand yo over to more capable hands. I am currently in early stages of setting up my own.
I am currently in the process of experimenting with various options for each stage of the workflow. I will publish an article once I settle on how I proceed. If you would like to get started right away, here’s how:
- Decide on your configuration of Organizational Philosophies: Refer to the section above
- Choose your weapons: Either you have a single tool that handles every aspect of your Life OS (a rare product that would have to be), or you combine a few capable apps that tie together the atomic units of your Life OS and then become a cohesive sphere. These are some of the units you would have to think of along with some of the popular apps that handle them well:
- Ideas & Notes: Evernote, Notion, Roam, OneNote, Bear Notes, Notability, Good Notes
- Tasks: Todoist, TickTick, Things3, Any Do
- Digital Content: We’re referring to capturing web and mail content. ClickUp, Notion, OneNote, Evernote
- Physical Content: A place where you can keep inventory of your physical contants and tag actionables to them. ClickUp, Notion, OneNote
- Test typical workflow scenarios
- Start and commit to maintaining manual updates on an agreed schedule
- Review & Refine
Where to Start
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list. But these are some of the articles and content that can help you get started. In some cases, they are standalone instructionals that will let you mimic the presenter’s own Life OS.
Alright! You made it.
This is a large subject and a large introduction. I wanted to give you a summary of the path I took to get started. If you’ve chosen to turn the ignition on this then give me a shout in the comments below. I will return soon when the Life OS starts to take shape and let you know the nitty-gritties of how I tackled key workflows. We’ll also discuss the ARC framework that will be the backbone of the Life OS in that post. (Update! The follow up article is up and you can read it here)
Until then, have fun. Work. Life. Win. repeat
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