Last month I took you all through the fundamental philosophy of a Life OS. If you’ve stumbled into this article instead, I recommend passing through this page first. It is a great place to start if you are serious about using Life OS as a productivity tool. The tldr is that this is the best time ever to invest in a Life OS – An all encompassing hub of your physical and digital footprint under one roof. If the structure exists in your mind then the tools exist on the internet. In this post I am moving deeper into the structure of a Life OS.
You will see the system I’m applying to classify the various hubs of my life and how they are expected to interact within the Life OS environment. Seeing how they interact will inform us on what details to capture at each stage. We will then use this knowledge to narrow down on the tools that meet our specific requirements. Let’s get started
Table of Contents
The ARC of a Life OS
While it will ultimately appear as personalized labels, majority of the inbox items of your life falls into one of three buckets: Action, Reference, Creation (Call it the “ARC model” if you wish to).
Knowing what they are and classifying the range of items that come through your life into the ARC model will define the neural network of your Life OS. This also influences your decision on the kind of tools you will pick and plug into your workflow.
A person with a creative workflow involving visual tools or one who has more analytical assignments will have a different Life OS setup compared to someone who has a more hands-on, physical-object oriented lifestyle.
Let’s dive into the details.
Action hub is the place where your projects are managed. A place where tasks both explicitly instructed or are implicitly derived by your own observation are captured, generated, collected and managed.
Action items can come your way through many sources: emails, meetings, notes, reminders and conversations
A good action hub should be able to:
- collect individual tasks from a variety of sources and platforms,
- open them up to fill in rich detail about how to approach it,
- break it into sub-tasks,
- tie-in collaborators and
- place it into the context or timeline of a larger project that it is a part of.
Once nestled properly, these action items are approachable through multiple criteria of work styles; weighted priority, urgency, attention and effort driven. As they are executed, this hub also allows you to visualize the total team effort as it chews through the individual tasks that make up the project. It allows you to collaborate with people in real time, allows guest contributors to work in walled gardens. the progress of these projects can also be mapped against broad goals set out for the team, department or organization.
Example of the kind of Tools that have these capabilities are: Notion, ClickUp, Omnifocus, Asana, Airtable, Trello
The Reference Hub is a curation engine. It is the place where you pull in the resources to help you with your action items, the repository of things you find functional, inspiring or informative.
The first step in building a second brain is “capturing” the ideas and insights you think are worth saving. Ask yourself: What are the recurring themes and questions that I always seem to return to in my work and life? What insightful, high-value, impactful information do I already have access to that could be valuable? Which knowledge do I want to interconnect, mix and match, and periodically resurface to stimulate future thinking on these subjects?
Tiago forte, Building a Second Brain: An Overview
The kind of tool you should be looking for should be able to capture and classify from the various sources of such knowledge. Examples include, but are not limited to:
- Documents (PDF, Word, Google Docs)
- E-mail & Messages (Newsletters)
- Screenshots and other Images
- Web Pages
- Social Media
- People (Contacts directory)
Each of these are resources that you need to lean on to get work done. While most of this information may be freely available on the internet, the way they connect within your sphere of interest is unique to you.
So the tool you choose should be able to rapidly capture inputs as you bring them in and narrow down on the exact resource you are looking for later. features like rich tagging, OCR and internal linking are very useful in this context.
The Creation hub is an output zone. Things that you have created; original, collaborative, inspired or a combination thereof. It draws instruction & deadlines from the Action hub and inspiration & resources from the Reference hub and yields a tangible output. The output may be a spreadsheet, a report, a presentation, a wireframe, database or an edited image.
This is the living, breathing portfolio of your work. The creation hub actively talks to the projects it is associated with in the Action hub. It receives inputs from collaborators (where applicable). It is also the home for your spur-of-the-moment ideas and thoughts, original stuff that you intend to use in your work.
The active engine of a creation hub could be just one tool if your work is a narrow specialization (a Photoshop specialist), a suite of tools (a Tax consultant) or a whole spectrum of tools that get the job done (a Web developer). In many cases, workflow can also be augmented by specialized tools to manage individual elements of of creation, such as Roam/Obsidian for networked notes, Notability/Goodnotes for handwritten notes etc.
As you can see, a creation hub is an area of deep personalization involving several permutations and combination of tools.
Popular platform of tools include: Microsoft 365, Office Suite, Adobe Creative Cloud, MacOS (What?! It’s legit).
Understand that the creation hub also needs to be a secure storage owing to the irreplaceable nature of the content. If your tools don’t form part of some of the integrated suites then you are looking at having discrete set of tools paired with a secure cloud subscription separately.
How they Interact
Before we finalize the tools that become part of our Life OS, it is important to understand how these 3 hubs exchange information with each other. This will help us in creating workflows that meet our mental design.
The inter-relationship between Action and Reference hub is pretty straightforward. The Action hub tends to be filled with human interaction that is often the source of vetted information and links that become inputs or leads to be filed within the reference hub for future reuse. This along with all the other capture points (subscriptions, newsletters, emails and blogs) in the Reference hub becomes the resource center for executing Action items on an ongoing basis.
Similarly, the reference hub provides resources and inspiration for your original content being generated in the creation hub. Output from this hub, which you deem fit for re-use as template, inspiration or shareable information can then be archived in the reference hub for interacting with the growing knowledge base there. This will help synthesize new ideas, thus becoming part of a positive loop.
Action and Creation hub have a cause-effect relationship in most instances. The action hub is the realm where objective parameters for output are set; due date, word limit, file size, client brief and the hierarchy of review being just a few examples. The creation hub becomes the output generator that goes through a draft and review feedback loop till the output is finalized and accepted.
Deciding what to capture
As I said in the beginning, the three hubs we’re talking about will appear with different names in your Life OS. The names would correspond to the various projects, areas and departments of your work/life.
Once we reflect on the function of each hub in the ARC and how it relates to the current work-life portfolio we’re juggling it would shed light on what is the key information that should be captured along with the inbox items into each of the hubs.
I would like to show you below how I went about in my own case along with notes on how to use some of these elements.
Action Hub Elements
Reference Hub Elements
Although part of my Knowledge & reference hub, the Personal Network follows a slightly different data capture owing to the kind of information it generates. But separating the structure also allows you to build a modular relation between this database and any other. Visualizing the internal linkages by their context allows me to create an expert pool by subject in minutes. It also allows you to create powerful @mentions across your Life OS by just referring it back to this module
Creation Hub Elements
Most project management software are capable of handling these fields and relationships that I’m proposing so feel free to experiment with it in your platform of choice.
Choosing your tools
As you pass through the exercises of defining your hubs, deciding the information you want to capture and map how they link to each other you will become acutely aware of what your Life OS needs to do for you. I am not going to list the features of a Life OS in this article, I have covered it extensively here.
What I do want to talk about are the basic qualities of the tools should keep in mind before choosing to invest your time, effort and data into it. The first question to address would be:
Is it one tool? several? or a select few?
The more time I’ve spent designing my own Life OS structure the more I’m convinced that no single tool can effectively deliver what you are looking for. Many tools claim to replace all these disparate tools but there are always trade-offs of functionality in exchange of being under a single roof.
While OneNote looked like a great Reference hub to me, it still does not handle handwritten notes the way Goodnotes or Notability does. That is an important part of my workflow. Similarly, while Notion is a clean and creative platform brimming with features designed to be an Action hub (with many Reference hub capabilities), it doesn’t behave well with my android phone as a capture point.
It is however possible to build a reasonably capable Life OS within some of the more established ecosystems available. The big 3: Apple, Google and Microsoft have a suite of tools that cover the Action, Reference and Creation hubs. The benefit of choosing one of these ecosystems is that, within their own self, they are well integrated from the get go. No zaps or ifttts needed (Microsoft and Apple’s iOS have their own versions of the same here and here)
But the tech world is germinating with the next generation of tools supported by communities that understand productivity and workflows. Many standalone tools or micro ecosystems have sprung around the early names of Asana, Trello, Airtable and are now rapidly growing around Notion, Roam and ClickUp. It would be worth your while to look at them before you finalize.
That brings us to the question of:
With all these choices, how do I select?
While it is my passion that drives me towards experimenting with multiple platforms, most people who are serious about a Life OS want to pick a set of tools and settle down. Here’s what I’d say to you then. Look for these key qualities
The tools you select need to be able to exchange information between each other as painlessly as possible. 2-Way Integration is best, Embeds are good, support for external connection (Zapier, Ifttt, Microsoft Flow, automate.io) are consolation prizes.
But do not knock old fashioned copy/paste just yet. In a pinch, they’ll still keep you connected to tools that don’t seem to integrate smoothly but you cannot do without. You should aim to compensate by creating a rich tagging environment for the attached file in your main workspace to give it context.
As your workflow becomes more complex or as you begin to integrate more aspects of your work-life into your Life OS you will find yourself needing more complex features from your tools. This is where you look for tools that start you off with a small but essential feature set but offer an expanded ecosystem and advanced tools as your needs increase. Any tool that’s just enough for today may soon run against a functional wall as your work becomes more complex
In a nutshell, you want the makers of your Life OS to last at least as long as your digital life does. The big sharks are gobbling little start-ups at an alarming rate and in some cases not even leaving any alternatives in the wake. Some companies are trying to rectify this by releasing replacement tools that cater to similar needs.
Microsoft To-Do, for example, is trying to replace Wunderlist with a similar look and feel along with a committed development cycle. Obsidian is protecting its users by allowing them maintain their data in standalone markdown format that will survive obsolescence or in case the tool itself disappears.
Tread cautiously, especially when designing your Life OS using fledgling tools that are based on proprietary formats. Many tools allow you to export your files in csv, html or markdown in case you decide to take your business elsewhere.
One way to protect yourself is to ensure that the elements of your creation hub are safely backed up in a secure cloud along with a local backup. A high capacity external SSD drive will protect most people, here’s an excellent option and here’s a good one for a value driven option.
If your workflow involves large file outputs in the form of images, video and/or graphics I’d recommend you look into a NAS for such purposes. If that’s alien to you, here’s a quick video to familiarize yourself.
These are the high level views of the things to keep in mind. In itself, selection by criteria is a big subject. I am in the process of assessing a few tools in the realm of a Life OS for my own work. Let me know in the comments if you want me to cover that in a later post
To paraphrase Uncle Ben: “With great choice comes great distractability”.
The internet is filled with a lot of “shiny objects” that all seem useful. They probably are, to someone, but not all are to you. I am personally guilty of running after “shiny objects” and “paid templates” that promise to “revolutionize the way you work”. The end result is hours spent building beautiful work environments with very little work actually getting done. Wading through an embarrassing amount of distracted time, I’ve learnt two lessons:
- The best tools are the ones that inspire you to act, not just tweak
- Do not underestimate the benefit of familiarity. Before choosing to jump to the next tool ask yourself, “What is my current tool not doing for me?”
In this post we’ve talked about how all the projects and realms of your Life OS can be defined under the hubs of Action, Reference and Creation. Identifying them in this fashion allows us to define what kind of details need to be captured for each of these types. At the same stage we also lay down how they interact with each other.
This informs us on how we go about choosing tools that work well each other, have a robust upgrade path and have committed development that will not vanish one day leaving my critical information in limbo. Lastly I wanted to remind you about the purpose of this exercise: to create an environment that removes the obstacles between you and your work, not to become a “work adjacent” distraction.
Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info