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I Need a User Manual for My Life!

I Need a User Manual for My Life!
A User Manual for My Life

I was doing something routine a couple of days ago — paying some first of the month bills online — and I got stuck. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name of one of the people I send payments to. All the information is saved in my bank account’s settings, but I have to enter the name of the recipient, exactly as it appears in my records, to bring everything else up.

That’s when it hit me:

I need a user manual for my life!

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I have a password manager, personal information manger, Treo, online todo list, reminder system, Moleskine notebook — but nowhere had I written down the step-by-step instructions for making this payment. Nor, I realized, did I have a record of most of the tasks I do routinely. Instead, I remember the first step (visit a website, call someone, open a program. etc.) and rely on the cues presented. If I can’t remember how to do something, I work at it until I figure it out.

How much time do you think I’ve wasted trying to remember simple stuff, like the steps it takes to process photos I’ve taken to print them out, or how to pay my quarterly tax payments, or how to accept new contributors to the Lifehack.org pool and get them up to speed?

What I should have, I realized, is a single place where these processes, from the crucial to the mundane, were recorded. There are a few good reasons to have something like this:

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  1. To save time: Like I said, I probably waste a couple extra minutes on just about every routine task I perform. While on a day-to-day basis, I probably wouldn’t need to check my "user manual", it would be nice to have a single reference I could turn to when I got confused.
  2. For inspiration: Writing a task down, step by step, can help identify wasted efforts and shoddy processes. Maybe there’s a better way to do task x? Also, for tasks I’m likely to procrastinate on, I’d have a tool to keep me from letting myself get distracted until all the steps were done.
  3. For troubleshooting: How many times have you done something "the way you always" do and not gotten the expected result. Having a guide to turn to would help make sure I was walking through all the necessary steps and help me see what I’d missed the first time around.
  4. For training: If I ever hired someone to take over part of my work, I’d already have step-by-step tutorials for them to follow.
  5. In case something happens to me: If I were injured or even (goodness forbid) killed, how would my family pick up the pieces? I’m the family tech guy — it would be impossible for my loved ones to figure out the assortment of online tools, software, and hardware I use to manage my business and other projects.

What would be in it?

What would I put in my user manual? Quite a few things come to mind, including:

  • The tools, both online and off, I use to accept, process, and make payments.
  • Banking processes — how I pay bills and receive payments
  • Bookkeeping tools — How I keep track of my accounts
  • How I add clients and advertisers into my system
  • How I log into, create and manage posts, manage ads and affiliates, and promote all the websites I run or am otherwise involved with
    • Google Adwords and Adsense processes — how I identify keywords, how I set up campaigns, how I add new ads to my sites
    • How I produce a podcast — my local and online workflows for recording, uploading, and distributing my podcasts
  • A network diagram of some sort showing all my contacts and their specific relation to me and my work.
  • Various checklists for things like packing for a business trip and readying the car for winter.
  • What else? Any other process that I might have to repeat, especially if it’s on a semi-regular or less frequent basis.
    • Renewing my car registration
    • Reactivating my health insurance (I teach as a contract employee so I have to reactivate it every time I renew my contract)
    • Putting a new syllabus or online course together
    • Writing an academic paper
    • And so on…

    What would it look like?

    Since part of the usefulness of a personal user manual would be the ability to share it with other people, especially if I were incapacitated in some way, using any fancy software tool or online application seems out of the question. The best bet would be to keep a single file in a standard word-processing format (Word .doc, .rtf) on my computer, and an up-to-date hard copy printed out in a binder.

    Finding information in a paper copy might be a hassle, though — a clear table of contents seems essential, and a clear organizing schema. Pages — at least within a section — should follow templates, with the same kinds of information in the same place on each page. I’m torn between two organizational schemas, though: should it be organized by topic (e.g. paying bills, writing articles, organizing courses, etc.) or by regularity (things I do every day, things I do weekly, things I do monthly, quarterly, annually, etc.)?

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    Maybe both, actually — the point is to be as perfectly useful to someone else as to myself, and who knows how much direction I might be able to give or what conditions it might need to be used under?

    Putting it together

    I hear you out there, thinking "That sounds like an awful lot of work!" And it does. What I’m thinking, though, is that once a template is created, adding new pages would be pretty easy. And rather than sitting down and figuring everything out, it might be more fruitful to keep the file open and document processes as you perform them in the course of your regular schedule. It might take a few extra minutes per task for a couple of days, but by the end of a week, you’d have most of the tasks you do most often fully documented. Add the monthlies at the end of the month, and add the less regular stuff as it occurs to you, or when you can set aside an hour or two to think about it.

    Sound crazy? Maybe it is crazy. And yet I can’t help but think that so many of the organizations I’ve worked for — universities, foundations, museums, the military, corporations — have shelves full of such documentation, from Standard Operating Procedures for various tasks to training manuals to grant-writing templates. If you want to make sure that a certain standard is reached every time you do something, you need to figure out and document that standard.

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    I may never open my personal user manual once it’s finished — but it will be nice to know I could. It will be nice to know that if I’m ever hospitalized, my partner can make sure that the people that need to know, know, and that at least the minimal requirements of my business could be taken care of. It will be nice to know that tasks I do very rarely are documented somewhere, so I don’t procrastinate by putting a "figure out how to do x" entry onto my todo list — and then procrastinate that task since I don’t remember how to find out how to find out!

    What about you? What kind of information would you put into your personal user manual?  

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    Last Updated on February 25, 2020

    Face Adversity with a Smile

    Face Adversity with a Smile

    I told my friend Graham that I often cycle the two miles from my house to the town centre but unfortunately there is a big hill on the route. He replied, ‘You mean fortunately.’ He explained that I should be glad of the extra exercise that the hill provided.

    My attitude to the hill has now changed. I used to grumble as I approached it but now I tell myself the following. This hill will exercise my heart and lungs. It will help me to lose weight and get fit. It will mean that I live longer. This hill is my friend. Finally as I wend my way up the incline I console myself with the thought of all those silly people who pay money to go to a gym and sit on stationery exercise bicycles when I can get the same value for free. I have a smug smile of satisfaction as I reach the top of the hill.

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    Problems are there to be faced and overcome. We cannot achieve anything with an easy life. Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to gain a University degree. Her activism and writing proved inspirational. She wrote, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

    One of the main determinants of success in life is our attitude towards adversity. From time to time we all face hardships, problems, accidents, afflictions and difficulties. Some are of our making but many confront us through no fault of our own. Whilst we cannot choose the adversity we can choose our attitude towards it.

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    Douglas Bader was 21 when in 1931 he had both legs amputated following a flying accident. He was determined to fly again and went on to become one of the leading flying aces in the Battle of Britain with 22 aerial victories over the Germans. He was an inspiration to others during the war. He said, “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”

    How can you change your attitude towards the adversity that you face? Try these steps:

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    1. Confront the problem. Do not avoid it.
    2. Deliberately take a positive attitude and write down some benefits or advantages of the situation.
    3. Visualise how you will feel when you overcome this obstacle.
    4. Develop an action plan for how to tackle it.
    5. Smile and get cracking.

    The biographies of great people are littered with examples of how they took these kinds of steps to overcome the difficulties they faced. The common thread is that they did not become defeatist or depressed. They chose their attitude. They opted to be positive. They took on the challenge. They won.

    Featured photo credit: Jamie Brown via unsplash.com

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