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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 April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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