Focus On Your Mental Operating System, Not Your Apps

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Published or Updated on Feb 06, 2015

Not all knowledge is created equal.

I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You learn something, it seems like it might be useful… and then you forget it. But you forgetting it doesn’t seriously impact your well-being. It turned out to be somewhat useless. It was trivia.

A vast amount of the information available to us is useless. Sometimes we know it’s useless (People Magazine) and sometimes we don’t realize it’s useless (The New York Times).

Similarly, I’m somewhat proficient in juggling three balls. Is this particularly useful? No. Are the skills transferable to other things? Maybe if there’s hand eye coordination and timing involved, but for the most part, not really. That’s not to say it’s not worth learning (I find juggling for a few minutes is a good way to calm my mind) but it lacks much of a use beyond itself.

But occasionally we stumble upon information that is consistently applicable and useful without question. This information is timeless, easily transferable, or ideally a combination of the two.

For example, I know that I’ll be happier and more energized if I limit my decision making to the most important things of the day. That’s why I usually wear one shade of jeans, eat the exact same thing for lunch each day, work out on the same days at the same time, and so on. These pre-set choices save my mental energy for bigger decisions, like whether or not I’ll annoy my father and my best friend in this article by mentioning the news being useless.

Which brings me to the dichotomy of this article. There are two main classes of information we can consume: there is information pertaining to our “operating system,” and there is information pertaining to our “apps.”

There is also “trivia,” but it’s so useless to remember that it doesn’t deserve a technological moniker (my friends will recognize the irony here; much to my chagrin, I am able to remember trivia better than anything else).

To revisit the examples from the beginning of this article, juggling is an app, and decision avoidance is part of my operating system. Juggling is simply a “feature” of my mind and body—it’s something I took a couple hours to install at some point, and which I can open up and use whenever I want (though usually with a bit of debugging required).

Decision avoidance is part of my operating system. It’s how I go through my day, structure my time, and evaluate options. Whatever I’m doing, there’s an element of that part of my operating system within it, just as there are elements of stoicism, boredom aversion, fitness, and others.

Whatever apps we have, they sit on top of this operating system. They need a strong OS if they want to operate as best they can, which is why our operating system is so important.

But we tend to focus more on our apps.

Why We Need to Focus on Our OS

Your operating system determines your effectiveness in everything you do. It determines your productivity, your happiness, your interpersonal relationships, your rate of learning, your ability to handle intense emotional situations, your ability to respond to randomness. Your OS is what kicks in when you’re in a situation where you don’t have a directly applicable app, and it runs behind your apps determining how well they perform.

An amazing programmer is useless if she has so little willpower that she can’t ignore every notification that hits her phone. A brilliant artist will starve if he can’t keep his mental health in order. Anyone will fall into a black pit of despair if they lose a job or relationship and don’t have the emotional infrastructure to handle it.

But school and “self help” media focus little on your operating system. They focus on teaching you skills for a job. They focus on silver bullets and quick fixes for things like health and nutrition, instead of providing a system for life.

If you want to develop a powerful operating system, you have to do it yourself.

Managing and Improving Your Mental Operating System

I’ve alluded to what makes up your operating system throughout this post, but it makes sense to outline it clearer. Also as a point of credit, I did not make up this terminology. I’m shamelessly stealing it from Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize. Though for all I know he’s borrowing from someone as well.

Your operating system (OS) can be broken down by a few categories:

  • Your intellectual/mental operating system
  • Your emotional operating system
  • Your physical operating system
  • Your interpersonal operating system

I’m just focusing on the intellectual/mental one for now. If this post catches peoples’ interest then I’ll do followups on the other three.

Your Intellectual / Mental Operating System

Your mental operating system determines how well you can learn new things, analyze new situations, and adapt to your surroundings. It also determines how susceptible you are to your heuristics and biases. If it’s untrained, then you’re solely reliant on other people to spoon-feed you knowledge (a la higher education) and you act highly irrationally. But if it’s well trained then you can quickly learn anything and analyze situations more intelligently.

Most of education is focused on your apps, not your operating system. It teaches you “things,” not how to learn things or how to think about things. You have to train your learning ability on your own. For example, a class on accounting teaches you actuarial methods, which will be useful for about five years until all accountants are replaced by computers.

Conversely, a course on computer programming teaches you much more than just syntax and booleans. It teaches you a way of thinking. My father was a computer science minor in college, and while we no longer use punchcards, that method of thinking in pure logical sequences will always be with him.

If I were to start college over, or if someone were to ask me what classes they should take in college, I would assess any class or major on it’s “OS to App” ratio. Essentially, is this class mostly focused on improving your OS? Or on giving you an app?

In the highest echelons of OS focus you have courses and majors on Computer Science, Mathematics, Design/Art, Philosophy, Writing, Decision Science (sometimes). In all of these studies the “tools” are secondary to the ways of thinking, solving problems, and looking at the world.

Behind those you have things like Economics, Statistics, Engineering, History, Psychology. Studies that blend practical general applications with apps or trivia.

At the absolute bottom you have pure app disciplines such as accounting which I alluded to earlier.

There’s another way to assess this which is “ease of automation.” More and more jobs are being taken over by robots, so in learning anything, it’s worth considering how easy it will be to automate that in the future. The accountants might want to take up juggling or another skill as backup. They don’t have long.

‍Yes, even you, smiling stock-photo accountant

But what will be automated last? Pure Math, Computer Science, Design, Writing, Philosophy. The turning point where computer intellect passes human intellect will only be possible through a combined effort of Computer Science and Philosophy—before we can program a mind, we have to understand our own.

But maybe you’re not in school, or you recognize school won’t do nearly enough to develop your OS. Whatever your situation, it’s important to get in the habit of developing it yourself.

Developing Your Mental OS

There are two key aspects to your mental OS as I mentioned before. Your ability to learn, and your ability to avoid making decisions from biases.

Improving Your Ability to Self Educate

The simplest way to improve your ability to learn on your own is to study methods of self-education, and then to simply start learning things. If you want books, I’d recommend The Art of Learning and The Four Hour Chef, but once those are done you just need to start learning anything you feel like.

Go deep in a few areas and have a surface level understanding of a ton of different areas. Don’t go deep in just one area because you’ll lose the benefits of cross pollination (more on that in a future post), and don’t try to go deep in everything because then you’ll end up deep in nothing.

It also helps greatly to focus more on “just in time” information and avoid over-valuing “just in case” information. “Just in case” information is anything that you learn on the hopes that it might be useful later. When you learn things in this way they’re hard to remember and more likely to have to be re-learned later since you weren’t applying that knowledge as you learned it.

With “just in time” information, you’re learning something to solve a specific problem. When you learn in this way you know that you’re not wasting time learning anything that might be useless, and since you’re solving a problem the knowledge sticks with you much better. We’re biologically designed to remember ways we solved past problems; we’re not designed to remember something just because we think it might be important later.

But what if you want to remember something that you don’t have a direct application for? Start explaining it to a friend. I find that if I take a random piece of knowledge and then give a friend a short 2-3 minute explanation of it I remember it much better. Studying for a test? Teach an imaginary class on the test.

Weeding Out Your Biases

And then there’s the problem of heuristics and biases. A heuristic, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a mental shortcut that we use to solve a certain problem much faster than we could if we did the full computation. For example, when you see a ball flying towards you, your brain doesn’t calculate the exact physical trajectory in order to place your hand in the optimal location. Rather, it knows roughly what a gravitational arc looks like and it can give you and idea of where to stand.

That heuristic is rather useful, but we have a drove of useless or even harmful ones that we have to stay aware of and adapt for.

It’s worth reading through the Wikipedia article on cognitive biases frequently, and slowly working more and more of them into your daily understanding. I’ll cover a few of the most important ones here.

Survivorship Bias. You may have seen this story about how the oldest woman in Scotland said that she lived that long because she avoided men. Does that mean, ladies, that you should avoid men if you want to live that long? No, it doesn’t.

We tend to look at people who have done something uncommon and significant (that woman, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk) and overly attribute their success to certain traits that stand out, or to what they say is the reason for their success. This woman’s age is nothing else but a statistical outlier—naturally in a sample of 7 billion there would be 1 person who makes it to the fifth or sixth standard deviation of age. She’s the lucky one who didn’t die in a car crash, eat herself to death, get cancer, etc.

Similarly, Steve Jobs wasn’t successful because he was an asshole, that’s just one of his most discerning character traits so we tend to associate it with his success. The more likely interpretation is that he was successful despite his tendency to fire people in elevators.

Impact Bias. If your dog dies, your significant other leaves you, you get fired from your job, anything, you’ll get over it much faster than you think. We, as a species, suck at predicting the future. But we don’t suck at healing mental wounds, which is why you can recover from emotional setbacks much faster than you expect unless you use it as an excuse to get attention by wallowing in self-pity and thus extend the suffering.

The same goes for positive experiences. We assume that a certain purchase, a certain experience, or a certain change will provide a lasting improvement on our happiness level. Buying that more expensive car will improve my overall happiness by a few percentage points forever. No, it won’t. Within a few weeks that car will just be “how you get to work” but it will piss you off every time you have to buy premium gas. We regress to a normal level of happiness very, very quickly.

You may have experienced this on vacations, which is why I also refer to this as the “Africa Effect.” My family took a two week safari vacation in Africa one summer. On the way to the first campsite, we were stopping the car every 2 minutes so we could get a picture of a Wildebeest or Zebra. 2 weeks later on the way back to the bush plane: zero stops. We were used to the Wildebeest. They weren’t exciting anymore.

Hindsight Bias. When Tesla first IPO’d, I bought 10 shares at ~$22. Then it leveled off and dropped to $18 within a few days, so I sold. Today, TSLA is worth $221. I was so stupid to sell! Next time I feel good about a stock, I’m going to hold it even if it starts going down because clearly if I stick to my guns it pays off eventually. Right?

Wrong. I have significantly more information now which makes me feel like I knew it all along, but I didn’t. Our tendency to look at past decisions like this has a major issue of sampling error—there are probably dozens of other predictions I made that didn’t turn out to be true, kind of like how a prophet in ancient society or the successful stock trader of today is simply the one in ten thousand who hasn’t been wrong yet.

I could go on about heuristics and biases for days. Each one you understand results in an improvement to your operating system which you can use to make much better decisions. The more of these biases you can understand, the more you can start to operate as a rational being as opposed to the highly irrational bias-frought human that we default to.

If you have a strong mental operating system, if you can learn quickly, if you can analyze situations without being overly influenced by your biases, then you’ll be able to quickly add any app you might need. Picking up apps is the easy part, having a strong operating system takes time.


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