How to Write Your Own User Manual

If it works for C-suite execs, it might also come in handy at home, especially right now

A couple sits on a couch in front of a laptop while one person writes in their notebook.
A couple sits on a couch in front of a laptop while one person writes in their notebook.

By day three of our family quarantine, I was dangerously close to turning into a Gremlin.

In Gremlins, the 1984 comedy-horror masterpiece that Gen Xers like me watched through our fingers at childhood sleepovers, three simple rules keep the adorable creatures known as Mogwais from morphing into their evil alter egos, the Gremlins. Those rules were:

  1. Don’t expose them to bright lights.
  2. Don’t let them get wet.
  3. Don’t feed them after midnight.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, but just know that when people don’t follow the ownership guidelines, stuff goes south fast.

About 36 years later, I’m feeling a lot like the Mogwai. We’re all the Mogwai. Like it or not, most of us have a short list of instructions for our care and feeding, strict adherence to which keeps us from turning into monsters.

The problem is, the people around us don’t always know our rules. Half the time, we don’t know our own rules.

But what if we could write a document that would lay out the rules, for ourselves and others? A personal user manual of sorts?

The idea of human user manuals has already gained some traction in business circles. In a 2013 New York Times article, Ivar Kroghrud, the CEO of QuestBack, described writing a one-page user manual for his colleagues, “so people can understand how to work with me.”

Since then, the DIY user manual has become a C-suite communication exercise. LeadX CEO Kevin Kruse posted the short manual he created, complete with his CliftonStrengths test results. Abby Falik, the CEO of Global Citizen Year, described her user manual as “an important communication tool for my team, and a learning process for me.”

I’m not a CEO. But I do have a husband and two kids who sometimes struggle to figure me out. (“Why is she yelling at me?” is a question that, at different times, has stumped all three of them.) And right now, we’re finding ourselves in closer proximity to each other than ever before, for longer stretches of unbroken time, with anxieties running high.

Research shows that self-disclosure — being radically transparent about ourselves with loved ones — increases intimacy, personal growth, and trust. Writing my owner user manual, I decided, would be the Mogwai instruction booklet my husband didn’t know he needed. Here’s what I learned about the process.

1. Write in third person. Typical user manuals address how to use and care for inanimate objects, like your car or your rice cooker. I wrote my user manual in third person to underscore that this was a guide to help people get their best “usage” out of me without, you know, breaking me. Writing about yourself without using “I” or “me” also helps you get some psychological distance, so you can think more clearly and critically about what would be most helpful.

These categories are helpful to include:

  • Biological conditions for optimal functioning. What physical conditions do you need to feel your best?
  • Emotional conditions for optimal functioning. What emotional needs must be met for you to be happy?
  • Social conditions for optimal functioning. What kinds of people do you like hanging out with? What kinds of social interactions do you find most replenishing?
  • Operating under stress. How do you respond to high-stress situations?
  • Pressure release valves. What makes you feel better when you’re stressed or uncomfortable?
  • Buttons not to push. What are emotional deal-breakers for you?

Somehow, by taking a third-person, “I’m writing this about an Instant Pot” approach, I got out of my head enough that I could cop to my most embarrassing truths — like that passive-aggressive fake politeness is one of my warning signs, or that I have trouble dealing with people who cause unnecessary drama.

You might think that these kinds of things are obvious — or should be — to the people around you. But trust me, they’re not.

2. Observe yourself. In their book Designing Your Life, William Burnett and David Evans advise carrying around a good times journal for a couple of weeks and logging what makes you feel engaged, happy, or lost in flow. You don’t need to actually lug around pen and paper (though if you want to, go for it!), but by observing your own emotional state like you’re running an experiment, you can dispassionately identify what makes you happy and what doesn’t.

3. Get real. Exercises like this can feel weirdly aspirational. One of the tidbits from his user manual that Kroghrud shared in his New York Times piece was: “I am goal-oriented but have a high tolerance for diversity and openness to different viewpoints.” Uh, sure. Just like how 95% of people on Tinder love to hike.

As with online dating profiles, “a lot of times people will say things that are sort of generic, like, ‘A relationship really needs mutual respect and kindness,’” says Michelle Lee, a Palo Alto-based therapist. “Well, yeah, that’s what everybody wants. That’s fine, but it’s not necessarily all that unique.” In your user manual, skip the platitudes. Instead, Lee says, focus on, “What do people need to know about me that they might not figure out on their own?”

It helps if you can get really specific. Think less, “I value equality and personal responsibility,” and more “It really ticks Melody off when people leave cheese-encrusted dishes in the sink assuming she’ll wash them.”

4. Share it. The ultimate point of a user manual is to share it with a partner, friend, or loved one who might actually get value out of knowing what makes you tick.

Jaimie Eckert, a 29-year-old based in Beirut, says she periodically creates one-page user manuals to explain her sensitive, introverted American self to her fast-paced, extroverted German husband. A recent guide to “how Jaimie deals with change” spelled out why her husband’s spontaneity didn’t work for her: “I wrote in third person to give a sense of distance,” she says, “and I made specific recommendations, like suggesting he warns me a few days or hours before wanting to do something together.”

Her husband has put the instructions to good use. Now, Eckert says, he comes to breakfast and says, “This is a warning — tonight we’re going out!”

When I shared my user manual with my husband, he told me that while he said nothing in there shocked him, it was a little eye-opening to see me articulate things he’d vaguely sensed, like that I’m keenly sensitive to shame.

Realistically, though, writing my user manual was probably most useful for me. As a self-reflection exercise, it forced me to examine who I am now. I can imagine pointing my husband to it when I’m in a terrible mood, or reading it over when I’m losing it (“Pressure release valves: Walking. Nature. Food. Mindless TV.”).

You’d think after a certain age we’d have ourselves figured out. But we — and the world we live in — are changing all the time.

Author of ThIs Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live (Viking, June 2016).

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