While there are a lot of posts out there about how to write a personal user guide, I didn’t find any that's convincing enough about the why – why someone would benefit from having one. I had created one for myself well before I knew it as something that’s popular in the industry, but my hope with this post is to convince you of its value. If you are already convinced and are looking for examples on how to go about it, there are some links at the end of the post that I think would be useful.
Three years ago I created a document that I called a "user manual”, noting my preferences, interests, skills, values, and the qualities that I like in people. It was to present it to a person who was joining the team as the manager. It was to give her an idea about the things that I thought she should know about me as somebody that she was going to work closely with.
The idea was inspired by something I had seen an ex-colleague do. He had a sign on his desk that said that he appreciated it if people gave him a heads-up via text before walking up to his desk to speak with him. He just didn’t like being startled. It was a simple and effective way, I thought, to convey to people some of your preferences. Despite having been constantly troubled by the open office setting, it had never occurred to me to do something like that before. During the pandemic, I built upon that idea. When everyone was working from home, there was no desk to put such a sign on that others could see. So I created a document to communicate such matters, and more, to make some unspoken things explicit.
Years later, now that I've taken on management responsibilities, I find myself on the other side. I wish that people who work with me provided me with such guides so I can understand them better – what drives them, what they admire and hate, what they think their strengths and weaknesses are, and their areas of interests and focus, not merely the ones relevant to their career, but also personal growth.
What is a Personal User Guide?
Think of it as a document to let people know the things that are relevant about you in order to have as best a professional relationship as possible. Relevance, as you can tell, is subjective, but deliberately so, because you’re the best person to tell what you think is important for others to know while working with you.
Do you think where you come from, your background, the languages you speak is relevant? Include it. Do you think the fact that speaking in front of a crowd scares you, that you'd rather speak in a smaller group setting, is important? That's a great piece of information to communicate. Do you think that your need for focus time is something people should be mindful about? Say it. Do you think that your introverted, or extroverted nature is something people should know about? Good. Do you want people to know that you like being sent an agenda to meetings before hopping on a call to talk about something, or that you hate it when people don't show up on time? That’s fair. Do you struggle with communication and appreciate it if somebody helped you improve? Great.
Think of those closest to you, your family or friends, and how they know when you’re sad, upset or angry. They know you, so they can find out things about you from the visual and vocal cues without explicit communication. But it’s hard for people you work with to know you that well, well enough to understand your state of mind with you telling them about it. Your personal guide helps them get to know you better.
Personal Guide versus Resume
How is it different from a resume? It differs from a resume in a few fundamental ways, purpose, content, and audience.
A resume is your sales pitch. Its purpose is for people to know your strengths, the value you provide and to know why they should hire you. From that purpose follows the content – you include your professional skills, achievements, present and past roles and responsibilities, that are relevant to the job you’re applying for. The audience of your resume is people who are looking to hire. Since resumes are most used to get a job, they naturally make people present a version that’s much better than their real self. Like social media, there's an inclination to show an incomplete, inaccurate picture of who you are, in order to maximize the chances of your selection.
The purpose of a personal user guide however is to deepen the professional relationships you already have. It is for people to know how to best work with you, how to seek help from you or help you, and hence is most relevant to share with people you already work with, or are going to work with. What you write in your personal guide shapes your everyday interaction, your growth and emotional well-being, so the more authentic and honest it is, the better it is for both parties. A complete picture of who you are will mean the most optimal use of your time and energy. And it’s called personal for a reason. While a resume strictly touches upon the professional aspects of your life, the personal guide is a description of you at a human level.
If you think of changing a job as a wedding, a one-time event, you'll prefer to do all that you can to make it happen, even if it means doing or saying things that you otherwise would not. But writing a personal guide is more like explaining to your partner how you enjoy sex. You'll wanna be as authentic and real as possible, because the cost of not being so is unpleasant at best and harmful at worst. It affects your everyday experiences and emotional well-being.
Why create a personal guide?
Have you ever been to a hotel and after a long and exhausting day put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to prevent the room service from disturbing you? If you have, or have seen someone who has, then you have seen the value of a personal guide, arguably the tiniest and most basic one at that. It’s your way of telling others that you need some rest and would not like to be bothered. It’s your way of defining a boundary that you'd like people to respect, your way of carving time out for something you think is more important – resting – than the other things that you could be doing instead. It's also a way to help people know something about you that they otherwise would not. Most misunderstandings happen, not because of bad intentions, but because of unclear, or lack of, communication. Personal guide is a great way to change that.
There's another great benefit to the exercise of creating it – self-awareness. Writing down things about you to share with other people requires a degree of self-awareness that neither many of us have, nor are we taught how to possess. A personal guide is only as good as your own assessment and understanding of yourself. It helps you reflect. It helps people to evaluate you based on the terms that you lay out. If you tell people that you value ownership, but constantly shirk responsibilities in reality, it’s a pretty good indicator for people to know and tell you that you are not who you think you are.
At the end of the day, it's as beneficial for you as it is for others.
Who should create a personal guide? When do you create one and who do you share it with?
The more you work with people, the more useful it is. Not just random people, but the ones you intend to work with on a regular basis, and over a relatively long period of time. Most people working in organizations, or in a team setting, fit the bill, especially managers. The more influence somebody has on your performance, well-being and growth, the better it is for you to draw explicit boundaries. So it makes most sense to start with your team in mind. It doesn’t have to be the official team you’re a part of, but at least a logical one – the group of people you frequently work with towards a shared goal.
While there’s no good answer to what a good time is to create one, it helps to think of recurring patterns that are preventing you from doing your best work. If you see interactions with peoplein those problematic patterns, then there’s a good chance that you’ll gain value from drawing up a personal guide. The problems that seem accidental in nature are often due to implicit assumptions and unclear boundaries, like repeated meetings with no clear agenda, for example. They happen when either people don’t care enough about other people’s time, or when people don’t care enough to protect their own time.
Software engineers strive to automate things that need repeated attention. Think of your personal guide as a way to help alleviate some of the problems that are repeating in nature. If you’re having to spend time explaining the same things to every new person you work with, it’s best to make that process smoother, for you and for the other person. Think of it as giving a map to somebody to help them easily navigate the landscape that’s you.
How to go about creating one?
- Start with a template and customize it to your needs
- Dedicate some time to reflect on your values, principles, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, qualities that you admire and hate. Then think about which of those would be useful for your teammates to know and why.
- Keep it at a length that can be read in 5 minutes at most, and keep it bulleted, with short sentences. Don't write an essay.
- Before sharing it with people, I'd suggest talking to them first about what it is, and why you're sharing it. Tell them that you value your relationship with them and that it's your attempt to understand each other better. Ask them if they are familiar with the idea, and if they are open to sharing theirs with you.
- Share it in a 1:1 conversation, if possible. That'll give you a good chance to give them some context, before sharing.
- Revisit it at a regular cadence. Anywhere between a month and a quarter is good. Think about how it's helping, and if it needs changing. Talk to people if you do change it.
There are some good examples and templates out there about how to create personal guides.