One VC Wrote An OS for Her Life

Maria Salamanca shares how she uses Airtable, Notion, and Bear to create a complete system to run her life

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Maria Salamanca wrote her own operating system. 

But it’s not just composed of bits and bytes. It’s a complete system that she’s built to run her life: everything from making sure she’s spending enough quality time with her friends, to making conscious choices about the work projects she spends time on, to doing deep dives into topics that interest her.

She calls it MariaOS, and it’s built with Airtable, Notion, Bear, and a huge dose of her own intelligence and self-discipline.

She’s a VC at Unshackled Ventures where she invests in immigrant-founded startups — backing over 40 pre-seed companies spanning a variety of verticals. 

In the past, she’s worked on political causes including founding Swing Left — a progressive political organization that makes it easier for citizens to volunteer for political campaigns in their local districts. 

In this interview we cover:

  • How she keeps a Values Manifesto to help guide her decisions

  • How she uses Bear to record quick thoughts and pieces of inspiration, and then do deep dives on topics that come up often

  • How she automatically prioritizes her todos in Airtable

  • How she uses Airtable as a personal CRM to keep track of all of the people in her life

Let’s get to the interview!

Maria introduces herself

I’m an immigrant. I was born in Colombia, and I came to the US when I had just turned seven. I grew up in Orlando, Florida, which is a large, super suburban place. It was kind of a weird place to grow up.

I went to college at Berkeley, and I was actually going to be a pre-law. My major was political science and public policy. But I quickly realized that I didn't like the arbitrary systematic barriers that came with working in politics and how slow and inefficient it was. My personality is the opposite — I consider myself to be efficient, a sort of optimizer. So working in systems that don't operate that way is incredibly frustrating for me. 

Working in VC is a great format for this style. I work in a small team, it allows me to have control over how I optimize my workflow, how I gather information, and how I organize things.

She gives an overview of MariaOS

I run my life with MariaOS, and it’s made of a few different software tools that I use together.

In my Notion I keep a table of contents for all of my tools. It really helps me keep myself on track with how I work and organize the system.

So I list out each component of the system like my To-Do List, or my Research and Curiosity List, or my Personal CRM and then I map out which tools I use to facilitate each component.

I try to use the minimum amount of tools possible, and I try to make sure that each tool has a specific purpose or reason for being the tool of choice.

She keeps a Values Manifesto to help guide her decisions

One main thing I use Notion for is to keep track of my Values Manifesto. 

The Values Manifesto helps me be conscious about what I want different aspects of my life to be like.

What I do is I break my life out into different categories, and then come up with a list of words that I want to associate with each category.

Doing this helps to create a long-term vision for what I want out of each of these categories in my life. So that means I can go back and check these things later and make sure where I am in my life aligns with these words. Or re-consider if the concept has evolved, which it does.

So for example, one category is Physical Space and Health. This is a list of words that I want to associate with my physical space and my health — words like Balance, Calm, Optimism, Energy, Vitality.

So if I’m going to go at some point to purchase a home, or I’m thinking about the design of my office I can go back to this list and reflect on it to help me make sure I’m aligned with my values in those moments.

Doing this for the first time was really important to me because I’ve never really had control over my physical space before. It was always determined for me. So this exercise helped me realize this, and helped me be deliberate about what I want out of my physical spaces in the future, so that I can work to create that for myself. 

I tend to reflect on this a few times a year when I have downtime. Recently after a very busy year our office took about a week and a half off — we just shut down the office. We had done like eight deals in two months and we were super tired. And I used that time to come back to this. I also tend to do this around the holidays — any time I’m around family it really grounds me, and gives me a chance to get more in touch with my long-term goals. 

I think these categories and these words will change for different people — I’m not saying I have the right ones, but as an exercise it’s useful.

She jots down quick thoughts in her Thought Central in Bear

I keep all of my short form writing in what I call my Thought Central in Bear. My Thought Central contains anything that’s incomplete, or super short. I’ll just throw any thought in there and then go back to it later to process it.

So for example, last night I was reading something and it mentioned KPIs or key performance indicators. And I had this thought that was like, “How many of my founders could actually define what a KPI is?” So I put it in there.

And so my Thought Central becomes this running long list of everything that’s going through my head. Then, usually what I do is every two weekends, I go through all of the things in my Thought Central, and if anything remains interesting enough to dig further into or reflect on, I will do that and then move it to its own dedicated note.

She keeps a Research and Curiosity List

I also use Bear to keep a running list of things that spark my interest. I call it my Research and Curiosity Central. It’s just short snippets of anything that I want to learn a little bit more about. Often times, it’s just copy and pasted sentences from books or the internet.

So for example, I read something that said that the technology industry is siphoning astrophysicists away from academia; they’re turning space scholars into machine learning experts.

This was really interesting to me, because it made me think: where are other untapped sources of talent? If an astrophysicist can help a self-driving car company, who else might be out there that can be helpful?

So I wrote it down in my Research and Curiosity Central so I won’t forget it. 

And then every two weeks I’ll go through this list and look for patterns. Any topics that I start to see come up several times are clearly areas that are interesting enough to think more deeply about. I’ll move those to their own notes to do a deep dive on them.

She uses the same structure to keep track of her work and progress in therapy

I do the same kind of thing for the emotional work I do. So I go to therapy, and I follow the same pattern.

I have a note in Bear where I’ll track thoughts and realizations from every therapy session that I do. It’s just super raw, and quick. 

Then about once a year, I’ll look through them and figure out what the patterns are. I’ll find the key turning points, what I’ve made progress on, and what I haven’t made much progress on. 

For me, it's super important for this not feel like it’s a heavy process. I just want all of the thoughts out of my mind as quickly as possible. And that way I can put it on future me to go through the list a few weeks from now, and figure out what’s important and what I want to hold on to.

She uses Airtable to automatically prioritize her todos

I use Airtable to track my todos. It’s all my everyday stuff.

Every todo has a status: whether it’s to do, started, cancelled, or complete.

And I have two ways to rank every todo: how much time it will take and how big of a priority it  is.

I’ll mark how much time it takes on a scale from one to three. And then I’ll mark its priority along the same scale. 

Then I multiply the two numbers together, and sort by the smallest first. That way my todo list ranks itself: I don’t choose what’s next unless any two items are tied in terms of priority.

You’ll also notice that I bucket my todos in different ways.

For example, I have a column called Personality and Values for each todo. And that helps me mark which one of my values each particular todo maps to. 

I also have a column called Projects that maps which projects each todo relates to.

And this helps me make sure that what I’m doing every day maps back to the things that are important to me, and the projects that I need to get done.

It also helps me see which projects or values aren’t getting enough attention. It’s really easy to see, “Oh, I’m not spending enough time on my health.” 

She keeps a bucket list

One of the most important things I’ve done, I think, is I’ve created a bucket list called my Top 100. And it’s a list of the top things that I want to do in my life. This can be anything big or small, and I revisit often and delete things that turned out to be brief whims.

And so I use this as a way to track my progress on completing each thing. 

For each item on the list, I’ll keep a status to tell me if it’s done or not. 

I’ll also keep track of its category: is it something that I can do immediately? Do I need time to do it? Do I need skills to do it? 

So that helps me figure out what are the things that are accessible to me immediately, and what can be done in the future. 

Then for each one I’ll mark which skills I need to build in order to do it. And that helps me plan out what I’m going to need to learn. 

She keeps a list of all of her books and articles in Airtable as well

I keep track of everything I read or want to read in my Content tab in Airtable.

Basically I have a zap that sends anything from Pocket to a sheet in my Airtable. So any article I find that I want to read I’ll Pocket it, and then it will end up in this Airtable.

I’ll do the same thing for books. I have an app called ReadingList and I’ll mark anything I want to read in there, and then I’ll export that into my Airtable. 

Then I’ll go through and tag based on topic to make sure that I can find it later based on what I’m looking for. Finding it later is really important, because I want to be able to find the resources that I’ve collected whenever they’d be useful for a deep dive. 

And then I keep actual notes on the books in Bear, it’s just better for long-form writing than Airtable. 

She even uses Airtable as a personal CRM

The People tab in this sheet is my personal CRM.

I populate it with data from LinkedIn that I export every few months. And I have a few buckets that help define the closeness of my relationship to each person on the sheet.

The buckets are:

  • Bae, which is my girlfriend

  • Best Buddies, which are the intimates in my life

  • Close Friends

  • Acquaintances

  • Nothing, people I know but don’t keep in touch with 

Bucketing people in this way makes sure that I’m focusing my time on the people that matter to me the most. For example, I have 37 Close Friends on this sheet. Our brains are limited to about 50 for that one, so 37 is actually good.

It also records how often I contact them — I have a zap that updates the sheet any time I email one of them. 

This comes in handy in a lot of different situations. For example, I never have to think about who to invite for my birthday party or whether anyone got left out.

It’s also really helpful whenever I go to a particular city, because I know exactly who to reach out to.

And it even helped me when I was considering doing an MBA. I just filtered my list by the people that went to schools that I was targeting, and that gave me a super easy list of people to reach out to.

What MariaOS is to her

We only have so much mind space. And MariaOS is a space outside of my mind for me to make sure that I’m keeping tabs on what matters to me personally. It’s how I project manage everything in my life — whether it’s work, or other projects. It’s how I stay on top of the things that matter to me. 

I would feel very cluttered if I didn’t have it. I would feel disorganized. For me it's actually very tough to not have a place for information that comes in, but that I know is valuable.

It’s really a way to augment my own brain.

How doing this affects her life

Some people like spontaneity; some people like going down rabbit holes.

For me something I have very clear in my mind is that my time is very limited. And there's more things that I want to do in life than I probably have time for. And it's less about material things, but there's just more things that I want to learn about and projects that I want to do than are hours in the day.

And so for me the question is how do I organize my knowledge? How do I help my own brain prioritize? And the only way to do that is to be more thoughtful about what processes I put in place in my life. 

One book recommendation

One of the last books that I read is The Second Mountain by David Brooks. And it’s funny because I don’t usually like him that much, but I loved this book.

The mountains are a metaphor for success. And the idea is that your first mountain is the point in your career where it’s all about you: it’s about material, financial, and status success for yourself. 

But then many times after they’ve climbed their first mountain, they confront the tougher parts of life — loss, unemployment, sudden trauma — and that creates a transformation in their life. During this period they realize that all of the things that were important on their first mountain were kind of empty.

And that reorients their life to climb their second mountain, but for different reasons than they used to climb their first.

My favorite part actually inspired some edits in my values manifesto in the Knowledge category. It talked about intellectual courage. It said:

“[Most] concepts in your head are inherited from a procession of thinkers, we are social animals and a lot of our thinking is in pursuit of bonding, not truth seeking. The hard part of an intellectual life is separating what is true from what will get you liked.” 

That really resonated with me.


Dan Shipper is entrepreneur and writer living in New York City. You can reach him on Twitter at @danshipper, or reply to this email. If you liked this interview subscribe below to get more like these in your inbox every week!