One of the best return-on-time-invested exercises I have been doing in the last few months is writing a personal mission statement.
It’s been 18 months since I’ve embarked on the journey of self-employment. It’s been hard, but rewarding.
And just when it starts to get easier, it gets harder again. I guess that’s just how life goes. With more experience, you also tackle harder problems which can become a never-ending struggle.
And so you get frustrated.
Because you were cruising and now you’re struggling. Again. And you will struggle for a long time until it gets easier again. When it does, savor it. Because soon enough it will, invariably, become harder again.
I’m still getting used to the rollercoaster of emotions that it takes to work for yourself, to try and carve your own path. Sometimes it gets so frustrating that I just want to quit and do something else. Because as time marches on, the peak gets higher but the bottom is also lower than ever before.
And in those times, I resort to a simple practice: a personal mission statement.
What Is a Personal Mission Statement?
A Personal Mission Statement consists of sitting down, think long and hard about your life and work, jot down everything that is on your mind and then consider what is the most important.
You need to find where you want to go — most commonly known as “your vision” — and what are the steps you need to take to get there and what’s stopping you from achieving it.
I start by writing down why I do what I do and why I must continue doing it. I align myself again with my vision and try to remove all distractions that are keeping me from achieving my goals. More importantly, I write down what I like to call “rules of engagement”. This is the true output of the personal mission statement.
These are rules that remind me of how I should take care of myself, my body, and my work. They are not carved in stone — I won’t punish myself if I deviate from them — but serve as reminders of what I am doing wrong and how I can slowly but surely correct things.
Writing my own personal mission statement is a simple exercise that has tremendous benefits. I save it in a Google Docs and open it every morning to remind myself until they’re ingrained in my mind. And, eventually, my brain saves these rules and reminds me of them when I need them the most — when the temptation to break them looms.
They Allow You to See Progress
So it’s like I said, I now feel at a low point at work. I love what I do and make a decent living out of it and those are two things I thought were impossible 18 months ago.
But it’s hard to see your progress because you are always you.
When I think of progress, I think of endless staircases. You look at it and can’t even see the end. And so you start climbing and stop after a few hundred steps. What do you see? More steps. Because you only look forward, you always see more steps.
Personal mission statements allow you to turn around and see how far you’ve climbed.
If you were to show 18-months-ago-past-Dan and now-18-months-later-Dan to somebody and have them compared they would be like “Man, that guys evolved a LOT. Look at everything he’s achieved in such a short period of time!”
But alas, you never feel that way. Because you are always you. And you are your biggest critic. You could be doing 100x better than you ever expected and you wouldn’t still feel you could do better. You wouldn’t be ecstatic. At best, you would be content…
While Also Giving You Perspective
And that’s the second benefit of mission statements: they remind you where you’re coming from. They’re like saving checkpoints on Super Mario Bros. Whenever you feel frustrated, you can go back and read how much you’ve progressed over the last few months. Some of the themes will be the same — because hey we’re humans and we make the same mistakes all the time, yo — but most of the problems will be different.
The problems of before? They’ll look like easy problems because you solved them. Your new problems? Those are the hard ones. But you know what? 18 months from now you’ll look back and say “Hey, guess what, those were silly problems too.”
It’s the best way I know to look at yourself from the outside.
It’s like current-you and past-you are two different people. And most of the times you’ll read what you wrote back then and think “Man, what a whiner.”
And it doesn’t have to be only about work. You can also do personal mission statements for your personal life or even something more specific, like nutrition, weight-lifting, or learning a new skill. They’ll help you see progress and put your life in perspective.
My New Personal Mission Statement
So I sat down and thought long and hard about work. I started writing things down in a Google Docs until all the rules were crystal clear to what they meant and how I could apply them.
As a final note: I prefer to write personal mission statements from an outside perspective, from someone else talking to me. Maybe I’m just weird, but I imagine mission statements as Dan giving a pep-talk to Dan. And that’s why I prefer the 3rd person.
With that being said, here are my new work “Rules of Engagement”:
1. Money Isn’t Wealth.
Money is lots of things but the one thing it’s not is wealth. At least that’s not the way you look at it.
Wealth is more like freedom. Wealth is being able to walk in the park at 3 pm just because you feel like it. Or take a few days off without notice because you need to rest. Or work on things you want to work on.
So treat money for what it is: a freedom currency. Stop looking at your bank account and get anxious if it’s not bigger than it was a couple of months ago. Who cares anyway?
Instead, use the money. Spend it (most people refer to the verb “invest”) to create wealth, not more money. If you do that, more money will come.
Hire people or buy software to automate or do tasks you’ve mastered. Do everything you can to help you work more efficiently. Investing money that way gives you back freedom and time.
Freedom + Time = Wealth.
Invest money to get either freedom, time, or both.
2. Sleep + Nutrition + Exercise = Focus.
Some days, it seems you can’t concentrate for more than a couple of minutes. Your mind wanders at the smallest flicker of distractions. It’s craving to be distracted.
And so you try to power through. You convince yourself that your lack of focus is basic indiscipline and that you must train your mind to focus.
When you can’t focus, you’re not doing focus wrong. That doesn’t even make sense! Instead, look at the basics and see where you’ve gone wrong. I can guarantee it’s one of three things (if not all of them): sleep, nutrition, or exercise.
How are your sleeping patterns? Are you getting enough sleep? How is the quality of your sleep? Are you getting up at the same hours every day? Do you follow one schedule throughout the week and then another on the weekends?
What about nutrition? How well have you been eating? Food is the fuel of the body and mind. Fill it with junk input and you get junk output. Fix it now: clean your fridge and pantry of junk food and start anew.
Finally, look at exercise, both physical and mental. More often than not, it’s the mind that is overworked. Perhaps you’re not giving it enough rest, or letting it wander from time to time. Our brains also need to unplug. Once again, look at the inputs: what have you been feeding your brain? If you’re on a strict dopamine-rushed diet of clicks that divert your attention everywhere, how do you expect your brain to focus when you need it to?
Look at the inputs of sleep, nutrition, and exercise. They are the true guiding lights of why your output is suffering.
3. To Add, Subtract.
Since you do most of your work with the brain, you better feed it regularly and feed it well.
Now, I know you. Dan always tries to do too many things at once. You can’t help it, you always try to do more than you can take. That won’t change.
So we need to solve it some other way. First, we’ll purge. And then we’ll install “brake lights”.
The first one is the easiest one: look at everything you do — from big projects to small nuisances like reading emails — and remove anything that doesn’t add value. This means dropping or outsourcing projects all the way to unsubscribing from an email newsletter.
And then prevent it from happening again with “brake lights”. When you’re driving a brake light tells you to slow down. The same concept can be applied here. When you have a “brilliant” new idea (I’ll spare you the suspense: it’s probably not brilliant, at all) save it on a note called “2020” and carry on with your work. When the year ends, open that note and read all the ideas and pursue the ones you think are interesting.
But for now, you’re fully packed. You can’t take on more work, or more commitments, or newsletters.
Great guest posting opportunity? Save it for 2020-Dan.
Want to open a coffee house with a twist? 2020-Dan is your man.
Crazy about creating the ultimate backpack for nomads? 2020-Dan! 2020-Dan! 2020-Dan!
Life’s ultimate productivity hack is saying “no”.
And the hardest part is saying no to yourself. Fortunately, you now don’t need to. You’re just delaying it to next year.
4. Work On the Right Things, Even If Working Wrongly.
Not all work is created equal: some will be awesome, other merely ok, and some will suck. And that’s completely fine. That’s just how work is.
What you need to keep in mind is knowing you are working on the right things, even if imperfectly. An article might turn out terrible but it’s still the right work to do.
And as long as you keep working on the right things, your skill and knowledge will compound and one day the output will become better. To become the best, you must start at being the worst.
So remember to keep working on the right things. Focus on the process — for example, writing — and getting better at that particular skill rather than on the output. Keep learning and one day every piece of work will be a home run.
And when fear comes, ship it. Perfection is utopic.
5. Keep the Small Problems Small.
There will always be — at any moment in time — thousands of tasks demanding both your time and attention. This won’t change.
But what you can change is the way you look at those tasks. Always ask yourself: “If I do this task, how much progress will I make towards my vision and goals?”
If the potential impact is big, then work on it endlessly. But if it won’t move the needle too much, then let it sit on your to-do list until you get around to do it or delete it.
Which leads to….
6. The Power of “Deathlines”.
Deadlines are the latest time by which something needs to be completed. Most of your tasks need a deadline so you can forecast your work in advance.
And then there are some special tasks that need a different kind of deadline: a “deathline”. It’s a simple way of separating the must-dos from the nice-to-haves.
A “deathline” is similar to a deadline, the difference being that if you do not complete a task by a specific date it doesn’t get pushed back but deleted entirely.
Need to redesign your blog? Awesome sauce! But if you don’t get around to do it within the next week, you’ll simply delete that task from your mind.
“Deathlines” can be very powerful to empty yourself of what you thought were obligations but in truth were suggestions.
7. Always Play Long-Term.
This is the golden rule: whatever you do, always play long-term games.
Distractions come in many different shapes and forms. Some are easy ones to spot, such as games, social media, your phone, web surfing. You know you’re wasting time.
But then there is a more advanced form of distractions: they tend to look a lot like work but are actually distractions. Email is one of them. Nobody ever said: “I changed the world because I achieved inbox zero.” Dealing with email looks a lot like work but it’s not. And these are the most dangerous of all distractions since you rarely notice them.
A nice heuristic you can use: if a specific task doesn’t contribute to your vision (your long-term game), then it’s a distraction.
Take a long hard look at your to-do list and you’ll see that most of the items are distractions. They are only there so you feel busy and accomplished.
Do you know who feels accomplished? People who accomplish.
So only work on things that accomplish something.
Now, get to work.
You’ve got a whole lot to do.
I’ll see you soon 😉
Previous Personal Mission Statement
I searched for the first personal mission statement I wrote and then re-read it. It was truly humbling to gain perspective on the problems I faced then and how much progress I’ve made over the last few months.
Here is the entire text from back then:
The first month of operations. Time to take a step back and ask questions, refocus priorities and take a hard look at the business.
I’ve thought a lot about rules and guidelines I keep thinking about in my business. These are the recurrent thoughts I have on how I should conduct business, define priorities and focus. They are the rules that I keep coming back to, time after time.
I decided to write them down, so I can refer back to them.
Here are Daniel Inc. values:
1. If Everything is a Priority, Nothing Is.
Trying to do too much at once: getting traction on a newsletter, posting a lot on a blog and coding projects.
The short/medium-term plan involves building and growing things that will generate revenue in the next months. Coding doesn’t fulfill these criteria just yet and blogging will take some time.
The newsletter, however, does.
If I get enough traction on it, I can start developing products to sell to the audience. As such, I need to focus 80% of my time on this project until I get to that point.
What’s that point? 10 thousand subscribers. It’s a number like any other, but something to aim for.
I will continue posting stuff on my blog and coding whenever I have a new idea, but won’t put a third of the effort in each one. It’s a matter of reorganizing my time according to the biggest potential. It’s important to keep posting on the blog but I won’t see results for 3–6 months at least, due to SEO.
2. Focus on One Goal.
Ideally, I need to have one metric that rules everything, a North Star Metric. By focusing on one single metric I can easily evaluate how well that project is doing. This metric can (and probably will) change every quarter, depending on the phase of the product/service.
- The newsletter is in the traction phase: the metric should be the total number of subscribers
- The blog is in the starting phase: it should be the total number of posts
Depending on the results, next quarter it could mean:
- The newsletter is in the revenue phase: total revenue
- The blog is in the traction phase: the total number of subscribers
3. Question Everything.
From time to time, reflect about business and ask the hard questions:
- How am I doing?
- Am I generating enough output?
- Should I kill/pivot this project?
- Is my focus aligned with goals?
- What am I doing that is irrelevant?
- What should I be doing that I am not?
- Is this the easiest way to do this/achieve a result?
- What can be removed?
Taking an hour to reflect on these questions might not generate immediate output but will do more good in the long run since I will re-focus on the things that matter.
And think about what can be removed, in the projects, tasks and day-to-day operations.
The 1% has understood this long ago: the secret to genius is not complexity, it’s simplicity.
4. Pareto as a Guiding Principle.
The Pareto principle — also known as the 80/20 rule — states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
For my business it could mean:
- 80% of newsletter subscribers are coming from 20% of my channels
- 20% of the sources of traffic bring 80% of blog views
- 80% of revenue is coming from 20% of the products
Knowing this, I can analyze data and refocus energies on those 20% channels/traffic/products. In other words: put your strength behind what’s bringing your biggest results.
5. Be Data-Driven.
It’s no good to collect data just to let it sit there or to fuel your ego. If a channel is working right now for acquisition, put all strength behind that channel (whenever possible).
Take time to learn how to growth hack channels. Whenever possible, look for shortcuts to generate both short and long-term traffic. Research goes a long way.
6. Don’t Guess, Test.
Growth comes from hard work and a little luck. Hypergrowth comes from testing.
When in doubt, test.
Internal growth (within your website) means testing the headline, the background picture, the CTA, the color of the button, the referral incentives, the referral channels…
External growth (outside of your website) means testing acquisition channels, copy, stories, ads, keywords…
Find what’s working. And double-down on it.
7. Outsource the Non-Core.
A one-man operation means a lot of choices and trade-offs are going to be made. Few things are going to be perfect or deserve the attention that I believe they might need.
But remember rule 1 (reworded): if everything is the core business, nothing is.
Tasks should directly contribute to the North Star Metric. For the newsletter: if I am doing something that won’t bring me more subscribers, then it’s non-core.
Do what moves the needle.
Outsource the rest.
8. But Keep Overhead Low.
One of the greatest advantages of being a solopreneur is the low-cost maintenance of operations.
Outsource the non-core — such as the design of the blog — but try to do it for the least amount possible (or better, find a recurrent freelancer).
Same goes for tools: evaluate if a specific tool is a need or a desire?
A penny saved is a penny earned.
9. Hit Submit.
Fear is the number 1 reason holding people back.
I feel this too.
My emails are not good enough. The new blog post is not good enough. I’m not sure about the color of the hyperlinks. Should I publish this on my personal Facebook? My code really sucks…
What will people say?
Fuck it, ship it.
10. The Struggle Is the Process.
Being a solopreneur is a struggle.
There are no colleagues to ask for help. You must learn everything on your own.
Embrace the struggle: this is the space where breakthroughs come from.
And when you finally find something that works, it’s a magical time. But no one is going to clap.
So you must do it for yourself.
Learn to enjoy the small victories — the conclusion of a massive blog post, 100 new subscribers, book published on Amazon hitting the top sellers list, the first subscriber of the blog. This is how you see progress.
Remember: the struggle is what brings you forward.