Your Life Needs A Mission Statement!

How can business strategies help you reduce stress at home?

Posted Feb 25, 2018

I'm always surprised how strategies learned in one place can be applied effectively someplace else. Today my lessons came from a vlog on running an online fountain pen business. 

I have written before about how keeping a journal can reduce stress by making things concrete. Feeling overwhelmed today, I sat down and opened my own journal. I also did something I shouldn't do — multitask — and listened to a vlog on journaling and fountain pens by Brian Goulet. In addition to talking about paper and new products, he went into a long discussion of his philosophy running a small business and managing meetings.  I don't run a business, but listening to him talk management strategy, I got three pieces of good advice that helped me think about how I might manage my time and my life more effectively.

1. Write a mission statement. I had never thought about what a mission statement does for a company, never mind what it might do for me as an individual. It turns out there's a good reason to write one.

The problem: too many opportunities. If you are like most of us, you have way too many things to do and way way more opportunities to do things than you have time for.  For example, today I walked by a poster advertising classes in spinning and weaving — something I've always wanted to do. Three e-mails came in inviting me to meetings I could (and maybe should) go to. I am frequently invited to give talks, write papers, or collaborate on projects. A friend called and asked me if I wanted to go to music jam this afternoon.  Which of these many things should I do?

A solution: the mission statement as tool. For businesses, a well defined mission statement clarifies what they are trying to accomplish so that new opportunities can be evaluated terms of how they contribute to the mission.  Think about that again: NOT in terms of whether they are intrinsically good or bad.  PRAGMATICALLY in terms of how they will contribute to the mission.

The specific example Goulet used was using a mission statement to decide whether or not going to fountain pen shows.  (For non-fountain pen lovers, yes there really are fountain pen conventions where thousands of pen lovers go to see new products, swap pens, and talk to fellow fans and collectors.)  The mission statement simplifies the parameters of the decision and makes it concrete. If your goal is to become an excellent WEB store, the costs and benefits of the decision are evaluated in light of that goal and the opportunity costs of participating. For a company with a different mission statement, the costs and benefits would differ. Again, doing the show is not inherently good or bad, but is evaluated pragmatically in terms of how much it moves you towards your goal.  

To take another example: Dr. Ethan Benore, a clinical psychologist working at the Cleveland Clinic Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation Program, gave a talk in our department about his own mission statement. He began with Disney's mission statement: To make people happy. His own mission statement at the Center, he said, was To help people make themselves happy and stay that way.  

Think about the implications of that from the perspective of someone who works with children in chronic pain.  First, it focuses on helping children in pain DO THINGS FOR THEMSELVES. It is not the psychologist or the parent who needs to make the child happy. The child needs to find ways to make themselves happy.  Second, it gives a clear role to the clinician — to help the child find ways to become and stay happy. They become facilitators. Third, the goal is long term happiness, not short term happiness. This is fairly critical in treating children experiencing chronic pain. Short term, staying in bed and withdrawing from activity is the course of least resistance and what makes you happy. Long term, that tends to lead to increasing physical deconditioning, isolation, and depression. In evaluating treatment options, keeping the child's role, your own role, and the long term goal in mind can facilitate deciding what is the best path forward.

Similarly, in deciding which of the many opportunities I have in front of me, I need to think about what my goals are: What am I trying to accomplish at work, at home, and for my family and community? What makes me happy and keeps me happy, rather than what keeps me mildly amused and distracted? In sum: what are my goals?

2. Evaluate what is working and what is not. One exercise many effective businesses go through is regular assessment and self-reflection. I came across a similar exercise when I was reading about bullet journaling.  

Take out a piece of paper. Divide it in quarters. Think about what you've done since Christmas. In each quarter, write one question:

  • What worked?
  • What didn't?
  • What should I do more of?
  • What should I do less of?

I found this a useful exercise to do in conjunction with thinking about a mission statement. First, it helped me to set new goals about what I wanted to do in the future.  In fact, I last did this exercise in late December and used it to set resolutions and goals for this year. Second, it helped me to think about and refine my mission statement (or at least my nascent ideas of what I wanted to do with my life). Looking over the answers to those questions, I could see distinct patterns. Making strong connections with people I love made me happy. Writing and doing research made me happy. Refining and working hard at acquiring skills made me happy. Doing things 'because I should'?  Not so much. Passively amusing myself (browsing Facebook, binge watching mediocre shows) left me feeling pretty meh. Most of the things on the 'What I should do less of' list were things where I was undercutting my happiness or goals. The 'What didn't work?' list was equally informative. In some cases the goal was very important to me, but I had not yet found the right way to accomplish it. In other cases it didn't work because it was a 'should' but not something I cared enough about to work at. Often, that's because it didn't move me effectively towards the goals of my nascent 'mission statement'.  Dropping those things from my life helped me reduce stress.

3. Brief check-ins keep everyone on the same page. In business, most people hate meetings because they take time and are often run ineffectively. Goulet talked at length about two meeting strategies that made sense to me in both my professional and in my personal life: the daily and the weekly check-in.

  • Daily: A 5-to-15-minute check-in early in the day (or at dinner the night before) can ensure everyone know what's on deck for the day and who is going to do it.  It avoids both multiple folks working at cross-purposes (You bought groceries?  I already bought groceries.) and things falling through the cracks (I thought YOU picked up the baby!). This is also a great place to drop in praise for things that went smoothly or fast figure out what's off track before things go too far wrong.
  • Weekly: Spending 15 minutes a week figuring out everyone's schedule is time well spent.  Teenager going to miss dinner three days because of work? How is that going to affect the rest of the family? Mom, Dad, and son all have big projects due on Friday? Sounds like front loading tasks might make things run smoother because the safety net this week has some holes. Getting everyone together for a fast rundown can help everyone know what's coming up and plan accordingly.

This is one reason family meals can help things run smoothly. My family has never been one for formal meetings. But we do try to eat together every night and share tea on Sunday. If someone remembers to ask the right questions - and you have a schedule or a calendar to write it all down, a little coordination can go a long way.

Is my personal life — or my family — a business? Definitely not. But it is a complex organization. Things that keep large groups of people working well together can help smaller ones function well too.