Why You Should Have a Field Manual for Your Life
How to define a simple set of operating procedures to stay focused on your daily goals
Every day I woke up with determination. There were things I wanted to accomplish. But then as the day unfolded, my mission got derailed. Unexpected landmines popped up. Unforeseen decisions needed to be made. They slowed down progress and used up energy. And as a result, those initial goals fell by the wayside. And it was rarely because the goals were too ambitious.
While in everyday life, such failed missions are mere annoyances that keep us from achieving our full potential, there are situations in which there is much more at stake. For a soldier in combat, success or failure of a mission can literally be a life-and-death decision. In the field, things inevitably will go wrong. Situations will get complex and unpredictable.
In order to face this uncertainty in an ever-changing combat environment and still succeed, soldiers carry a field manual, a set of simple instructions for making decisions and dealing with the unexpected.
So, I reasoned, why not take the idea of a field manual and apply it to the every day?
Admittedly, the challenges that ambush us in our daily lives are typically much less lethal and consequential, and we don’t operate under the same enormous levels of stress. But in the end, albeit in a less immediate way, it is still our lives that are at stake.
In this article I want to outline the idea of writing a personal field manual for life, share my own field manual with you, and give you some guidance in developing your own. With that, I hope you will be able to more calmly confront the landmines that might crop up in your jobs, your relationships, or any other aspect of your life that is important to you.
In February this year, I was taking part in the beta phase of a service called Committed. While the service has since pivoted its focus, the original idea in these early days was to help people really practice the advice they find in books, rather than just read it and forget it.
In order to do so, you would join a small group of people, a Committee, who would commit to practicing one book for five consecutive days. Each morning they would receive a daily practice and had the day to reflect and act on it before sharing their daily progress and insights through voice messages in a WhatsApp group.
One of the books I decided to commit to for a week was Extreme Ownership — How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
The key idea of the book is the titular concept of extreme ownership. When things go wrong, we often blame others, bad luck, or circumstances. But what we should actually do is take full responsibility ourselves, no matter the circumstances. It’s what true leaders do. And it’s — as the Stoics teach us — the only thing that actually makes sense from a practical point of view.
“Extreme Ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.”
— Jocko Willink
On the first day of committing to the book, we all had to reflect on three times where, in a team effort, expectations were not met, and more crucially, how we personally could have acted to avoid the failure. The key was to not point fingers at anyone except ourselves—to take extreme ownership of everything that happened.
The task on day two was to identify our daily mission. What is the thing (or possibly things) that we get up for in the morning? What is it that drives us and gets us motivated? Then, with this mission in mind, we could ask ourselves what failure would look like. What does it really mean to fail in our mission? And what would we do if we failed?
Finally, once we have defined what would count as failure in our mission, we can dig deeper and ask if we are already aware of circumstances or events that might cause or contribute to such a failure. Are there hidden landmines we can anticipate in advance?
In one form or another, this is an ancient exercise. The Stoics called it premeditatio malorum, the pre-meditation of evils.
Acknowledging that failure might happen, and recognising what it might look like, allows us to be much more calm and prepared if we do face disaster, and to put our time and energy into constructively dealing with the situation rather than aimlessly panicking or being overwhelmed by decisions.
By definition, we will never anticipate all unexpected situations, but being aware of some of the things that could go wrong, and having a clear and simple set of rules to follow in case of adversity, will give us the calm and composure to carry on with the mission and succeed despite a setback.
And this is where the field manual comes in.
The Field Manual as Ownership Plan
Having identified our key mission and potential landmines that might jeopardise this mission, day three was focused on writing our field manual.
The field manual is a set of simple instructions that enables us to take extreme ownership even in the most extreme, chaotic, and unpredictable situations. It allows us to confront our personal landmines and avoid ambushes challenging our mission.
To be effective, the manual should follow three key principles:
- It should be simple and fit on a single page, e.g. as a bulleted list of operating procedures.
- It should be prioritised in a strategic order that you can start executing tomorrow.
- It should be reviewed, evaluated, and understood by everyone crucial to the mission.
Keep it as simple as possible. When you need it the most, when things are going sideways, you don’t want to be overwhelmed by complexity. Avoiding complexity and uncertainty is exactly the point of having a field manual.
Laying things out chronologically helps with planning your day (and that’s what I did with my manual), but other “strategic” orders might work for you as well, depending on your personal mission and landmines.
And your mission is not static, but changes over time. Similarly, your field manual should not be written once and then set in stone forever, but updated regularly to reflect the changes in your mission and priorities.
Finally, especially when you want to share your field manual with others (as you should), it’s easy to hold back. But you should be as open and honest as possible. Often a good field manual will make you vulnerable. This might be scary, but that’s a good thing.
How I Created My Field Manual
Now that you know the general idea behind the field manual and the steps involved in writing one, I’d like to share my field manual with you.
The mission I originally identified was maybe a bit broad. It was simply “Effectively prioritise!” But this was my gut reaction in considering my daily mission. The reasons behind it and the landmines it helped me identify still made it a useful mission.
I realised that I do and define myself through a lot of different things (e.g. AI researcher, writer, music producer/performer, etc.). On my best days, this isn’t a problem at all. Far from it—the different things don’t compete with each other but actually feed and complement each other. Time spent on one does not feel like it’s lost on another. There is no sense of busyness.
But on bad days it feels like I’m trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing. While working on one thing, I’m worried that I’m not spending time on any of the others. And as a result I don’t make much progress on anything and feel more and more anxious, suffocating in busyness. These were the days I wanted to avoid.
And reflecting on this helped me refine my mission and identify potential landmines. If you are curious about the details, you can listen to the original voice message I recorded reflecting on my mission and landmines back in February here:
Dropbox is a free service that lets you bring your photos, docs, and videos anywhere and share them easily. Never email…
Equipped with this insight, I came up with the following field manual to help me accomplish my daily mission and avoid (or be prepared for) the most likely landmines:
Get at least eight hours of good quality sleep.
Mornings are focused on output! Minimize input, except books.
Reduce screen/phone time.
Meditate at least 10 minutes, ideally in the morning.
Show appreciation for people, even for simple things.
Protect your time off and schedule time for reflection.
At least one uninterrupted hour spent fully focused on my top priority for the day. Not making progress is okay, working on something else is not!
Disconnect at least one hour before bed time.
When tempted by a social thing, I ask myself if I truly want it, or if it is just FOMO speaking. Practice JOMO!
Surround yourself with people who push/challenge you!
These 10 short and simple operating procedures take the burden of constant small decisions away from me and allow me to focus on what really matters. That enables me to achieve my daily mission of effectively prioritising between all my different interests.
As you can see, most of my field manual is ordered chronologically, starting from good sleep (which is a huge multiplier on everything—I’m pretty much dysfunctional if I get less than seven hours of sleep), and again ending in how I prepare for sleep the next day. This allows me to essentially check off one item after another as each day unfolds.
Improving on the first draft
One note on something I could have done better in this original field manual: The points on reducing screen time and showing more appreciation could have been quantified to be more effective and actionable (e.g. less than X min per day and at least Y acts of gratitude per day).
The last two points, embracing JOMO (the joy of missing out) and surrounding myself with people who challenge me, were actually added to my manual the following day. They were a result of the third key principle above, which asks us to share and review the manual with those crucial to our mission.
One of the people I saw crucial for my own mission was my good friend YuYang Huang, who is also my goal accountability partner and who knows exactly what is important to me and what I want to achieve. She also happened to be part of the Committee doing this exercise.
After sharing my field manual with her, she reminded me that in one of our recent monthly goal check-ins, I was mentioning that I felt like I spent too much time going out just for the sake of going out and didn’t feel like many of the people I spent my time with were really pushing me to be a better version of myself. She asked me why this wasn’t reflected in my manual, since it seemed clearly relevant to my mission.
And she was right. I needed to acknowledge that, rather than just complain about it, and take extreme ownership of the situation. So I added the last two points to my manual.
Having this manual in place and looking at it regularly, I noticed a very marked improvement in daily mission success.
I had many more days on which I prioritised effectively, with my different pursuits boosting each other. I experienced much fewer days of anxiously switching from one thing to another and being busy without making any progress.
If I actively reminded myself of the manual and tried to check off each point, I generally had a great day.
But you do have to remind yourself of it regularly. Otherwise you start slipping.
Part of the reason I am writing this article now is that recently I have been falling a bit into old patterns again, forgetting about my manual. I needed to remind myself of it again. And from now on I intend to again regularly reflect on it, update it if needed, and print it out to put in prominent places as constant reminders. Maybe even use it as my phone’s background image.
Create Your Own Field Guide
I hope by now you are ready and excited to get started on your own field manual. So let me summarise the main steps:
- Identify your mission! What’s important to you, and what are you trying to accomplish in life?
- Imagine failure! What would failure in your mission look like? What would the consequences be?
- Spot the landmines! What hidden landmines are there that tend to threaten your mission?
- Write your field manual! What simple and strategically ordered operating procedures will help you avoid landmines and accomplish your mission?
- Share and review your manual! Who is critical to your mission? Friends, co-workers, lovers…? Make them aware of your mission and get their feedback.
The most difficult part in following these instructions will most likely be to stay honest and true to yourself, as well as openly sharing your mission and priorities with those around you.
Just try not to overthink it; listen to your gut reaction. Write down whatever comes to mind first, no matter how vague and inarticulate it might be. You can work on putting it into better words later.
If you have some trusted friends or colleagues, doing this exercise at the same time might be helpful. That way you already have people who understand the idea behind the field manual and can give you immediate feedback on yours, before you start sharing it with others. And they can also hold you accountable for actually following through with everything, both the exercise of developing your manual, as well as putting it into practice.
If you can quantify the items in your manual, do so. It will help with following through. That way the field manual essentially becomes a checklist that you can go through each day. (That said, not every item might be quantifiable. Try it, but if it doesn’t work, don’t force it.)
The SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), which Committed co-founder Eric Olszewski pointed out to me recently, can also be very helpful for refining each goal. I plan on using this more in the future for goal-setting of any kind.
Once you follow all these steps, you should have a solid field manual in place that allows you to get through every day with much more ease, to take extreme ownership of your life, and to accomplish the things that really matter to you.
“Our freedom to operate and maneuver had increased substantially through disciplined procedures. Discipline equals freedom.”
— Jocko Willink
The only thing that’s left is to regularly remind yourself of your manual, periodically review and update it, and actually put the steps into practice. Keeping your field guide in a place where you’ll see it throughout the day is the most obvious step to take.
If you do this together with others, try to schedule a monthly check-in where everyone reports on how they have been doing with acting on their manual. You could also discuss how the manuals should be updated, if necessary.
And even if you are doing this on your own, scheduling a monthly or quarterly check-in with yourself can be an effective way to review and update your manual, as well as just reminding you of its existence and importance.
The more you act on it and practice it, the more it will become second nature. And as you progress, your manual can evolve to tackle even bigger or more subtly hidden landmines.