How to handle an overwhelming to do list right now

At the moment, my 7-year-old son, Jack, is in camp. It’s… a challenge. He doesn’t quite have special needs (well, he does, but we don’t say that out loud) but he certainly has unique needs, and those needs are not generally met at camp.

We always go. It’s always hell. See you again next year.

Mornings on camp days are… a challenge. Early evenings on camp days are about the same. Bedtimes? Let’s not talk about bedtimes.

On camp days, absolutely EVERYTHING is a struggle. I become an emotional wreck, I start believing the stakes are far higher than they ever are, and I stress about every single facet of not just work, but life.

Even though, for the first time in a year, we have space to work without a twice exceptional unschooled 7-year-old in the office, camp days are always the days when I find it hardest to get anything done.

Perhaps I’m worried they’ll call and have me pick him up early at any moment. Perhaps I have so much invested in the time that nothing short of negotiating peace in the Middle East would qualify as productive. Perhaps I’m just sad. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m never as overwhelmed by my to-do list as I am when we have the office to ourselves.

But!

I have discovered a way to stay marginally calm in these situations. I mean, I’m hardly calm. But I’m lucid, and when your to-do list is overwhelming you, that’s really all you’re asking for, isn’t it?

So today I will share this way with you, and hopefully you will find it useful. If you do not, you will perhaps be comforted knowing you’re not the only one who looks at a list and breaks out into hives.

Pick one thing.

Pick one thing that, barring death, dismemberment, or acts of God, you will get right. Not done. Done right

I will get Jack to camp peacefully.

I might not do anything else properly, and I might not get him there on time, but I will get Jack to camp peacefully.

Sometimes, this requires reorganizing my entire life in the process. Different bedtime (for me), different food, different routines, different everything, but I will fully and completely commit to getting that one thing right.

In order for this to work, we sometimes have to use the old-school definition of “commit”. Sometimes we have to use “commit” like in marriage, not like the self-development industry uses it. Committing to a marriage partner means you don’t have any other active marriages, and sometimes committing to a task means you don’t have any other active tasks.

Under circumstances like these, you can seldom get away with getting many more than one thing right.

Two or three completely unrelated things that are very far apart can work. I can make sure I get Jack to camp peacefully and make it to my Office Hours call five hours later, yes. I can make sure I get Jack to camp peacefully and make sure I brush my teeth, probably.

But I don’t know if I can make sure Jack gets to camp peacefully, I get to my Office Hours call, my inbox gets emptied, I’m optimizing my social media activity and I do something with the lamb in the fridge before it goes bad.

See, what I do in these situations (and I’m pretty sure this only applies to 100% of humans) is I panic because I’m calling all of these things equally important and I’m unwilling to admit the obvious – it just can’t all get done.

Sure, I don’t consciously say that not throwing out twenty dollars worth of meat is the same as getting Jack to camp feeling peaceful and happy. But I’m also not taking initiative and saying to my partner, “Babe, I think we’re going to have to take a loss on the lamb.” I’m also not spearheading the issue and saying to myself, “Hey, I’m a busy woman.

Sometimes you gotta throw out the lamb chops and that interview request might have to wait until tomorrow or, if we’re honest, until they follow up.”

One thing. Do it properly. Call that enough.

Good? Good. You may go.

But wait! It looks like you’re not calm yet! It looks like my handy tip has not even brought you a modicum of peace! Whyever not?

Is it possible that the advice above is functionally impossible to implement when you’re already overwhelmed? That perhaps it only works with people who are already being completely rational, and that perhaps our brain ain’t so hot when we’re already in a state of near hysteria?

OK, fine. We shall address that pesky other part.

But what if it’s all important?

Here’s what I do. It might be worth trying. I haven’t had a camp related panic attack yet this year, which means there might be something to it.

There are three steps.

Step one: Think of a short list – 5 items is good – of things you would never dream of doing right now, given how overwhelmed you are.

Examples are “finally get to the handwashing”, “take the drapes to the dry cleaner” or “call those furnace people and get on their Do Not Call list”.

For this to work, these have to be things that you really would like to be done. These are not made up, arbitrary things, they’re legitimate tasks you’ve been “meaning to get to” but it would be laughable for you to get to them today.

Go. Five things. If they don’t make you laugh, you haven’t done it right.

Got them? Good. You can move on to the next step.

Step 2: The next step is making another list, this time of 3-5 items you absolutely must do today.

Today, not tomorrow or soon. Very bad things, up to or including your own death, would occur if these did not happen today.

Examples include sleeping, eating, catching the only available flight to your honeymoon in Melbourne, attending your daughter’s annual piano recital.

These are not important things. They are things that have virtually unrecoverable consequences attached to failure.

Go. Three to five things.

Good? Good.

Step 3: Now, make a list of the things that are overwhelming you today and compare them, one by one, to the items on the other two lists.

Example: “Use up the lamb before it goes bad.” Is that more like eating, or is it more like handwashing?

Example: “Clean the cat litter because it’s getting embarrassing.” Is that more like getting to the recital, or is it more like getting on the Do Not Call list?

Example: “Respond to that interview request.” Is that more like catching the flight or is it more like taking the drapes to the cleaners?

What we’re doing here is taking the traditional binary approach and turning it into a spectrum.

Easily overwhelmable people tend to divide things that need doing into two categories. There are the things that have consequences for failure, and there are the things that have no consequences for failure.

If we don’t breathe, we’ll die. That’s bad.

If we don’t clean the cat litter, it will be stinky when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come over. That’s bad.

See? They’re the same!

The problem with the binary approach is that virtually everything has negative consequences attached to failure. The more anxious we tend to be, the worse we view each of the consequences, so that trimming the cat’s nails becomes as important as picking up cat food, and picking up cat food while it’s on sale becomes as important as giving the children something to eat this evening.

This exercise gives us the opportunity to assess what can afford to be threatened and what has room to move. We can assess what can sustain an injury and what cannot.

In military strategy, this is referred to as collateral damage. When we are overwhelmed, even if it’s scary, we must force ourselves to honestly assess what can sustain damage, and what cannot.

We’re not asking you to take your list and say you don’t give a toot about it. We’re not lining up legitimately important tasks to be shot, execution style, with an insouciant toss of our hair. We’re not laughing as we throw our tasks to the wolves here.

We’re honestly assessing what can afford to give.

“Yes, but I feel so….”

I know you do. So do I. You feel guilty. You feel scared. You feel like if you don’t do it now, it won’t ever get done. You feel like your husband thinks you’re an idiot, and you feel like this is an indicator of your worth and capacity, and you feel like a piece of dog crap.

But feeling guilty that something isn’t getting done, feeling like if we don’t do it today we won’t get it done at all, feeling embarrassed or ashamed or like an abject failure does not change the results of the assessment. Can it be threatened or can it not?

The list of things that can be threatened is long.

The list of things that cannot be threatened is short.

“Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” Mary Anne Radmacher

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.

7 Very Hard Questions You Must Ask Before You Make That Info ProductSo you’re probably hearing it from all sides that you should be getting into information products, and you probably have been for five years now. Yes? And you’re supposed to scale, right? And you’re supposed to stop “trading hours for dollars”? Get some freedom already? Somebody said something about making money while you sleep?

Right. Want to talk about that?

Here are seven things you need to consider before you get into info products. If, having done so, you discover you’re not really in a position to create them right now, feel free to shoot an email to the ninjas and they’ll hook you up with a signed permission slip saying you don’t gotta do them. (Make sure to bring it with you to that internet marketing webinar. You might need it.)

Information product question number 1: Can you create it?

Like, do you have the time and skill to write a book, record a series of audios, film those videos, or whatnot? To a degree, this is impossible to know before you try, but it’s completely possible to at least think about it seriously. My first ebook was all of 52 pages long and it just about killed me, and I was a professional writer and editor.

Had I known what it would take out of me to create it beforehand, I’m not sure I would have signed up for the job. (Then again, I would have also known how much money I would eventually make, and with that knowledge in hand, I probably would have taken the job. But if it had only gone on to sell 12 copies, you can bet your bottom dollar I never would have done it. I just about got divorced making that thing.)

You CAN hire the production of your info product out, but that costs money. The more you plan to put “in the box”, the more you have to pay people to do. To be safe, you should probably assume that your first three contractors are going to bail or fail at various points in the production process, and you’ll still have paid them for the work they’ve already done.

So if you hire it out, no matter who you are, how big your audience is, or what kind of info product you’re making, you’re going to have to sell a lot of those babies before you make your money back. This leaves an intelligent observer to think that for most ittybiz owners, if you can’t make it yourself, you’re better off selling those hours for dollars.

Information product question number 2: Does your product solve a definable problem that your audience overtly identifies as having?

Do they – right now, today – complain about something loudly enough that buying your info product would cause their spouse to weep with joy that they’ve finally shut up? If not, you probably don’t have a hot seller on your hands.

You may notice that some popular information products do not meet this criteria. You may notice that the creators of these information products have significant visible followings. You may think to yourself, “Well, they have a million fans and sold 100,000 copies. True, I only have a thousand fans, but then I’ll at least sell 100 copies, right?”

That is a very reasonable thought, and you are NOT stupid for thinking it.

What that thought does not take into consideration, however, is mob mentality. Assuming the creators are telling the truth about how many products they sold – and in some cases, that is a pretty erroneous assumption to make – one of the reasons they’ve sold so many products is because they’ve sold so many products.

Once enough people get on the bandwagon, a second and third and fourth wave of people get on the bandwagon because of the mob that came before them. It’s the Blarney Stone effect. How many people would travel three thousand miles to kiss a rock that millions of others had kissed if millions of others hadn’t already kissed it?

If you don’t have the initial mini mob, you will not get the mob. In the absence of a mob, you have to be really useful, and you have to solve a problem the potential buyer already says they have. Not “they already know in that special part of their soul that they have”. Nope. They’ve got to be bitching about it.

Some people have audiences that put up with less than that, but not many.

Information product question number 3: Speaking of audiences, do you have one?

Depending on industry and loyalty, assume that a well-launched info product will sell to 1-3% of your mailing list, if you have one, or 0.1-0.5% of your active blog readers/podcast listeners/video viewers.

That means that if you have 500 people on a mailing list, assume you’ll sell 5-15 copies. If you have 1000 listeners, you’ll sell between 1 and 5.

There are lots of ways to boost those numbers, but in the hands of an untrained beginner who has simply tried to reverse engineer what they’ve seen other people do, the odds that Suzie from Poughkeepsie will be able to pull off a better than average launch are, well, lower than average.

The launch of a first-time info product tends to go one of two ways. It will sell far more than it should (if the audience is loyal and happy for you and in the mood to be supportive) or far fewer than it should (if the audience doesn’t care that much and the product is lukewarm.)

That means launching your first product tends to resemble betting six months of your life on red. If it were me, I’d rather do that with an audience than without one.

Information product question number 4: Are you prepared to promote it?

If you’re still in the considering phases of launching an info product, you’re most likely in one of two camps. One, you’re a complete unknown with no existing paid offerings for sale. Two, you’re a service provider or coach being bullied and peer-pressured, or you’re feeling burnt out, jealous, and a little greedy.

If you’re in the first camp, and you’re new, there’s a very good chance you’ve never promoted anything of any shade in your life. What you’re going to have to do to promote is probably going to be a bit of a shock, to put it mildly.

If you’re in the second camp, if you’re a service provider and you’re any good at it, you’re probably used to getting a lot of business by referral. Karen is having lunch with her friend Lynn in Tulsa, and Lynn says she needs a [coach / copywriter / personal trainer]. Karen says she knows this great gal – that’s you, by the way – and in 80% of cases, you just scored a new client and maybe paid three months of rent.

Info products don’t sell that way.

Info products sell like mobile phones. You’re in the mall anyway, and you’re kind of bored, and you’re feeling soul-itchy, and you poked your head in the store, and you’ve been kind of thinking your phone is a piece of crap, and the guy’s good at cold-reading, and you come out with a $600 handheld mini-computer.

Karen in Tulsa won’t help you here. This, too, comes as a bit of a shock. If you want to sell info products, you have to sell them. “Sell” is a far more active verb than most people realize.

Information product question number 5: Can you take your ego out of it?

One of the reasons the indie publishing brigade likes to hate on “legacy publishers” is that the editors at the Big 6 expect a certain amount of marketability before they’re willing to sign an author. They, evil corporations that they are, are not interested in “books that could really help people” or “stories that need to be told”.

The indie publishing world has done a lot to thrive in the absence of the blessing of the New York publishing industry, but indie publishers have two things going for them that Suzie’s embryonic info product does not – Amazon, and a very, very, very low price.

Turn five dollars into fifty dollars and take Amazon out of the equation and you’re looking at self-publishing like it was twenty years ago – expensive, more than a little embarrassing, and quite likely to fail. The ones that succeed are the ones that are MARKETABLE. That means that, to an extent, nobody cares what Suzie wants to make. She has to make what’s going to sell, almost whether she like it or not.

Info products are not tools for the creator’s self-actualization. They are not there to make the creator feel good. They are products, and products are designed to sell.

Information product question number 6: Can your market handle what it would have to cost?

One of the key components of retail sales of physical goods is figuring out production costs, including salary, and adding a healthy markup. In the development stage, somebody is in charge of saying “Will the humans pay that price?”

If the answer is no, the product doesn’t get made, no matter how much the creator wants it to be. If Suzie’s cat hat with blue flaps is going to have to retail for $400 to make it worth production, well, those cat hats just aren’t going to see the light of day.

If your “book” has to cost a hundred bucks to make it worth creating, that book is going to have to solve a very big, very ugly, very painful and probably very embarrassing problem if it’s going to sell. “Get rid of your psoriasis” might sell for a hundred bucks. “Be a more fulfilled and passionate woman in this challenging time of transition” will not.

There is a cottage industry devoted to telling writers, authors and product creators that they deserve to get paid “what they’re worth”. Since the dawn of commerce, what something is “worth” has been defined by the marketplace, not by the creator’s best friend or business coach or favorite writing or business blog.

We must have reason to believe that people will pay what you’re charging. The rules for Suzie are no different than the rules for Coca-Cola.

Information product question number 7: Do you know why your buyers would self-identify as NEEDING this info-product?

“Want” is sufficient for $2.99 Kindle books. Start adding zeroes, and “want” isn’t good enough anymore. Your people have to feel they need it. Maybe they don’t need it to survive, or nothing would sell but air and water. But they must feel they need it to survive well, or to thrive. Consciously, they can be aware that owning this info product is optional. Subconsciously, though, it has to feel vital.

Some sellers are very good at convincing people they need things they actually only want. (Some are even good at convincing people they need things they don’t even want.) You would do well to assume you are not expert enough or amoral enough to pull this off.

As a first time info product seller, you need to know what they already feel they need, and why.

Let’s throw in a bonus number 8: Can you stand out?

An old saw in the marketing industry is that you have to be remarkable. Remarkable means “able to be remarked upon”. We’ll change that a little to read, “able to be remarked upon… without looking like a moron.” In Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow, he makes the argument that a purple cow is remarkable, whereas a standard cow is not.

Sure, you can say, “Hey look! A cow!” but you’re going to sound pretty dumb unless you’re on your way up the Empire State Building.

The word we usually use is “noteworthy”. Noteworthy means “worthy of note”. “Hey look, another book about being more passionate and managing tricky times of transition” does not qualify.

It kills me to say that because I see a lot of wonderful books on this very topic, but if you hold all those books up in a row? Well, first of all, it’s a moot point because your arm would break under the weight of thousands of books on the EXACT same topic. But second, even Suzie’s “fans” would have a hard time truly distinguishing between hers and the other several thousands.

Standout means step-by-step where no step by step exists. Standout means a groundbreaking hook. Standout means a custom take. (Managing difficult transitions and being more passionate for widows is going to sell a lot more copies, and for a much higher sticker price, than it would if we took the last two words off. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s true.)

Standout means the product has to give people something they either couldn’t get before, or they didn’t know they could get it before.

Let’s go back to those evil publishing conglomerates. If you submit a book proposal, in addition to giving a DNA sample and the deed to your firstborn child, you’re going to have to answer two paradoxical questions.

First, you’re going to have to show which successful books on the market that your book is like, to prove that things like your book are already selling. Second, you’re going to have to answer how your book will be different from all those books that it’s apparently just like.

Like them or hate them, the book industry has been doing this for a long time, and it’s amassed some data over the years. You should probably assume that, absent a massive army of loyal fans, your info product should probably meet the same criteria as a book an expert believes will sell.

Sure, there are exceptions. I just don’t know how confident Suzie from Poughkeepsie should be that she’s going to be one of them.

I know these questions were hard. We promised you they’d be hard because everyone else is telling you this is easy.

It’s not easy. It is rewarding, and it can be very lucrative. It’s definitely worth working towards. But if something’s worth working towards, it’s worth working towards with your eyes wide open.

Too many people go to enough webinars that their common sense, which has always told them this might be harder than it looks, gets overridden by sheer volume and repetition.

It’s hard, but I believe that for you, it just might be doable. I believe that if you want to make info products, you can. I believe that if you work at mastering the process, you can be very successful. (And you can make a lot of money, even, yes, while you sleep.)

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.

Write Like It Never Happened

This photograph was taken about three seconds before the Cupcake ATM ate my hand.

So I had writers’ block for four years. That is not an exaggeration.

There was a week in the summer of 2010 when I had two life-changing conversations. In both of these conversations, each had with different people, and for different reasons, and ostensibly on different topics, the people I was speaking with suggested that perhaps lil ol’ me would be more successful and make more money and be more awesome if I acted, well, more like them.

They didn’t say it like that, of course. People don’t. When well-meaning people want to give advice, they tend to simply paint a picture, and it’s only if you look at that picture from a certain angle that you realize they have painted a picture of themselves.

Up until that time, I was following the very specific content marketing strategy of write when you are possessed of the urge to say something and publish it soon after. That resulted in between four and five blog posts a week most weeks, and sometimes there would be a week or so in which I had nothing to say, during which I didn’t write anything.

The people I spoke with thought that I should be more strategic.

They thought I should write blog posts that were designed to link to other blog posts, or to products, or services. They thought I should custom create blog posts purpose built to give opportunities for search engine traffic, “link bait”, and virality on social media.

This is good advice, actually. It’s certainly the advice I give when people ask me how to be more strategic with their content marketing. It’s the advice I give when people come to me asking for help. It’s the advice I give when people are starting from nothing and want to create something “the right way” from the start.

Like I said, it’s good advice. It just wasn’t great advice for me.

See, I wasn’t looking to get more strategic with my blog posts. I wasn’t looking to “optimize” or “take it to the next level” or “play a bigger game”. I had always found blogging to be one of the most rewarding activities I could possibly imagine. It was fun, and it made me smarter, and it helped me think, and it helped me grow.

Doing it my way got me into the Technorati Top 1000, meaning that, for a time, this was of the 1000 highest traffic blogs on the internet. (That honor, in tandem with two crisp American dollar bills, will get you a tall Pike Place blend at Starbucks, but still. It was good to know that I was good at something.)

What was it Toby Keith said? “A sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back”?

These conversations came out of the blue. They came from colleagues I admire. They came while we were supposed to be talking about something else, something nice. And the shock of them, the surprise of them, the “yes, that little blog you have is nice and all, but perhaps you should be a tad, I don’t know, manlier? ” condescension of them, well, I folded. I figured these guys must be right. Anything I had attained must have been in spite of myself, and if I wanted to go anywhere in life, I’d better start acting like a grown-up.

Unsurprisingly, when I went to the keyboard, I didn’t know what to write. When the only dictate is “whatever you do, don’t act like yourself”, it’s tough to figure it out. And I stayed that way for four years.

In the meantime, I have written. I’ve written for work – the classes and the emails and the sales copy. Over two million words, actually. But nearly none of them have been mine, and nearly all of them have been a struggle.

Sure, sometimes I would catch a groove and forget to obsess. Sometimes I would be on a deadline and didn’t have time to dwell. Sometimes I would drink wine and get angry and write what I damn well felt like, mentally hating the two of them the whole time.

But most of the time, what I had once loved, I’d grown to hate.

Which brings us to this summer.

This summer, I had two more conversations, one with a student, and one with a colleague.

The student emailed me to ask if she could write a certain kind of content in her newsletter. In her PS she said she hoped I’d say it was okay, because “that kind of thing would be a blast to write.” And I wrote back and said, “Go ahead. If it would be a blast to write, it will be a blast to read.”

(Hmmm. Physician, heal thyself?)

And then I talked to a colleague. I said I didn’t know what to put on my blog, and I hadn’t for years. We talked for a long time. He asked questions. I explained the problem. He thought for a while, and then he likened the whole thing to cupcakes.

He said, “Remember that cupcake we got out of the ATM in Beverly Hills? Remember how it was perfect?”

“Even if it wasn’t perfect, I still would have liked it. If it had been a little less moist, or it had been carrot cake instead of red velvet, or if it had less icing or, hell, no icing. When someone presents you with a cupcake, and it’s even a little bit good, your answer is not ‘Gee, I wish it was different.’ Your answer is ‘Sweet! A cupcake!’ You’ll even take a brownie, or a cookie, or a brownie with icing, or a cookie with brownie-flavored icing. You don’t care. You’re just happy you got a cupcake.”

“Maybe it’s the same with your blog. Maybe you don’t have to be a certain way. Maybe you can just make cupcakes.”

And so I tried. I tried to write even though I’d had writers’ block for four years. I tried to write myself up some cupcakes.

It was awkward. It was wooden. It was tentative and hesitant and SO not the same as it used to be. It felt like touching a lover after a four-year dry spell full of nasty silences and not very casual disregard. But I did it. And here we are.

Between four years ago and now, other well-meaning people have tried to give me advice on how to beat my writers’ block. It’s become a bit of a joke in the classes I teach. People come onto our Q&A calls and ask how my book is going, and we all laugh.

The advice people give can about writers’ block can generally be paraphrased – or quoted verbatim – as “just write”.

I would ask what I should write, and they would say just write. I would ask how to start, and they would say just write. I would say I don’t know how, and they would say just write.

They were correct, of course. That’s exactly what I should have done. But their advice never held, it never stuck, because, well, I don’t know why. I wanted it to work. I just needed more, I guess.

You don’t understand, I would think. I can’t, because I’m stupid.

You don’t understand, I would think. I can’t, because I’m weird.

You don’t understand, I would think. I can’t because I’m loud and I’m brash and I swear too much. I can’t because those big, strong men I admire and respect told me I was doing it wrong.

And I suppose what I would have wanted was for somebody to take me by the shoulders and say this:

“Write like it never happened.”

“Don’t let them get you. Don’t let them break you. Don’t let them take the vitality and the fire and the sparkle that is you and sanitize it into a beiged-down version.

Don’t change just because it makes other people feel safer. Don’t let them tell you that you would be perfect if you just weren’t so… you. Don’t let them take you away from everybody else who likes you just the way you are.

I know it will be hard, and I know it won’t be the same, and I know you’ll doubt your every word for a while, but it will get better.

Do you remember when you were little, and you swore you would never let anyone break you down, no matter how hard they tried? That small person inside of you is counting on you to make all her dreams come true. That small person said that one day, she would write and people would read, and that mess of a childhood would be transformed into something better. Nobody can make it okay for that small person but you.

Write like it was ten years ago and nobody had told you that you couldn’t do it. Write like it was possible. Write like you had hope, and write like you had dreams, and write like there are millions of people out there waiting to hear what only you can say.

Write like you did before it ever occurred to you that there might be anyone who wanted you to be different.

Outrun it. Outrun the feeling that they might be right. Outrun it, outwrite it, and drown it with voices of love and support and admiration and high fives.

Listen to your children who believe you can do everything and that Mummy is the wisest, strongest, prettiest person in the whole world. Put your trust in the ones who know you and love you and never want you to change. Write and write and write and write and write, no matter what, write.

It. Will. Get. Better.”

I think that’s what I would have wanted to hear.

So just in case that’s what you want to hear, and you need somebody to say that to you, I’ll say it to you now:

Write like it never happened.

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.