It’s been a shit year for getting things done in Amyville.
In the past 12 months, I’ve had two surgeries, 4 months of weekly iron infusions, 30 day-long immunoglobin infusions, the flu, bronchitis, medicine changes, major side effects from treatment and medicine changes, three weeks of bed rest, week-long reactions to food, and just generally felt like an inert bucket of warmed over shit.
Granted, I’ve been dealing with a chronic illness since 2009 so basically there’s no such thing as a good year for me.
But 2018 has been extra. (Right??)
Despite everything — and despite feeling like I spent the entire year in a recliner, watching ASMR and Japanese woodworking videos on YouTube — looking back, I still managed to do a remarkable amount of stuff:
- I’ve published quite a few blog posts and got several more in the can, waiting,
- did lots of legwork on a new course with Alex,
- created lots of new goodies for a Black Friday bundle sale,
- shipped a new SaaS (Pep!)…
- and finally this month, solved a lot of its design problems,
- coached an alum to massively improve three product launches,
- hired help to improve Freckle’s retention (Freckle’s turning 10 years old next month!),
- finally set up our corporate 401(k)s,
- made serious progress on JFS v2 and content marketing acoutrement,
- …and of course, assisted a lot of folks — 30x500 alums and internet strangers — with their own businesses.
Oh and I renovated a kitchen. And improved my diet. And learned to make French omelettes and crochet. And helped launch a site to encourage pediatricians to send comments to the government. And spent 4 weeks traveling. And laid out plans for a new mini-SaaS. And, um, E_TOO_MANY_TWEETS.
I’m suddenly feeling a whole lot more cheerful about 2018 than when I started writing this 😎. But you’re not here for Amy therapy time. You’re here for my productivity advice.
So here’s the low-down dirty fact:
I’m extremely pleased with what I did accomplish while also being extremely frustrated about all the things I couldn’t finish, or even start.
Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Let me be clear that I’m not frustrated with myself — I did my best to work with a (sometimes literally) shitty circumstance. I’m mad as hell at the circumstance. Which is kind of pointless, really; if “frustrated as fuck” and “mad as hell” helped, I’d be living on Easy Street just from tweets alone! Alas. The rage, it does nothing. It doesn’t help at all.
Luckily for me, over the past decade of running a bootstrapped product business and 9 years dealing with shitty health shit, I’ve learned what does help. The hard way.
And today I’m going to teach it to you, the easy way. Cough, sneeze.
Conveniently, these are all principles you will learn how to implement when you read my book, Just Fucking Ship. Because that book comes from years of experience getting shit done in shitty circumstances, and teaching others (like you!) to do the same. It doesn’t matter what the shitty circumstance is (busy? tired? afraid you’re not good enough?) — the techniques work, because they get to the heart of what it means to be a human doing a thing.
Spoiler alert: JFS is going to be on sale THIS WEEKEND, on its own for just $5, or in an epic Black Friday bundle you can’t beat for $99. Make sure you’re signed up for our list to get the lowdown about that sale when it launches on Friday!
Without further ado…
Here are the six core principles that have kept me sane and doing the thing I love — making things and helping people — in the shittiest circumstances.
One: Let go of guilt.
To be productive when things are tough, disentangle feeling from doing.
Many years ago before I discovered this critical secret, I used to lie awake in bed at night, trying not to think about all the shit I didn’t get done, or get done good enough, or that I worried would never work. And the longer I failed to finish it — or excel at it — the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more I started to avoid thinking about it at all.
That’s totally normal, and totally counterproductive, because you can’t finish something you refuse to think about. Guilt creates avoidance creates procrastination. Which worsens guilt. (Research!)
And when I think about guilt specifically, I can’t help but think about the first year we ran Freckle. It wasn’t making enough to live on yet (not by a long shot) and so we were still doing client work to pay the bills. Just a few months after launch, shit got super crazy with consulting and I got so stressed out, I didn’t answer support email for three months.
I really, really did not want to open up that inbox. Every day it just got heavier and heavier.
But one day, I realized I was at a crossroads: I could keep avoiding support forever and let my product die because I felt bad, or I could tell my feelings to stuff it, accept the natural consequences, and fix the problem.
So I very awkwardly and consciously forgave myself, and opened the inbox, and wrote apologies to everyone.
We lost a couple customers, probably, but 10 years later, Freckle is still in business, still healthy, still profitable. And I learned an extremely valuable lesson.
Today, I may feel frustrated, annoyed, or sad that I can’t do the work, but I don’t feel guilty. Instead, I ask myself:
What can I get done with what I’ve got, and when?
Then I do my best to do that thing. And if I can’t, well, I’ll try again tomorrow.
JFS Alert: This principle is the beating heart of the entire book, frankly, but it’s also the subject of a specific chapter, principle #16: From Feeling to Fact.
Two: Know where you are & where you are going
To answer the question, “What can I get done with what I’ve got, and when?” you’ve also got to answer some more questions:
- “What should I do next?” which leads you to ask…
- “What needs to be done?” which leads you to ask…
- “How do I know what to prioritize?” which leads you to ask…
- “What constitutes success?” which leads you to ask…
- “What am I trying to achieve, at the very end of all this?”
These questions — which form the basis for your actual plan — usually get lost in ye olde waves of guilt. I know I used to always start a project the same way: with a boom!! of inspiration. That initial momentum would carry me forward for a few days before I got lost in the weeds, because I didn’t really have a clear picture of what I wanted to do, so I just kept (subconsciously) applying more and more guilt to get my ass in gear, but my ass didn’t know where it was supposed to be going, so it never engaged the gear, and I just kept upping the guilt. Whew.
I sure bought a lot of domain names and designed a bunch of landing pages without actually achieving anything. And I sure told a lot of people, “I thrive on pressure!” That’s the sound of self-delusion, my friend.
But now that I am sanguine about how I feel about my productivity, I can expend that mental energy on doing the actual work itself.
And using the best tool for the job: a backwards plan. A backwards plan is the answer to all these questions, especially when you’re limited in time, energy, or attention.
A backwards plan starts at your destination — your goal — and tells you exactly what you need to get there.
When you create a backwards plan, you start at the end and then ask yourself, “And what is necessary just before this can happen?” and then you ask it again and again until you get to individual tasks. Yes, it branches.
Because creating new things from scratch involves a lot of juggling:
- if you want to launch a SaaS, you’ve got to have a user system and billing, and also the main features, and also notifications, and a backup system…
- if you want to launch an ebook, you’ve got to write the content, of course, but you also need to be able to format it, and also you need a sales page, and you need an ecommerce delivery solution…
- if you want to launch a design template or code library, you’ve got to test it in the tools the customer will use it with, as well as actually making the thing, and promoting it…
A backwards plan is the only thinking tool that not only allows for this kind of complexity, it’s designed for it. Rather than a 2D list of tasks, it’s a 3D representation of the territory… and how to traverse it.
And that map is even more critical when you’ve gotta take a break — of any kind. Because it’ll still be there when you come back, to show you exactly where you left off and what to do next.
(It’s also great for sharing the workload, far better than a list of tiny tasks.)
this is how @alexhillman and i manage to pull off huge projects as our side business. this is backwards planning, as i teach in the premium JFS bundle. (black friday deal’s-a-comin’) pic.twitter.com/0RuKioNAoy— Amy Hoy ✨ (@amyhoy) November 8, 2018
And heading into our next section, the backwards plan is your best friend when you’ve got to cut down the plan in order to ship…
JFS Alert: The entire book is built around creating and using a backwards plan to answer questions, resolve productivity dilemmas, and bypass roadblocks. It begins with principle #3, Work Backwards, and works through the book. If you love a deep dive with step-by-step instructions, you DEF want to grab our Black Friday bundle which includes a Backwards Planning crash course. Don’t miss out on the deal, get on the list now!
Three: Cut without remorse
This rule, right here, is the one that really saves my ass — even though all the principles are deeply intertwingled and, frankly, inseparable. Without this one, the other ones wouldn’t matter.
Naturally, this one is the hardest one to do. Because of course it is.
Here’s the thing:
Every decision has an opportunity cost. Every thing you choose to do means something else you chose not to do.
(JFS rule #19, Embrace the Pauli Principle.)
I’m not the only one with this problem, of course; mine’s just more exaggerated than most.
If I could do everything I wanted, I’d have like 8 SaaS apps, and run multiple live workshops every month, and host a Youtube series about art collecting, and write a ton of books on every topic from interior design to high-dollar consulting to customer service to selling stuff. And believe me, I WANT to. There’s nothing I love more than the rush of starting something new.
The rush of finishing something good.
If I want to ship more, ironically I’ve gotta ship less.
Usually that means shipping smaller stuff, brutally cutting down the project at hand until it’s lean and mean, with nothing extraneous. (And updating the backwards plan accordingly, natch.)
I’ve cut sooooo many potential features from Freckle and Pep and JFS, and even events like this Black Friday launch, you have no idea.
But cutting also means letting go of soooo many things I’d reaaaaaally love to do. Because I want to do everything. I’ve never met an opportunity I didn’t immediately want to seize by the neck and shake til the money falls out.
If you struggle to focus: I get it.
But that’s the thing. The hardest lesson I’ve learned on this “productivity journey” (barf!) is just this:
If you focus on everything, you’ll focus on nothing.
That lesson has improved my actual output more than anything else.
I now think of opportunities — levels of perfection, actual features, whole projects, entire businesses — as ballast on a ship. A deliberate margin of error I give myself to control my speed and direction.
And when things aren’t going the way I need and want them to go, I cut that shit off in a heartbeat. No matter how much I liked it. If it’s really important and special, I can always come back to it later, with its own dedicated backwards plan.
JFS ALERT: Cut Without Remorse is technique #15 in JFS, and also relies on #12 Choose Your Difficulty Setting, and #14 Niceties vs Necessaries. And of course it’s easiest to do when you have a nice, clear backwards plan. Well, honestly, again, it’s whole damn book/system, really.
Four: Nobody will ever know what’s in your head
I remember vividly the exact two moments that sandwiched this lesson for me.
Moment #1: I was in the shower at my old apartment, with the window cracked, mulling over (and elaborating on) this beautiful, enormous plan for a Twitter art project. I knew people were going to love it. We were going to visit Twitter HQ soon and I was going to pitch it to them then. (They didn’t buy it.)
Moment #2: I was lying in bed with my laptop propped up on my knees, thinking about how fucking big that project was and being pissy that nobody would hire me to build it, because it was going to take so much time, I didn’t want to do it for free, when I realized: Why? Why make it this huge thing? Why not just ship ONE PART? One really cool feature? And I decided right then and there to do exactly that. I interrupted my soon-to-be husband, Thomas, in his hot bath, and we shipped it later that day.
That was Twistori. And it got us so much traffic, so much press, so much attention, and so many clients — but more importantly, it taught me to fuck my elaborate dreams, and ship one, well-contained tiny part, because nobody EVER guessed that it was supposed to be 10 times the size. Ever! Not one person ever said, “Gosh, there are so many missing features.” Because it was all in my head, and only in my head.
If I’d preciously held onto my vivid and elaborate dream, I never would have shipped anything, and never would have reaped the rewards, both external and internal.
Yes, I’m sort of repeating the last lesson, but it’s really that crucial. It’s everything.
As Julia Child famously said in so many of her live cooking episodes, when you make a mistake or decide to leave out a whole dish… “Who’s to know?”
When you ship a slim book with a tight focus, nobody will ever know you initially wanted to write a magnum opus. When you ship a sleek app with just two incredible features, nobody will know you wanted to design an entire end-to-end platform. For every 1,000 people, 999 can only think about what’s in front of them, not what could be there.
(And if you come across that 1 in 1,000 who can think abstractly about things that don’t exist: hang onto them.)
JFS Alert: There are a bunch of chapters in JFS that will help you implement this, because it’s hard to let go, yet letting go is one of the core skills for successful shipping. Principles #4, #5, #6, #7, #10, #12, #14 and #15 are all about designing a plan that can be broken down into tiny parts which you can then ship by themselves, choose to cut, or do simply, or come back to later, or improve later.
Five: You can do better next time.
Besides, you can always elaborate on your work in the next version. In fact, that’s the way most likely to deliver success: Start small (#6) and grow your project over time (#10).
I’m a systems thinker by nature so of course I can’t help but quote Gall’s Law here:
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.
— Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail John Gall, 1975
For some reason, the more elaborately we fantasize, the more we convince ourselves we have just one bite at the apple. We think we have to launch perfection the first time: perfect function, perfect design, perfect sentences, perfect marketing, perfect completion. We think launch day is the end. The culmination of all our hopes and dreams, in the form of a perfect reward.
But launch is just the beginning.
And it’s never perfect. Never!
Digital products, especially, make it easy to improve your product from one day to the next.
Even when it comes to “one-shot” goods — live workshops, print books, downloadable software, physical products like frying pans and computers — the people who make them nearly always create newer versions, or follow-up products.
See, if this essay were more perfect, I’d have the perfect personal anecdote here but honestly I spent my storyload early and I’m all tapped out. But here I am, shipping it anyway ;)
JFS ALERT: Obviously the principle that most directly applies this is #10, Every Version Better, and then #20, Your Next Launch, but the whole idea of starting small, shipping something small and granular, and leveling up as you go — while getting your work into the hands of people who can use it — is, again, the operating theory of the whole book. And also this site! I called it Stacking The Bricks for just this reason! Lever yourself up, baby!
Six: Helping people is enough.
And finally — last but absolutely most — the reason I keep getting back up again after life knocks me down, the reason I keep picking up work after I was forced to drop it, the reason I’m willing to dramatically diet my dreams in order to ship something so, so much smaller…
The reason I make these tough choices is not money.
I like money as much if not more than the next person, but if I wanted to be rich, I could have worked on Wall Street, or kept consulting (the amount we were making before we quit was rather obscene).
And I’m in a position now where I could totally coast and still make a very good living. (SaaS income is quite durable!)
But here’s the thing: it’s all about the people.
I love to make things that help people. That’s really it.
And I can’t do that if I don’t ship.
There’s no high greater than making something that people love. Something that helps them learn something, do something, change something.
That’s what gets me up out of bed.
That’s the metric I use to make all my hardest decisions: Will this help me help people?
It makes it easy — well, no, not easy exactly, but it makes it clear and unmistakable, so even if it hurts a little to implement the necessary hard choice, it makes it obvious which choice is right.
Helping some people today is better than helping more people in a future that may never come… and helping anyone is better than helping no one.
That’s how I wrote (and shipped) the very first version of Just Fucking Ship in 24 hours… and also why I wrote Just Fucking Ship to begin with.
And that’s why I put it right there in the very first JFS principle: #1, Always consider your guest.
And it’s also why Alex and I put together a huuuuuge bundle worth almost $400 of our best goodies for you, that will be available this Black Friday, for just $99. Or you can snag JFS the book for just $5. But just for this weekend.
I want to help you help others, to get that joy for yourself.
And a necessary ingredient in this beautiful, virtuous cycle is just fucking shipping whatever it is you’re dreaming of.
So buy JFS this weekend (or find your copy if you’re one of the 4000+ people who’ve already bought).
Use this article as a guide to revisiting the lessons inside.
Read it, apply it, then write me and tell me what you made with it. Send me the fan mail you receive. I can’t wait to hear from you.