The Notorious “2 Lists” To Life & Biz

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Here’s a quick bit of wisdom ripped from the ongoing coaching in the current Simple Writing System program.

It’s actually a tactic I’ve been sharing with consulting clients and mastermind colleagues for decades.  I haul it out whenever someone expresses frustration on what next decision to make.

Key point: It doesn’t matter what the situation is.  This works for business, love, revenge plans, shopping, starting wars, arguing with idiots, wondering what to do on a nice afternoon…

… any situation at all where you need to make a decision.

It also works even if you’re looking at lots of “gray” area… so you’re not facing an either-or, or a fork in the road, or a choice between two clear options.

In fact, it probably works best when you have no idea whatsoever of the POSSIBLE decisions to make.  You’re clueless.  Frozen.  Absolutely blank on the next step.

(This is, by the way, a common reason serious small biz owners come to me for consultation.)  (In the larger corporate world, another long-observed excuse for hiring a consultant is to have someone to blame for making a decision you either can’t or won’t make.  CYA.  Not the best reason to bring in an expert…)

So here’s the tool… edited (and expanded) from a response I just wrote for a student in the SWS program:


When you’re faced with a situation where you must walk a fine line… for example, being careful to stay within rules, guidelines, or other factors that require making a conscious decision to choose a path…

… just make two lists, related to the main goal you have.

List Number One: The things you want to do.


List Number Two: The things you don’t want to do.

Then, to the best of your ability… do what you want to do… and don’t do what you don’t want to do.

Yes, it’s exactly as simple as you think it is.

However, most people don’t go through this process at any level… and the result is muddled thinking and confused results.

Let’s say you want to buy a new car.  You want a cool set of wheels that’s fun to drive.  You don’t want to go into debt.  You don’t want to pay too much insurance.  You don’t want to take crap from your pals about your ride.  You want to get a screamin’ deal. You want to be able to car-camp in it (or maybe make-out in the back seat at the drive-in). And so on.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?  In the above case, maybe. Decision-Making 101, right?

And yet, lots of otherwise level-headed folks end up with an overpriced wagon their main squeeze hates.  With a shitty sound system (oops, forgot to consider that).

Another example: Your goal is to become an entrepreneur.  You want to work for yourself, be a slave to no one ever again, enjoy the adventure of living life by your own rules, go for the gusto, etc.

Well, guess what?

I’ve seen this happen so often (it happened to me, too) that I now believe it’s an immutable law of nature:  Once you get your entrepreneurial game on, and get your biz going…

… you will be offered a cushy job somewhere.

For lots of money.  Probably more than you’re anticipating earning in your biz this year.  And with perks, like health insurance and a pension, that seem to soothe all your anxieties about navigating capitalism in the modern world.

And now you’ve got a decision to make. 

If you’re really cut out to become an entrepreneur, it may be a slightly easier choice.  Fuck the job, what’re you, crazy?

If, however, you find yourself frozen like a deer in headlights… how will you decide?

The lists will help you sort out what you want in life, and business, and security issues and grooming yourself into primo marriage material maybe.

Your decision may require scrapping your goals, and creating new ones.  That’s not a crime.

But you better make damn sure you’re covering the essentials.  It’s no secret that (a) we live in a rare time in history where you really can create your own path in life…

… and (b) it’s still completely up to you to pursue something that brings on the happy-happy, joy-joy.

And all that can really suck, when you’re trying to make a decision that will send you off in totally opposite directions.

This 2 List Tool helps keep everything straight in your head.

Your goal is mega-important: You must know precisely WHAT you want to accomplish — in terms of results, long-term and short-term.  And mid-term, and every other term there is.

Professional copywriters have to dance along a very hazy, very risky line all the time…

… between what a client wants (which is almost always going to murder results)…

… and what the project NEEDS to succeed (which the client almost always will completely freak out over).

My best clients — in particular, the ones I wrote all those killer golf ads for — made a very smart move years ago.  They “took the leash off me”.  Which means, they mailed and ran every ad I wrote, exactly as I wrote it… without a peep.

They were nervous, but they held their tongue…

… and reaped the rewards.

Almost ALL my other clients (over my decades-long career as a freelancer) fussed and fought me and changed stuff to get back to their comfort zone… and it affected results dramatically (and almost always negatively).

I learned, as a survival tool, that the first step to navigating any “line” like that…

… was to know exactly and specifically where you’re stepping, and what’s to each side, and what the consequences of failure and success were.

Thus, the lists.  (Which led me to stop working with clients who couldn’t handle the kind of ads I wrote — no matter how much they paid me — and to actively pursue clients who understood the power of high-end salesmanship.)

I wish I had some photographs of my consulting clients’ faces when I asked them — mid-explanation of their horrific dilemma or “unsolvable problem” — what they WANTED to do.  Or not do.

Most had never considered their own desires.

Or, just as likely, they hadn’t examined their “wants” versus their “don’t wants”.

“Well,” they might say, while confused about their goals, “I want to earn a fortune without working at all, so I can screw off for the rest of my days.  Who wouldn’t want that?”

Really?  I know many, many, many business owners who earned more moolah than they could ever spend in five lifetimes… who nevertheless still work as hard (or harder) everyday at their biz, with the drive of a rookie smelling paydirt.

You know why they do this?  Cuz on their “want” list are things like “I want to make a difference”… “I love to work hard at things I’m passionate about”… “I want to enjoy the satisfaction of being productive until my ticket gets punched”… and so on.

And on their “don’t want” list: Don’t wanna be bored.  Don’t wanna become a lazy bum hanging around tourist traps.  Don’t wanna lose the opportunity to make a difference.

Crafting good goals for yourself is a process, not an event.  First, you need to realize that yes, you CAN want something.  (I never believed this was allowed, until I discovered goal-setting.)

Then, you need to come to terms with the idea that you’re allowed to make a plan to go GET what you want.  (Shocking to me as a working class kid who felt doomed to working at a job for the rest of my life.)

And finally… you need to experience that transformation of spirit and mind that only occurs when you
PUT YOUR PLAN INTO ACTION.  And start nailing some goals.

It’s like the universe was playing a game of hide-and-go-seek, without telling you.  And as long as you didn’t seek, nothing happened.

But when you finally got your butt in gear… oh, my.  The vast wonders of feasting on life suddenly abound.  The adventure begins in earnest.  Your boat done docks.

So… yeah, the 2 List Tool is simple, and pretty obvious.  Just like breathing is simple, and obvious.

Life is a series of decisions.  Ignoring or avoiding or putting them off are all decisions.  Being courageous while scared to death is also a decision.  So is choosing to become conscious about how you move through life, and who you let push you around.

I like to keep my tool kit simple.  There are always excellent ways to complicate your life — no shortage of drama and anxiety and bad choices out there.  And they all arrive at your door whether you seek them out or not.

The best defense is a great offense.  Like having goals that resonate in your brain and heart, and having a plan to go get ‘em.

Does this 2 List Tool seem like something that can help you out?

Do you have any observations or experiences or tricks to add?

What have you got in your career tool kit?

Comment threads are open…

John Carlton slyly refers to himself as “the most ripped-off writer on the Web”, and no one on the inside of the online business world disagrees. Other marketers also call John “the most respected writing teacher alive”… and the list of well-known marketers who freely reference John as their primary mentor for writing sales messages is just staggering. John’s sales writing has been stalked for decades by many of the best (and most successful) marketers on the Internet, who freely admit to using John’s ads as templates for their own breakthrough pitches. As a teacher of writing sales messages for businesses, John is responsible for helping a verifiable mob of otherwise clueless entrepreneurs and small business owners get their act together.  John has a popular blog that you can check out here.

* Originally published as Issue #209 on July 9, 2013

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