Thursday, March 4, 2021

My Did-It List

My Did-It List
by Marty Johnson

It’s been a little over a year now since our world changed. It seems like yesterday that we all had to begin adapting to conditions like we’d never seen before. So much has happened. So much has been accomplished. And so much more still needs to be done.

I’m one of those people that often focuses on the latter: on what needs to be done. I have big dreams and big plans, which is all fine and dandy, but along with those big ideas comes a big obsession to maintain a to-do list—a never ending, always growing, outrageously out of control (however meticulously laid out, if I do say so myself) OneNote file with seven main tabs (for my seven main hats and responsibilities—businesses, side hustles, organizations, etc.), each complete with sub tabs, and each sub tab full of countless bullet points, sub bullet points, and sub sub bullet points.

I stare at my to-do list every day. It mocks me. It reminds me daily about all of the big ideas and big plans that I’ve had that I just haven’t had the oomph to tackle yet. Honestly, it makes me depressed sometimes, causing me to focus on what I haven’t done rather than what I have.

I realize fully that this is a completely self-imposed struggle. I could easily choose to not keep a to-do list and therefore not have it taunt me every day. But, that’s just not in the cards for someone like me—someone fully distrustful of his pulled-in-entirely-too-many-directions brain’s ability to keep track of anything on its own.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably preaching to the choir here; that many of my fellow small business owners and entrepreneurs face a similar struggle to keep up with all of the things that they feel need to be done, and all of the things that they dream of doing “someday, when there’s time.” I know many of you, like me, have entirely too many irons in the fire and feel the weight of responsibilities that come with them. The businesses we run, people we employ, organizations we guide, families we care for, and relationships we fight to protect all come with their fair share of stuff that takes time, energy, and chutzpah to get done.

So, how do we deal with this? How do we dig out from under our to-do list? How do we take care of everyone and everything we need to and still manage to maintain some modicum of sanity for ourselves?

To start, we must remember how important it is for us to first and foremost take care of ourselves. It may sound selfish, but like oxygen masks on an airplane, we must first put ours on before helping others. It’s essential that we make time to eat right, exercise our bodies and our brains, and breathe. I’m sure many of you, like me, have neglected to do that at times and suffered the consequences. It’s a hard lesson to learn. If you struggle with this, as I often do, I recommend reading the book I just finished: Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a game changer!

Next, I recommend unplugging from time to time. Too much time spent obsessing over things is wickedly unhealthy. A while ago—perhaps a couple of years ago now (in retrospect, I wish I had marked the date)—I made the decision to not bring my work home (when at all possible). That meant leaving my laptop on my desk at the office, rather than packing it up each evening to “try to catch up” that night. It also meant not responding to texts, Facebook messages, or anything else that was work related until the next day when I was back at the office. Unless it was an emergency, people could wait.

The change I’ve seen in myself from unplugging at home has been wonderful. Sure, if you ask one of my co-workers I’m sure they’d tell you that I’m often still a ball of stress … and that’s a fair assessment. But it used to be much worse. And my system isn’t perfect; I still have to make exceptions from time to time. In fact, as I write this article I'm sitting at my dining room table at home on a Sunday afternoon … but deadlines are deadlines, and hey, nobody's perfect.

Now, taking care of number one and unplugging from time to time certainly don’t make a to-do list any smaller. In fact, one might argue that those things would cut into our time to do the things on that to-do list. And that’s true, but what those things accomplish—for me, at least—is that they give us a break from that to-do list, which in turn takes away some of its power and control over us. It puts it into perspective.

One more thing that I’ve found very helpful is to balance my to-do list out with another list of things that I’ve actually done. I call it my “did-it list.” To be fair and transparent, my own did-it list is more conceptual than actually a written-down list (but give me a few minutes and I’ll change that … and it will be meticulously organized, of course.) Though, I do keep a tally of each time I’ve had an article or photograph published, of milestones I’ve reach, of places I’ve traveled, of bucket list items I’ve checked off, and of various other small and large accomplishments. But, I wonder what it would look like if my did-it list included much more.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the example of keeping a calendar of workouts. Simply marking off a day on a wall calendar gives us a visual record of how far we’ve come. He makes the point that just showing up, even if the workout is barely more than sitting down for five minutes on an exercise bike, is so much more beneficial than letting a day slide—because one day leads to two, which leads to three, and before we know it we’re back to where we started. But if we mark each day we at least show up on a calendar (a type of did-it list, if you think about it) and see the visual of the chain of days it creates, we’re much more inclined to keep showing up again and again so we don’t break that chain.

So, what if we all kept a did-it list. What if we were to write down a continuous chain of accomplishments: programs we’ve started, relationships we’ve cared for, businesses we’ve built, clients we’ve helped, team members we’ve employed, people we’ve mentored, services we’ve provided to our communities, organizations we’ve sponsored and supported, and smiles we’ve shared. Wouldn’t that do wonders for our self-esteem? Wouldn’t that do wonders to motivate us to keep getting things done? Wouldn’t a did-it list make our to-do list look less daunting—more of a record of things we “get to do” rather than things we “need to do?” I think it would.

I also think that, more important than all the lists we may create, the most salient point to remember is that we’re all only human … and we can’t do it all. Sure, there are an endless number of programs we’d like to start, services we’d like to add, after-hours activities we’d love to enjoy, training we wish to attend and/or provide to our team, and so much more. As much as we wish we had the time, energy, and focus to flush out all of our big ideas, not everything can—or will—get done. And that’s OK! It’s good to dream; it’s good to hope.

I hope we can all begin to reconcile our aspirations with our accomplishments. I hope we can celebrate what we’ve done so we don’t fret so much about what we haven’t done yet. In acknowledging that and understanding both our limitations and self-expectations, we can find some fresh inspiration—coupled, I hope, with a healthy dose of gratitude—that can propel us into our next chapter.


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for AMBC and is Editor of MBC Today. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty


This article was published in MBC Today Volume 23 Issue 2 on March 3, 2021.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

A New Vision

A New Vision
by Marty Johnson

The year that turned the world upside down has finally—finally—come to an end. And we’re all completely spent. Exhausted. Confused. Broken down.

2020 was touted by many as “the year of perfect vision.” As the year began, we had such hope and resolve to make it a year where we would see huge growth, gain clear insight, and make big change. Then, 2020 played out like none of us could have imagined … and for a while that “year of perfect vision” moniker seemed almost laughable.

I don’t believe I know anyone who hasn’t experienced 2020 on a deeply personal level. Most people have been somehow affected by COVID-19. I’ve lost count of those I’ve known, or known of, who have been infected by this horrible virus—some of them severely affected, and some of them not surviving. And then there are the effects we’ve all experienced in our day-to-day lives and businesses. None of us behave the same way we did at the beginning of the year; none of us do business the same way we did a year ago. Many of us have seen countless neighbors who have had to shutter their businesses—some of them temporarily, and some of them closed for good.

The pandemic has bled into every aspect of our lives. Many of us spent recent holidays alone, or with a small group of household members only. As an essential business operator in New York State, with strict travel regulations I haven’t been able to travel to Delaware to see my parents in quite some time. But, we’ve learned that even though we’d love to be together in person, our relationship is just as strong, if not stronger, because of this challenge, and we’re grateful for technology that keeps us more connected than ever.

Many of the after-hours events, meetings, and obligations that took up most of my evenings in previous years have been put on hold or moved to virtual platforms. That extra time and the deep breath it has allowed me to take has been a huge blessing in disguise, and we’ve learned that, while getting together is a good thing and we’re all excited to be able to do it again someday, perhaps some of the mishigas surrounding those gatherings is just plain unnecessary—maybe even a waste of effort, time, and resources that could be used toward things that matter more. Even when we couldn’t have faith gatherings for a while, that didn’t mean that faith decreased. No, I argue that in many cases it increased! In so many ways and in so many things, we’ve learned to value what’s at the core over the fluff that so often covers and sometimes confuses.

Many of my relationships with my friends have grown stronger. Sure, for most of the past year we haven’t been able to hang out like we used to, but we’ve learned that our love and care for each other doesn’t depend on that. We check in. We do virtual game nights. We send each other cards and little thinking-of-you tokens in the mail that become treasures and a reminder that, even though we may feel alone, we’re not really alone. And I can certainly attest that my relationship with my cat, Comet, has never been stronger; he sure loves having his dad home so he can get dinner at a decent time … most nights.

As an essential business operator, changes my team and I have had to make this year in our operations have been truly for good. We’ve rearranged, added safety measures, and put cleaning practices in place that are something we’ll keep in one form or another long-term after the world heals and resumes more physical interaction. And, for us at least in our unique industry and position in our community, business has been incredible! 2020 has blown our best year’s sales out of the water by over 50%. Why? Because we were able to pivot and do business in a new way to meet the changing needs of our community … and because we’ve spent the past near-decade building relationships in our community, and now that community has rallied behind us and so many other small businesses in our area to show their undying support to make sure we won’t be going anywhere. I tell my team often that “we’re in the business of relationships, not transactions,” and this year has proven without a doubt the value of that model.

And my team. Oh, my incredible, invaluable, outrageously wonderful team. This year has made me rely on them so, so much, and value them more than I can express. Investing in good people is the best investment a business can make. Hire heart, attitude, and smiles—those honest individuals who will be reliable and create a family business atmosphere. Good people make good business. And good business attracts good people.

For the first time in years, 2020 has allowed me to finally catch up on my podcast queue. One of my mentors, Lewis Howes, often reminds his listeners about the importance of living with an abundance mindset over a scarcity mindset. The key to that, he says, is to live in gratitude. Start each day reminding yourself about what you’re grateful for, like people, things, situations, and relationships. Because, when we live the day grateful for what we have, we’re more likely to live that day giving, helping, and caring. That’s an abundance mindset: sharing what we have because we know its value. In contrast, if we live in a scarcity mindset—always wishing we had more and holding close the little we think we have without sharing it—we lose in the long run. As my dear friend Norman Froscher often says, “Givers gain.”

My faith teaches me that one of the most important things—a rule that trumps nearly all others—is to love your neighbor. I believe that wholeheartedly, even if I admit that it’s something I struggle to live up to at times. Loving means giving. Loving means looking past differences and sharing what really matters: our humanity. Loving means looking out for, supporting, helping, and caring. In doing that, we all grow stronger; we live in abundance. I believe 2020 has taught us all a deep lesson about what it means to love our neighbors, especially as we’ve been on the receiving end of so much love from those who have gone out of their way to show their support.

A dear friend of mine just texted her core support group as I was writing this article. She’s been staying with her son—a very special kid whom I’ve had the privilege to consider my nephew for 17 years and counting—every day as he’s been going through chemo for an aggressive form of testicular cancer. Today, they’re finishing their third of four in-patient rounds at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the same hospital where I received my treatment plan over eight years ago when I was beginning my own cancer battle and chemo regimen. (If you don’t know about Dana-Farber or their fundraising arm, The Jimmy Fund, I urge you to do some research and lend your support. Their research saved my life and the experts there are now saving my nephew’s.) What my friend said in her text just about sums up what caring for our neighbors is all about:

“This hospital is incredible. What they do for these kids is truly heartwarming. We wish all of these sweet babies in here good health very soon. Remember that so many out there need whatever help you can give them; too many people are hurting lately. We need to make sure we are there for all the kiddos out there. On the first day of his treatment, the Jimmy Fund treated over 80 kids in one day, and that is way too many. My heartstrings have been pulled and I wish I could do more. In the meantime, I will be there for my baby boy who needs me. I love him with my whole heart.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it over and over again as long as I have the platform to do so: silver linings are very real. I believe we’re already seeing a lot of silver linings from 2020, and in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead I believe we’ll be seeing many more. Living in gratitude is what allows us to recognize, appreciate, and benefit tremendously from those silver linings. When we take situations that may seem terrible at first and learn the lessons from them, we gain an abundance of insight, understanding, and compassion that we otherwise wouldn’t have in our lives.

So, my friends, 2020 has ended. And it royally sucked in so, so, so many ways. We’re spent. Exhausted. Confused. Broken down. But, aren’t we also seeing much more clearly? Isn’t a silver lining to this past year that we indeed to have a more perfect vision? Through the hits, the dents and dings, the diagnoses, the hard medicine, the tragedy, and the loss, haven’t we learned lessons we may never have learned otherwise? Aren’t we more resilient? More hopeful, loving, caring, understanding, and dedicated? More grateful? More abundant in the things that really matter? Haven’t we learned things that we’ll take with us the rest of our lives, helping us grow into better people, citizens, neighbors, and caregivers? I argue that we have.

May this next year bring you more abundance. I promise that it will, as long as you realize that true wealth has nothing to do with monetary things. As my dear friend Fahim Mojawalla often says, “your net worth is measured by your network.” So, value your relationships, community, and faith, and live a life full of gratitude. In doing so, you’ll find a new attitude that will guide you through a new year. A new day. A new vision.


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for AMBC and is Editor of MBC Today. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty

This article was also published in MBC Today Volume 23, Issue 1 (January/February 2021) and on the blog at on January 3, 2021.