Creating A NOT TO DO List in Federal Prison Camp

When I surrendered to Taft Federal Prison Camp on April 28, 2008, I was overwhelmed. You could almost argue I was like the proverbial deer stuck in the headlights. But as my story goes, I got a break. On that second day in federal prison, I met Michael Santos. As readers of Lessons From Prison know, Michael had a huge influence on my prison term and life. Until this day, he remains my mentor. In fact, I frequently tell him he is my brother.

There is no confusing that I was broken in many ways when I surrendered. I was still in denial because of my criminal choices. Rather than pay appropriate attention to the investors I helped turn into victims, I was obsessed over how my own life was falling apart. I stewed over how much I money gave to those damn lawyers. Further, I lamented over how so many of my friends could abandon me when I needed them most. It was ALL about Justin. It is no wonder I drove my wonderful mom to therapy.

Like so many good people who reach out to me, I wanted to change. Indeed, 100% of the fine people who schedule a call with me tell me they want to make some changes. Even those who proclaim their innocence, and I have no doubt many of them are innocent, want to make some changes.

The only difference between those that succeed versus those that fail is the course of action they take.

I am a proponent of checklists. I have and use them each day. In fact, as I write this blog, I have a long list of items in front me of that I must accomplish before my workday ends. I attribute much of my success to following my daily list. But I attribute even more of my success to what I DO NOT DO each day. The right course of action for any defendant or federal prisoner, must include a lengthy list of things NOT TO DO.

Having a NOT TO DO list is a wonderful way to bring much needed structure to your day. At the end of the day we only have so much energy and bandwith to guide us. Saying NO to things in life is mandatory if we are to achieve our goals.

Guiding hundreds of white collar defendants through through their journey has taught me a great deal. Successful defendants are clear about what they will do and NOT DO each day. Some things my clients will not do in federal prison camp are obvious, like not cheating, stealing, smoking and using alcohol. Stating the obvious things not to do is not the goal of this blog.

Some things we should not do, however, are not as obvious. Perhaps it is sleeping in later than necessary or wasting time gossiping (thankfully I am not a great small talker, or so I have been told). Perhaps it is consuming too much sugar or not recognizing the pressures your family faces at home.

Before creating your list you should complete an assessment of where you are right now. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, then commit to implementing rules and strategies to ensure you never fall off track. Take time and be clear while building your not to do list. Don’t take this exercise lightly. Every moment you waste takes away from your higher priorities. Cultivating new habits and embracing your not to do list are integral to succeeding. Please take the time to create your list. It will help you, I promise.

How To Create a NOT TO DO List in Federal Prison Camp

How To Create a NOT TO DO List in Federal Prison Camp

Before turning to this list, let me be clear: I am no where close to perfect! As I wrote in Ethics in Motion, we are all works in progress. I would never be hard headed enough to claim I am even close to perfect. This list below, in my humble opinion, is the ideal. I fully acknowledge I still make mistakes. Like you, I am striving to be better.

I hope my list helps you create your perfect NOT TO DO list in federal prison camp–and life!

1: Do Not Strive To Be Perfect

Mark Zuckerburg, I think said, “Done is better than perfect.” Certainly, we want to put our best out there, but it will never be perfect. I had friends in federal prison who had great ideas. Some were writing the manuscript of their life. Others had excellent business ideas. The problem was not their idea, but their willingness to test the market. I know criticism is hard, and I’m not one of those people who claims to say criticism does not bother me–it does. I take a lot of pride in my work. Still, the criticism and feedback I have received from putting myself out there for so long has made me better. My first blog had errors, typos and more. But does it really matter?

Do not be one of those prisoners who has a lot of things in the queue, but are afraid to do anything with your ideas. While you are pursuing perfection you could be out testing, learning and refining your methods. For these reasons the number 1 item on our not to do list is to avoid perfection. It does not exist. Our goal is to lead a good, productive life, but not a perfect life.

2: Do Not Hang Around People That Suck The Life Out Of You

If you are more efficient with your time you will get more done. In fact, you could probably work a little less. Any goal you are trying to achieve–early release, losing weight, connecting with your family, etc–will be easier if you are avoiding those people that suck the life out of you. Succeeding through prison requires embracing what you can and cannot control. You might not be able to control if you have a pessimistic bunkie who is always complaining, but you can control if you spend any additional time with him. Progressing through prison requires cultivating good daily habits. In Lessons From Prison I wrote that misery loves company. Embrace that fact and avoid people that bring you down to your do not to do list.

3: Do Not Say Yes, When You Really Want To Say No

For more, check out my blog, Learning To Say No In Federal Prison. But sufficed to say many prisoners learned their lessons the hard way. I am writing this blog, in part, so you do not have to. Too many prisoners feel the need to say yes to other prisoners routines. They become beholden to exercise activities or TV time with their buddies. You and your family are the number 1 priorities. No one else. Do not say yes, when you want to say no. Take a stand, be firm, and live YOUR life. If you are firm, you will set appropriate boundaries, and you will avoid feeling overwhelmed and distracted.

4: Do Not Let Diversion and Distraction Compromise Your Day

When asked what I liked most about federal prison, I answer immediately: a rigid structure. Too many prisoners drift through time in federal prison camp. In my case, I would spend each evening writing out what I hoped to do the following day. Diversions and distractions were not on that list. I woke early and knew what I should be doing from minute to minute. I felt free, because of my structure. Table games, gambling and complaining were diversions and distractions I did my best to avoid. Plan your day the night before and see it through to completion.

5: Do Not Go Non Stop All Day

I understand the temptation of wanting to go at hard all day every day. You are driven, successful and you want to take control of your prison term. Still, emotional releases are part and parcel to your success. In my case, I would watch movies on Friday night, or watch some golf on Saturday afternoons. I have found that if you go at it all day you will be less productive. Take well needed breaks. If not you will burn out.

6: Do Not Get Too Addicted To Email

I suggest you form rituals, habits and routines that are not contingent on the outside world. In other words, find peace from within, and through the plans you make each day to prepare. Too many prisoners live on that email machine. If they do not get that email they were expecting, or if the machine is down, they get off their game. Do not spend all day on that terminal. Plan periods to be on email and stick to it.

6: Do Not Criticize, Condemn or Complain

Yup, this is a hard one. Carnegie talks a great deal about the three C’s in his book, How To Win Friends and Influence People. I will admit I struggled with this in prison, and shared specifically how in a blog I wrote about managing regret in prison. To the extent we can we want to act politely and courteously. We can’t reach our potential if we are living in envy or jealousy. Do not allow yourself to be lured in by others mocking or knocking down others. Live your life! Avoid the haters and those that condemn your prison routine. They are not your friends. Do not let them get in the way of your master plan, I beg you!

6: Do Not Engage In Vagueness

It is not enough to say you wish to write a book, lose weight, grow your network or develop a new skill. First, having too many goals can derail you. We are only human after all! Second, you must prioritize what is most important, then get specific. Experience tells me that vague goals lead to inaction. Rather than wishing to lose weight, state how much. Do not say you wish to grow you network. Guess what if you grow your network by just one person you have succeeded. Without specifics and measurable you got bubkas (squat, not much)!

7:Do Not Be Afraid To Be Alone

Some of my most productive time was my alone time. I could think, reflect and access my future. I think some prisoners avoid alone time because it can FORCE them to have to introspect. Avoid filling your days with noise and wasted activities.

8: Do Not Feel Sorry For Yourself

We are human. We make mistakes. At some point we have to move forward. Too many fine men in prison relive the hardships that have befallen them. Wallowing in self pity is one way to post prison misery.

9: Do Not Focus On Things You Cannot Control

You cannot control people with whom you work or share space in federal prison camp. Embrace it! Add what you can control to you do list and add what you cannot control to your do not list: DO NOT fret over what is out of your control, I beg you!!

10: Do Not Expect It To Happen Overnight

Accomplishing big things takes time. Expect ups, downs and some resistance. If you commit to NOT expecting a miracle overnight you are in a better position to find energy and motivation during the down days. What helped me was fixating on the process, not just the end.

This list is a dynamic document, meaning it will continue to grow and evolve. Like my suggested federal prison camp book list, this will change in time. I encourage you to set a deadline to create your NOT TO do list. Then put it into action immediately.

I wish you all success.

Justin Paperny

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How To Create a NOT TO DO List in Federal Prison Camp
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