The Art of Saying “No, Not Yet”

by Annie

in managing overwhelm

The Art of Saying No Not Yet

Sooooo … how are ya?

Been awhile.

I know, I know, I’m a lousy stupid lazy blogger. (Um – have you met me? Like, at all?)

Here I am, back at Pajama Productivity, where the coffee’s always piping hot and dark roast, and the llamas are snarky but generally helpful.

And yes. It’s been a year.

Let’s pause for a moment and let that sink in.

A productivity blogger didn’t blog for a year.

That’s some impressive display of delay and avoidance, don’t ya think?

My skills are mad, indeed.

Normally, I hate posts like this one I’m writing here, on Writer’s Block Pro (if you don’t have it yet, GET IT, please trust me on this, not an affiliate link, it’s just THAT necessary for anyone who writes regularly, which if you’re content-marketing your business, you should be, especially if you tend to get distracted by other sites and apps, and yes, I know, I have a lot of room to talk, Ms. I’ve-Been-Gone-A-Year, but STILL …crap, what was I saying? Right. Get Writer’s Block Pro).

I hate it when bloggers stop blogging, them come back all apologetic and promising to do better, and blah blah blah just write, don’t write, whatever.

But I think a deviation from norm is appropriate in this context, and here’s why:

I’m allegedly a productivity blogger. I think the experience might prove … instructive.

Let’s find out!

What Happened?

I wrote that last post, about struggling with a particular type of overwhelm – the Overwhelm of All The Things – and offered a few coping strategies that I had personally been deploying in my struggle to get stuff done.

And then this weird thing happened.

I stopped struggling.

I don’t mean the overwhelm went away, nor did All The Things.

I just stopped fighting the need to be so strategic or deliberate or what-have-you about my choices. I let the current need dictate the choice of what I did with my time.

And here’s what I learned about that strategy: It doesn’t work, not in the long term.

Not for us Couch Warriors.

Especially not for us Couch Warriors who are, in Barbara Sher’s term, Scanners. (Someone else calls us “multipotentialites” which makes me think of tiny robotic critters – wait, no that’s nanites right? Still.)

Brief Aside #1: What Are Scanners?

Scanners, in Ms. Sher’s book Refuse to Choose, are described as those with endless, deep, driving curiosity about lots of things. We’re the ones who, when asked as a child what we wanted to be when we grew up, would either rattle off a list of about ten or twelve things in succession, or spin out into a maelstrom of frustration, fear, and indecision.

Simply put, we cannot choose One Career to Rule Them All.

We are incapable of deciding.

And for most of our lives, we’re taught quite stridently that our very nature – our “indecisiveness” – is a bad thing.

Ms. Sher begs to differ. That’s what her book, Refuse to Choose, is all about. Her core message:

  • If you’re a scanner, you are a breed apart.
  • That’s OK.
  • In fact, it’s pretty damned awesome.
  • Historically, you’d have been Ben Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci or even freakin’ Plato.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being a Scanner.
  • You can, in fact, indulge all your curiosities.
  • You just need to go about it the right way. (And there are multiple Right Ways, but for a full discussion of that, you should probably read the book for yourself, especially if any of this is sounding remotely familiar to you.)

I described this very phenomenon in a post at my other blog, Stage Presence Marketing, all about quirks. In that post, I confessed several of my own quirks, including this one:

I am pathologically curious. I can’t just read Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I read it, then I dive down the rabbit hole and have to go learn more about Greenland, about snow, about Inuits, about Copenhagen … and before I know it, it’s five days later and Google is pleading with me to take a freakin’ break already.

I just didn’t know what this phenomenon was called, or that it’s a common thing, much less that it’s a good thing. I literally spent my entire life thinking I was a freak and something was wrong with me.

If that won’t break your heart.

But … bygones. We’re starting fresh here, each and every day.

Brief Aside #2: Projects vs. Interests in Scan-town

So, I’m a scanner.

And I’ve got lots of projects.

Let’s define that word – “project” – as “a complex series of tasks leading to a single produced result that can only be accomplished over some period of time.”

(It’s a sucky definition, actually, but it’s good enough for our purposes here.)

Examples of projects could be things like: write a blog post, write a novel, write a nonfiction book, learn Basque, create an editorial calendar for a client, evaluate email list builder apps for another client, research conversion rate optimization for a third client’s blog post. (All of those things? Are actually on my project list, as I type this, so no laughing.)

And I also have a crap ton of “interests” – which we can loosely define as “those things that pique my curiosity, tickle my brain cells, and inspire late night Amazon shopping binges for books and materials.”

That casual “Hmm, you know, I’m curious about the subject of today’s Google Doodle …” That’s an interest.

If I did a little preliminary digging to satisfy the curiosity itch, and then thought, “y’know, today’s Google Doodle subject would make an excellent heroine for this steampunk Western romantic comedy for teens that I’m writing…” and I decided to write the book, then it morphs into a project.

The Cost of Being a Scanner

Painter at easel

Here’s the latest example of a scannerific Amazon binge in my life.

The project: Learn watercolor painting.

The binge ingredients:

  • Brushes
  • Watercolor set
  • Another watercolor set because I wasn’t sure the first one was good
  • Paper
  • More paper
  • A palette
  • A book – Watercolor Painting for Dummies, naturally, because I learned long ago the only way to learn anything is to be willing to start off as a know-nothing beginner

Hello, my name is Annie, and I’m an unapologetic, highly-committed-to-not-being-committed, and occasionally super-broke Scanner.

But the cost of being a scanner isn’t just tallied up in Amazon purchases.

(Speaking of, I did that “find out how much you’ve spent at Amazon in your life” thing and … I think I broke the thing. It took four hours to calculate. It kept sending me emails like “just be patient” and “this seems to be taking longer than usual.” When the final tally came, let’s just say it was about what I made in one year, once upon a time, as a lawyer. Ouch. But such is the cost of being a Scanner. Moving on!)

What I learned over the last year is that Scanners pay a heavier price than that, even.

Especially if they don’t learn how to say “No.”

Or – more accurately – “Not yet.”

You Have to Say No to Something

Picture it. There’s Annie, all these fabulous Ideas and Thoughts swirling around in her big, beautiful, scantastic brain, which she’s dutifully writing down in her notebook, because she knows the brain wasn’t built to hold ideas for the long term.

And she wonders … which one first?

She’s ready to start. She’s fairly bursting with Doing energy. She wants to finish something.

Well – no. That’s not quite accurate.

She actually wants to finish All the Things. (And now we’ve come full circle.)

But then she realizes the dirty truth:

  • She has many projects on her list. About 18.
  • She’s committed to several of them.
  • Now, she knows some of these projects can wait. Let’s say 13 out of her 18 projects can safely be back-burnered with no serious or lasting consequences.
  • That means she has five projects left on her list of “What To Do Next.”

Which just leaves one, crucial, imposing question:

Which of those five project does she focus on now?

Maybe she should try working on each of them simultaneously, she thinks. Not in the sense of multitasking – we all know that sucks and doesn’t work anyway – but in the sense of rotating through them within an extended period of time.

So, she might work on #1 – let’s say, a book about productivity for Couch Warriors (ahem – more on that later) – on Mondays; #2, the YA thriller she’s been wanting to write forever, on Tuesdays; #3, the “learn Basque” project, on Wednesdays – …

But wait, no, that won’t work, if you’re learning a new language you have to practice every day. So maybe she should do, like, fifteen minutes of review every day for #3, and then she can just go over the lessons on Wednesdays, and …

You get the drift.

And maybe this plan even works for a few weeks! She’s riding the wave, keeping her projects in their properly assigned cubbyholes, feeling pretty damn smug about herself, thinking finally, maybe, fingers crossed, have I at long last solved the problem of What To Do Next?

But then maybe something happens that throws her off her perfectly coordinated schedule.

A client has an emergency. Or her kid gets sick.

Something pops up that she hadn’t planned for, and she gets off the schedule.

And soon she starts to question everything. Like, why is she doing this in the first place? If she works on each project every week, it’s going to take her five times as long to finish any one of them.

So our imaginary Annie is thrust right back into the thought-storm that she’d thought she’d already successfully wrangled into submission.

OK, she thinks, so the five-at-a-time approach didn’t work. She’ll pick another strategy. Hey, she’s not crazy, our fake-Annie.

This time, she’ll just pick one. One project to focus on, until it’s completed.

Great. Solid plan.

Which project should she choose?

But, you see the problem?

This question is at the very core of what a Scanner hates to do – is genetically predispositioned to not be able to do: choose one thing.

And round and round we go.

And all of this has led me to one inescapable conclusion: At some point along the way, you have to be willing to say no to something. Or at least “not yet.”

Change Your Approach, Change Your Results

Fork in the road

So I figured, ultimately, I had to do something different.

After all, the definition of insanity is doing something the same way over and over and expecting a different result, right? (That’s not insane, by the way – it’s just ineffective.)

Ergo, if you want a different result, you have to change … something.

For me, it was the approach.

The – oh, wow, y’know, I really hate this word right now but I can’t think of a better one – mindset.

For me, at that moment, I had to come to grips with saying “no” or “not yet” to some things on my lists.

As it turned out, I actually needed to say it to most things on my lists.

I started by ranking all my projects and all my interests in terms of my then-current level of drive or affinity – my “want-to” factor.

Then I stared at each list, realized my “want-to” factors change with the winds, got frustrated and went for a walk to break it all down again. Here’s how it looked at the end of that walk:

  • I can’t do them all at the same time.
  • I can’t make myself choose one and live with the choice.
  • I can’t rank them in terms of interest, since that’s changeable and doesn’t reflect my …
  • My intentions.

As epiphanies go, that was a pretty large one, lemme tell you.

My intentions. The rational + emotional + practical + intuitive decisions I am capable of making as a grown-ass human being.

Where This Left Me

Now, in one sense, this brand new approach just put me right back where we all start off: making goals and setting priorities.

But at least for me, the thing that had gotten lost in the pursuit of productivity and the best productivity advice was that it was OK to say no, or not yet, to things you really, really want to do.

So I took a few more months.

I made sure those lists were accurate, and accurately reflected my commitment to my goals. I reevaluated my “ideas” lists, to make sure I hadn’t put anything on that list that I’d secretly decided to commit to. I looked at my other goals – financial ones, primarily. I fine-tuned my work systems and ended up delegating more to my daughter around the house.

Most of all, I looked at my vision – that imaginary, visualized portrait of my future life.

And then I picked some things off the lists and said “No, thanks, not yet” to each of them.

I say “some things.” Actually, I kicked every blessed one of ‘em off except for two: one genre fiction project I’d already made some substantial headway on, and …

A PJP book.

(Ta da!)

What You Need to Make the Intention-Based Approach Work

I’ll be the first to admit: This strategy won’t work for everyone.

For instance, if you’re procrastinating because you’re afraid of the work, instead of because there are too many things competing for your interest and attention, this won’t work. You need a different strategy for that. (I’ll be writing more about that in a few weeks. If you’d like to get an email notification when that post, and others, are published on the PJP blog, go here.)

But it also demands a certain (ugh) mindset. One that’s capable of summoning up some grit, to keep you going past all the sequential tugs and pulls of the projects and interests you said “not yet” to.

You also need a willingness to commit to consistent daily action on active projects, even when you’d really rather be learning Basque (or whatever your version of that may be) or something even more fun, like getting root canal.

And when you get pulled off your intentions, as you inevitably will, you’ll also need the ability to put yourself back on the same damn path instead of turning to something else, something untried and untarnished with the dull weight of all your stumblings.

Because we all fall down. It’s what you do next that counts.

See, here’s the thing. Procrastination may make you more creative, but at some point you actually have to create.

And more on that in the next post.

(Yes, there will be a next post.)

(Hopefully, sooner than twelve months from now.)


Annie and the llamas









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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Hurley Hall March 16, 2016 at 12:58 pm

Wait, there’s a name for that? It’s sooo easy to get distracted by all the awesomeness there is to learn. Good for you for finding a method that works for you, Annie.


Annie March 16, 2016 at 2:20 pm

I know, right?! So glad to know it’s not an entry in the DSM, LOL. (Well, not *just* an entry in the DSM.)


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