Book: Refuse to Choose

  • Read: December 2012 - January 2013
  • Rating: 9.5/10

Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher is exactly what I wanted to read. At this point in my life, where I’m getting ready to finish grad school with a double master’s, but with many, many interests in my life, I determined that I wasn’t going to make the right decision. Whatever I chose to do, would ultimately, due to my love of other passions, be wrong. This book helped me to know that isn’t the case, and that I can embrace one, two, or 20 things. It’s a pretty hard concept to grasp, and I’m still working on it. In the coming months, I’ll post my thoughts on being a Scanner. The one thing I wasn’t as keen on is that Barbara had too many personal anecdotes. I think the book could have been 50% shorter and still maintained the same level of quality.

All things said, if you have any inclination that you might be a Scanner, I recommend this book 100%.

The Book

The book is broken up into 2 parts:

All about Scanners

Chapters 1-8. These chapters describe everything about what a Scanner is. They discuss what’s wrong with Scanners (nothing!), panic, commitment phobia, busy-ness, not starting anything, and not finishing anything.

Types of Scanners

Chapters 9-19. These chapters discuss the 9 different types of Scanners that Barbara has catalogued, within the two subtypes of Cyclical Scanners and Sequential Scanners.

My Notes

Are you a Scanner?

  • I can never stick to anything.
  • I know I should focus on one thing, but which one?
  • I lose interest in things I thought would interest me forever.
  • I keep going off on another tangent.
  • I get bored as soon as I know how to do something.
  • I can’t stand to do anything twice.
  • I keep changing my mind about what I want to do and end up doing nothing.

I literally just said “if only there were five of me, then I’d get to do everything I want to do”. Quote from the book: “If only she were five people instead of just one, she’d do everything, all of it, right now, today.”

Are you unable to figure out what drives you and why you’re so different from people who made their choices early and followed one path?

If Scanners didn’t think they should limit themselves to one field, 90% of their problems would cease to exist!

Many people look like Scanners, but aren’t: depressed people, ADD people (though people with ADD can also be Scanners).

Lists of exercises in the book.

I compiled these from different chapters as things I recommend doing.

  1. Creating the Scanner Daybook. This is a blank book devoted to what you do each day. Not a laundry list or general journaling, but anything related to being a Scanner. It’s a place to capture your best ideas and tangents. Think about da Vinci’s books. It’s also a self-study book… without restrictions, what kind of Scanner emerges given you can learn, design, or imagine anything you like? You should always put a date, time, and title. Include as many descriptions as possible- you want others to understand what you were thinking. Draw, and ideate your heart out. It doesn’t matter if never do what you describe on these pages, because finishing a project is not the issue here. When you decide to stop a session, catch the thought you had that caused that decision: “I’m losing interest in this” or “I want to continue, but I have to go work out”. Write that description and time down. Write in your daybook every day for the first few weeks.
  2. With your Daybook and sketch your house. Then, walk around each room carefully and list projects within that room. Half-complete, not started, finished, it doesn’t matter. List them.
  3. The “What Have I Done So Far?” List. Include all accomplishments, big or small. Include projects that you started and didn’t finish, businesses that didn’t get off the ground, and courses you didn’t complete. Novels you planned but didn’t write. It could be anything that you’ve done over the course of your life.
  4. Take your “What Have I done so far?” list and add anything that interested you, even for a short time period. Ask yourself two questions for everything on the list: 1) What was the most exciting or interesting part of the experience? 2) Why did you stop when you did?
  5. The Wall Calendar Poster. Grab six blank sheets of paper. Label them for this year and the next five. Right down every project you really long to do (not every one you can think of). Assign a different color to each activity and draw that color and the year in time you hope to do it. This isn’t written in stone, but will help you visualize what you want to get done.
  6. Career Tryout. In your Daybook, write a first-person, present-tense fantasy of what you imagine your workday will be like. When contemplating a career, use the LTTL system: Learn, Try, Teach, Leave. Write a one-page plan for every career or interest you’re considering using the LTTL system.
  7. The Big List. With four to six blank pages in your Daybook, write a numbered list of anything and everything that interests you, that has ever interested you, or that might ever interest you if you live up to 105 years old. Things you want to learn, to do, learn about, make, collect, create, etc. Include: everything you’ve already done, everything you wish you could do for the first time, everything you wish you’d be being all through the years to come, everything you’d like to do once or twice only. Give yourself a few days to finish this exercise. Think about how long it would take for you to get what you want from each item in this list. Keep the following questions in mind: 1) what do you really want to know about this area of interest? 2) what would you most enjoy doing with that information? 3) who would you love to talk with about this subject if you could talk to anyone?
  8. Also, keeping a list of things you don’t want to do is great (The Not List)!
  9. If you’re a Scanner who wants to start something but can’t follow these three steps: 1) create a backward planning flowchart, 2) let the flowchart expose any hidden fears you may have, 3) set up a real deadline (a drop-dead date). For step 1, start with the end goal. Then ask yourself “could I achieve that goal right now? If not, what would I need first?” and draw backwards any sub-goals that need to be achieved to get to that goal. Continually do that until you’re at sub-goals that you can complete right now. Always have a target date for each goal and sub-goal.
  10. Think back to a project you lost interest in. Pretend you’re there again and have to recreate the experience of having to focus your attention on the task. How do you feel? (bored, anxious, bad, locked away)…
  11. Think about how you feel when you’re in full-speed-ahead Scanner mode, when you’re completely captivated by something and want to do it more than anything in else in the world.
  12. For Double Agents: Use a two-year calendar, divided into seasons. This can be in conjunction with the six-year calendar or it can replace it.
  13. For Sybil’s: Make a Scanner Planner. It’s a daily calendar with an activity for everyday at the top from your Big List.
  14. For Plate Spinners: with 10 or 15 minutes and your Daybook, imagine you are alone on a tiny desert isle alone, with nothing to do. You have enough food until the boat comes in two days. Write down what comes to your mind. After, reflect. Did you get bored or find your thinking slip into a different mode?
  15. For the Serial Specialist: Create a never ending resume. You won’t send it to a potential employer, but you will have a comprehensive list of your skills.
  16. For the Serial Master: Answer the following questions: 1. Describe the moment you first realized you were drawn to each of your interests. 2. Do you see anything these moments had in common? 3. Was there anything you realize as essential in all of them? 4. Can you list areas you know you are definitely not interested in taking up? 5. Do they have anything in common?
  17. For the Wanderer: Find a common theme for your interests. Also, see the not list.
  18. For the Sampler: Have an annual show-and-tell of your projects and what you learned throughout the year.
  19. For the High-Speed Indecisive: Create a catalog of ideas with potential.

Capture ideas while it interests you. This will teach you a lot about what attracts you and for how long. It will allow you to take every idea and every vision at least one step instead of discarding it.

Respect for ideas is the same as respect for the idea maker: you.

End the notion that ideas have no value unless they turn into a business or some other practical use.

Interest is the sincerest form of respect.

A Scanner must find a way to follow every path that interests her.

Scanners secretly refuse to choose (they don’t want fewer interests).

Scanners can, so they must, explore many things.

Most Scanners aren’t as attached to stability as other people.

The drive to learn and understand everything they see.

When you see someone with no tolerance for boredom, who is curious about almost anything new and has the ability to constantly process fresh material, you’re looking at a Scanner.

You can tell what a Scanner’s reward is by why he’s drawn to something and when he stops.

Scanners love learning more than anything else.

What reward draws you to any activity?

  1. Knowing how to do lots of things so you can jump in and help; feeling capable
  2. Insights, revelations, discoveries, exploration
  3. Anything new: people, places, experiences
  4. Having impact, being seen
  5. Exercising intelligence because it feels good
  6. Sensation: hearing, moving, smelling, seeing, touching
  7. Using all parts of myself, my logic, my intuition, my empathy, my abilities
  8. Challenging myself, testing my limits, seeing how good I can be
  9. Studying anything, like how to make sushi
  10. Creating something that didn’t exist before, creating solutions to problems
  11. Vision: imagining possibilities, planning things
  12. Beauty: making things beautiful, having beauty around me
  13. Building expertise: a reputation, a body of work
  14. Belonging: finding a community where I can be myself
  15. Discovering what’s going on, how things run, what’s behind the surface
  16. Pulling together the big picture, leaving nothing out, seeing relationships between things
  17. Saving the day: being competent and being able to fix things
  18. Learning by doing

Plain and simple, the worst thing that can be said about a Scanner is that he doesn’t stick to things as long as other people think he should.

Scanners often forget tomorrow exists (I don’t!)

Top obstacles for panicked Scanners:

  1. You fear critics
  • Perfectionists need to admit source of conflict
  1. You’ve created a “See, it’s impossible!” list
  • Remove some things off see, it’s impossible list
  1. You’ve inadvertently made the project too big
  • Shrink the size of the project to fit reality by keeping only parts you love the most
  1. You don’t feel entitled to just do whatever you want
  • Doing what you love isn’t a privilege, it’s an obligation
  1. You think you’re the problem
  • You’d do everything “right” if you could
  • If you don’t get into action, you’ve failed anyway
  1. You’re pulled in too many directions
  • It doesn’t make the slightest difference where you begin

Realizing that there’s plenty of time to do everything you love is a very big thing for a Scanner.

Commitmentphobe’s list of mistaken assumptions:

  1. You must choose one and only one path in life.
  2. Everything you love has to be a career. Doing something for pleasure doesn’t count.
  3. If you’re not in love with your job, it will be a living hell.
  4. You have to get it right, because every career choice requires a huge investment of time and money.
  5. Once you make your choice, you serve a life sentence with no choice of parole.
  6. If you’re not passionate to the point of obsession, you’ll never be content to give up all your other interests.

As a Scanner, do everything that interests you.

You may discover what you really love is learning itself.

Scanners must commit to everything that interests them.

As to careers, love it or leave it.

Why you may be busier than you are:

  • You pile it on to prove you’re not a bad person.
  • You pile it on to see how much you can handle.
  • You want to push yourself until you collapse.
  • You’re speeding and it feels utterly necessary, but you can’t remember why.

Bag of tricks to be less busy:

  • Make your mental to-do list and cut it in half!
  • Get more help than you need.
  • Grab your time first.
  • Ignore everything but your favorite parts.
  • Learn to sort and dispose of what comes at you, fast.

“I won’t do anything if I can’t do everything”

  • Scanners don’t really want (to do) everything.
  • Scanners don’t really want the depth they imagine.

Scanners often think things take less time than they really do.

Think about how long it would take for you to get what you want from each one (item in the big list).

Making lists and plans without actual information is just an extension of the fantasy; for many Scanners, daydreaming with a pencil in your hand is a way of life. In fact, it’s a way to avoid action when your dreams look impossible. Real planning, on the other hand, the kind with facts and appointments and deadlines, is totally different.

Isolation is the dream killer. It will stop you every time.

The reason you stop (and don’t finish projects, etc) is that when you do, you got what you came for already. You learned what you wanted to learn.

  • You leave a project because staying would feel intolerable.
  • Staying would be intolerable because nothing you want is there.
  • If you stayed, you’d have to accept being unhappy.
  • And trying to accept being unhappy is just crazy.

Why does every bright idea have to be an opportunity to become accomplished, rich, and famous?

The bored Scanner’s bag of tricks:

  • Eat your vegetables first but remember that dessert is coming
  • Bring in a buddy
  • Keep track of how far you’ve gotten
  • Invent a fantasy to make it more interesting
  • Take notes on overheard dialogue
  • Work in short sprints

The Life Design Model (LDM)

LDMs are a combination of time management and task organizing.

Scanners love to learn more than they love to “know.”

Types of Scanners

Cyclical Scanners

Cyclical Scanners are the first general type of Scanner. They tend to revisit the same projects or activities or passions throughout their lives.

Double Agent

Are you a double agent?
  • Have you given up a dream because it’s unrealistic?
  • Would you love to live in more than one country or have more than one career?
  • Do you believe life is full of hard choices?
  • Do you ever consider just quitting your job and starting over in something you love?
  • Would you hate to be seen as selfish? Are you stuck because a change would cause too much sacrifice for the people you love?
  • Do you sometimes think your problem would be solved if you were two (or more) people?

Double Agent’s often have either/or mindsets.

LDMs for Double Agents:
  • Telecommuting: how to be in two places at once
  • Schoolteacher: summers off
  • Others: Farmer, Seasonal
Dreams include travel?
  • Find jobs you can easily replace
  • Be an independent worker
  • Find highly paid short-term work to pay for the whole year
  • Follow the sun (move regularly)
  • Find a portable job
  • Find a job with built-in travel
Want or need more than one career?
  • Do one for the money, the others for love. Find a single “good enough” job, that pays for the rest.
  • Combine your favorite interests with your job (e.g. be a national park employee)
  • Start your own business

Exercise: Use a two-year calendar, divided into seasons. This can be in conjunction with the six-year calendar or it can replace it.

  • Replaceable jobs
  • Independent work
  • Portable jobs
  • Jobs with built-in travel
  • The good enough job
  • Own small business


Are you a Sybil?
  • Did you ever wish you were 20 people?
  • Can you name all the projects that you’d love to work on?
  • Have you been interested in most of them for a long time?
  • Do you have a major clutter problem; do you often mislay important parts of what you’re doing?
  • Would you love to finish a project before you move to another, but you’ve never done that?
  • Do you love insights, revelations, discoveries that make you say “I never knew that!”

Very little tolerance for chaos and have bursts of organizing energy they find very satisfying.

Not as goal-driven on personal projects.

Constantly start over, so don’t get very far with projects.

You wish you could be an authority in one of your areas of interest.

Sybils need to replace some freedom with structure.

“Part of the reason I wasn’t doing what I loved was that it always made me feel a little guilty.”

Create small workstations with everything necessary for a project at that workstation. When you feel like working on a particular project, get that workstation out (or go to it), and work away!

LDMs for Sybils
  • School Day: work on projects for a limited time every day (like you were in school). Write down this schedule (and stick to it!)
  • Spy: Dress the part of whatever your project is- be that person completely, and then go back to your normal self (be a spy in that field!)
  • Physician: Work on one project Monday and Tuesday, another Wednesday and Thursday, and another on Friday. Divide your week up by days.
  • Random Acts of Passion: Give in to your impulse to interrupt yourself and work on a different project, work on it a little (even in your Daybook), then put it away and get back to working on your current project.

Exercise: Make a Scanner Planner. It’s a daily calendar with an activity for everyday at the top from your Big List.

More tools: use 20 or 30 Three-ring binders to keep track of projects. If the projects are bigger, than get boxes.

  • Multiple income streams
  • The good enough job
  • A home business
  • Umbrella careers- a career where you do many things you enjoy
  • Consultant

Plate Spinner

Are you a Plate Spinner?
  • Do you often come up with solutions to problems faster than most people?
  • Do you enjoy the challenge of keeping lots of projects going at once?
  • Do you find it hard to say no when people ask you for help?
  • Do you like learning only when it solves problems, not for its own sake?
  • Does it feel good to be needed, to feel you’re make a difference?

Use the LTTL system.

Start all of your businesses. Become an incubator.

Use a virtual assistant as necessary.

LDMs for Plate Spinners
  • Alternating Current- no calendar or schedule, just be able to go back and forth on theoretical and “real” projects.
  • LTTL.

Exercise: with 10 or 15 minutes and your Daybook, imagine you are alone on a tiny desert isle alone, with nothing to do. You have enough food until the boat comes in two days. Write down what comes to your mind. After, reflect. Did you get bored or find your thinking slip into a different mode?

  • Incubator
  • Troubleshooter

Sequential Scanners

Do you like to get into something new every few days? Weeks? Months? Years? Do you tend to not do the same thing over and over? You may be a sequential scanner.

Serial Specialist

Are you a Serial Specialist?
  • Does your work record look like it should belong to more than one person because you’ve changed directions so often?
  • Do you immerse yourself deeply in a project or job for so long it looks to others like a permanent life choice?
  • Do you find that once you get the hang of what you’re doing, you’re ready to leave and start somewhere else?
  • Do you love exploring the culture inside a corporation, hospital, film production house, or Wall Street financial firm?
  • Do you worry that your career changes will leave you without a body of work or a reputation as an expert in the long run?

Tend to think: don’t spend your life making money you don’t nee, and you don’t waste time doing things you already know how to do.

LDMs for Serial Specialists
  • Walter Mitty- Choose an umbrella career (see below) so that you can be entertained while maintaining financial security.

Exercise: Create a never ending resume. You won’t send it to a potential employer, but you will have a comprehensive list of your skills.

  • Umbrella careers: see items below this one.
  • Writer
  • Teacher
  • Historian
  • Public Speaker
  • Trouble Shooter
  • Personal Assistant
  • Consultant
  • Business Skills
  • Your own business

Serial Master

Are you a Serial Master?
  • Do you love taking on a learning challenge?
  • Do you look forward to the struggle against your own limits?
  • Is it exhilarating to move from ignorance to competence and to realize you’ve done well because of your own efforts?
  • Do you have less and less available time because you dislike leaving any hard-learned skill behind but continue taking on new ones?
  • Have you ever wished you could clone yourself so you could keep learning new things?
  • Do you get satisfaction from showing people how to do better? Do you wish you could change their view on their own limits?

Every scanner should give mastery a try (whether they’re a Serial Master or not).

LDMs for Serial Master
  • Repertoire- Collect skills. Increase your professional value.
Exercise: Answer the following questions:
  • Describe the moment you first realized you were drawn to each of your interests.
  • Do you see anything these moments had in common?
  • Was there anything you realize as essential in all of them?
  • Can you list areas you know you are definitely not interested in taking up?
  • Do they have anything in common?
  • Talent Agent
  • Career / Life Coach
  • Athletic Coach
  • Teacher
  • Motivational Speaker


Are you a Jack-of-all-Trades?
  • Are you good at just about everything you try?
  • Have you ever thought your problem would be solved if you were good at only one thing?
  • Do bosses and teachers try to keep you on board?
  • Do you notice that other people are passionate about things you merely like?

Tend to be still looking for their great passion, and rarely passionate about career.

LDMs for Jack-of-all-Trades
  • Most Valuable Player- Working hard and becoming extremely necessary in their career.
  • Good Life- Only question to ask, “will this make me happy?”

Exercise: See career tryout.

  • Contract work
  • Multiple income streams
  • Telecommuter
  • Editor
  • Writer Translations
  • The Good Enough Job
  • Troubleshooter


Are you a Wanderer?
  • Have you always gotten interested in unrelated activities for no apparent reason?
  • Are you intrigued by things that people around you find boring?
  • Do you like trying on new jobs and lifestyles?
  • Do you love adventure and new experiences: people, places, sensations?
  • Do you lake a sense of direction in your life and see only the next move?
LDMs for Wanderer
  • Odysseus- Always remember you’re trying to reach home.
  • Itinerant Preacher- What skills would you need / want if you were to work in little towns, traveling constantly between them?
  • I Might Need that Someday- Allow yourself to learn things “just because.”

Exercise: Find a common theme to all of your interests. First try by making an “Everything I don’t want list” (See the not list).

  • Multiple Income Streams
  • Expertise for Sale


Are you a Sampler?
  • Have you ever thought you wanted to experience just about everything?
  • If you had your way, would you never do anything twice?
  • Does the idea of being an expert sound narrow and boring to you?
  • Do you prefer to learn by doing, rather than reading or hearing about something?
  • Once you know how something is done, are you ready to move on?

Go to Soirees: “Lifelong learning in your living room.”

LDMs for Sampler
  • Smorgasbord- Think of life as a traditional banquet table of things to learn.
  • Quarterly Creative Project- Every quarter, start a new project and work on it all quarter, learning all you can.
  • Everything 101- Go to local universities to learn whatever you desire.

Exercise: Have an annual show-and-tell of your projects and what you learned throughout the year.

  • The Good Enough job
  • Temporary jobs
  • Adult education school

High-Speed Indecisive

Are you a High-Speed Indecisive?
  • Do you love to bite off more than you can chew?
  • Do you dislike having to finish one thing before you start another?
  • Do you quickly grasp new ideas before others even notice them?
  • Do you feel guilty because you drop new interests so quickly?
  • Do you see potential where others see nothing??
  • Do you secretly suspect you’re not looking for one right thing at all?

You probably don’t have ADD (but you might, ha!).

LDMs for High-Speed Indecisive
  • City Desk Reporter- Dozens of stories to cover, every single day.

Exercise: Create a catalog of ideas with potential.

  • Freelancer
  • Researcher
  • Troubleshooter
  • Catalog compiler / Copywriter
  • Inventor
  • Abstract Writer


You understand now that you have the freedom to explore every interest and the right to drop it whenever you wish.

You need to throw yourself heart and soul into something you love and give it your very best effort.

As enthusiastic as you may be about every passion, an active mind doesn’t get refreshment from producing nothing.

Do it:

  1. Select a project and decide on a goal
  • Decide exactly what your finished product will look like.
  1. Schedule a date for a Real Deadline
  • Teach a class
  • Schedule a show-and-tell party
  • Set up a contest
  1. Get to work
  • Create tear-off calendar, counting down days to your deadline.
  • Deadlines drive you into action precisely because they create stress.
  1. Attend your Real Deadline / Grand Finale event
  2. Return to scanning mode
  • You don’t have to finish anything when you’re in scanning mode.