The No Journal

During the MPU iPad at Work show, I unexpectedly blundered into discussing my “No Journal” (time 63:35). Eddie Smith posted on it last week. I didn’t spend much time explaining the No Journal during the podcast, frankly, because it felt like my own personal neurosis. Nevertheless, I’ve received a lot of email questions about this so here goes.

“No” has always been difficult for me. The trouble is, I really enjoy saying “yes”. After all, I want people to like me and what better way to do this than saying yes to every crazy thing they ask? This was such a problem for me that I was always over-comitted and routinely shipping crap in most aspects of my life. I am certain I’ve missed out on some great opportunities over the years because I put myself in this morass. Moreover, I have no doubt that some of the projects I was truly passionate about ended up substantially less awesome because of my inability to say no to other things. Put simply, saying yes too often means that you will, necessarily, be mailing it in on everything. Merlin and Dan talk about this often on Back to Work.

A few years ago I vowed to change this. I became mindful about the words “yes” and “no”. Because I’m a little crazy, I eventually started keeping a list. I call it the No Journal. There isn’t any magic to this. I do it in a text file (stored in Simplenote). My No Journal is a running list of the things I say yes and no to. Here are a few of my entries (with slight modification):

Yes List

  • Reading to my daughter

  • Being awesome for my clients

  • Improving the podcast

  • Learn to play the hell out of Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear”

  • Macworld article

  • Stay on top of [friend]’s illness

No List

  • ACME Board Seat

  • Article for Windows Zealot magazine

  • Steering committee seat

  • Taking girls to movies

  • NFL

  • New Star Wars MMORPG

This list really helps me in my quest to break my yes addiction. I keep the yes list short. In fact, if the yes list gets too long, it’s a sure sign I’m falling off the wagon, again. The point of the yes list is that when I’m confronted with a new opportunity, I look at my yes list and ask if the new opportunity is sufficiently mind-blowing to unseat something else already on the yes list.

If it isn’t, I politely say no and add it to the no list. The act of writing these things down is therapeutic. It helps me cope with my overwhelming desire to always say yes and the guilt resulting from saying no to many worthy opportunities. Looking back over the list gives me an idea of how I’m doing.

Another benefit of saying no is that it reminds me how special those things are that make the cut. Whether it is writing an article, giving a killer presentation, or just taking a walk with my wife, those are items that I’ve chosen to do because they are so special. It makes mindfulness easy.

Sometimes I find myself looking at these lists and realizing things are out of kilter. When I’m more passionate about things on the no list than the yes list, I start making changes. I’d like to say I’ve mastered this, but I haven’t. I still often suck at saying no and am still overcommited. I think I could be even better at the things I love if I’d get the yes list even shorter. Nevertheless, I’m much better at this with my nerdy list. It’s a journey.

The No Journal is not to be confused with a task list. (It isn’t a someday-maybe list either. In most cases, no means no, forever.) This isn’t a list I read to figure out what to do next. Instead, the No Journal is how I keep myself honest. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to write two books and keep a full time day job in the last few years without first getting better at saying no. My only regret is not getting serious about this earlier.

Using Simplenote, I can access this No Journal anywhere but you could do it on a pad of paper, a notecard, or even a napkin. I’ve thought about building an iOS app around my No Journal. Sadly, however, that idea is still on the no list. is sponsored by Bee Docs Timeline 3D. Make a timeline presentation with your Mac.