Destination Unknown

 by JT Ellison

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.’  ~Lao Tzu


It’s not a pretty word.

It connotes negativity, refusal, rejection.

It is also the working writer’s best friend.

No doesn’t always have to be negative.

No can be healthy. No can mean you’ve made a measured decision that is in your best interest. No can mean you’ve taken control of your life. No can mean you have a solid understanding of your limitations.

So why is it so hard to say no?

I’m a yes girl. I find it difficult to refuse requests, especially when it means helping someone else out. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are times, like now, that I’ve said yes to so many things that nothing is getting its fair due. I’m juggling five projects in addition in to launching a book and touring and all that jazz. Nothing is getting done well, thoroughly, mindfully, because I can’t focus completely on any of them.

No is hardest to say when you’re in the midst of promoting a book. No one wants to miss an opportunity, especially when we don’t know what the secret magic sauce is to reach readers. There’s always that little voice in the back of your head niggling at you, saying “If you say no to the wrong thing, a chance could pass you by.” And that chance might have been the one little thing that tips the scales in your favor.

But wow, that kind of thinking can drive a writer mad.

I had to pull out of a project yesterday. It wasn’t one that was earth shattering, but I told someone I’d do something, and I had to write them and withdraw that promise. I hated to do it. But when the email was sent, and I self-flagellated for a few minutes, I looked at my calendar, and suddenly, I found another six things that I could cut from my schedule. And boy, did it feel good. The pressure lifted off my shoulders.

I’ve always been good at telling other people that they need to find balance. That they should weigh their options and choose what makes the most sense for them.

I really need to start taking my own advice.

I read an interesting article last week by Joshua Millburn of The Minimalists teasing an essay he’s written about living three months with no goals. And of course, I immediately set out to read the attendant articles to see if this is something that I could do. 

One of my favorite quotes from one of the articles, from Leo Babauta, who I call a good friend though I’ve never met him and he has no idea I exist, simply because so much of what he’s said over the past few years I’ve tried to emulate, follows: 

“What do you do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Ho-Hos? No, you simply do.”

That complements my all time favorite quote, the one I keep in my email signature line to remind me to stay on the path:

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda 

That’s really a truth worth exploring. I wasn’t surprised to hear it echoed by Steven Pressfield, author of the fabulous The War of Art, this week as well.

The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.

At its most basic, all three truths say the same thing. You either do the work, or you don’t. 

But can you accomplish all you need, and want, to do, without goals?

The whole concept is intriguing to me. I live for goals. I get a great sense of satisfaction by setting, meeting, and exceeding goals. Hell, I’m the one who will add a forgotten task to a to do list post-completion just so I can cross it off.

No goals?


So that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do.

I set some seriously unrealistic goals for myself this year – 43 of them. Yes, I just went back to my planner and counted them. Some are realistic – finish book 7, write book 8, start book 9 – done, done, done. Some are amorphous – appreciate more, be open to new experiences, try sushi. Some are more concrete – yoga, running, golf twice a week.

But as I look at my list of goals, and realize it’s the end of September, and there are so, so many that I haven’t accomplished — become fluent in Italian, cut online time in half, carve out ample time to read, write a non-fiction proposal — nor will manage to master by the end of the year, that I start to get upset with myself.  I am not meeting my goals.

Joshua’s essay made me realize all I’m doing is saying yes, and I’m not getting anything done.

Yes, I wanted to get better at speaking Italian, and cook at home more, and run three times a week. Yes, I wanted to renovate my kitchen and dining room and lose twenty pounds. And… and… and. But so much of my goals list is just wishful thinking.

And if my wishes aren’t getting fulfilled, even if I’m the one in control of them, something is wrong.

I’m striving.

Lao Tzu taught that:

All straining, all striving are not only vain but counterproductive. One should endeavor to do nothing (wu-wei). But what does this mean? It means not to literally do nothing, but to discern and follow the natural forces — to follow and shape the flow of events and not to pit oneself against the natural order of things. First and foremost to be spontaneous in ones actions. 

Just what Leo said, and what Steven said, and what Joshua will say when he posts his essay.

Will mastering my to do list and scratching off the goals I’ve set make me happy? Or will striving to meet so many unattainable goals drive me crazy? I tell you what makes me happy. Writing. When I’m not writing, when I’m so focused on all the things I have to do that aren’t just plain writing, I am not happy.

It’s as simple as that.

The pressure of deadlines, the constant go-go-go that happens when I get online, the striving-all of that is trumped when I sit down to the keyboard and create a new world. When my husband comes home at night and I’m bubbling over with excitement at some random plot twist that happens, and he smiles at my exuberance – that – THAT – makes me happy.

I see now that crossing goals off a list makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something on the days when writing becomes work. My friends and family tell me I work too hard. To that I truly scoff—if I was really working too hard, I’d have six books a year or more under my belt, like many authors I know. I’d be mothering a child. I’d be answering to a boss. Instead, I float in that netherworld of getting my writing done, sandwiched between hours of doing a bunch of things that really don’t matter. I work hard, yes. I won’t discount that. But I’m not working smart. And that is not a good thing.

So instead of striving to meet all these insane goals, I’m going to try something new. No goals. My weapon with be two little letters, a simple word, that holds great power.


Tell me, friends, when’s the last time you took control and said no? And did you feel terribly guilty about it, or was it freeing?

Wine of the week – this one is dedicated to the divine Laura Lippman, who I finally met in St. Louis, and was charmed by, not that I expected anything less, but sometimes it’s really cool to find out your heroes are rocking cool people, and besides, it fits the whole theme of today’s post rather well….. Irony Cabernet

And I would be remiss if I didn’t do a tiny plug – the ebook of WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE goes on sale tomorrow, so if you’ve been waiting for the digital version, here you are : )

Google Books

20 thoughts on “Destination Unknown

  1. chuck

    Good luck JT! I will be curious to hear how you do. You're incredibly balanced, but you are also "who you are" (and you're fabulous.). Keep us posted.

    Like you, I don't like saying no, but I will. Usually later than I should. No is quite an effective tool.

    Just my opinIon…"Maybe" is a heckuva lot worse than no. Kinda goes back to Yoda's proverb.

  2. Alafair Burke

    Good for you, JT. I have gotten better about saying no to things but need to unleash that weapon more often myself. It's simply unhealthy to live a scattered life with your head barely above water. You're so thoughtful and reflective. If you feel like it's time for you to scale back, I'm sure that's exactly what you need.

  3. Sarah W

    "No" can be exhilerating, while "Maybe" kills by inches and usually guilts me into a 'Yes."

    I passed up the chance at a solid promotion a few months ago because it would have made my hours completely crazy, my family life non-existent, and I would not longer have done the work that I became a librarian to do. The money wasn't worth it. I caught a little flak from my supervisors, but it was the right decision. 'Sides, I figure I'll start rising to my level of incompetency a year or so before I retire . . .

  4. Shizuka

    As a freelancer, I sometimes take on assignments I shouldn't. Because I'm afraid the work will dry up.
    In the past year, I've become better at carving out days when I don't work so I can write, hang out, just live. And better at saying no immediately if I know that's my answer.

  5. Alaina

    I'm a college student, and I refused to be a club officer this year. I had three people try to nominate me, too; it seems I really was a good secretary. Having to make a short speech along the lines of 'Thank you, but no' almost killed me.

    And yes, 'maybe' is better than 'no', but I still wind up saying it to family. Saying 'no' straight-out to family too often can lead to awkward scenes; far better to hedge with 'I think I have a test the next day' and hide from the phone.

  6. Dana King

    Great post, JT. I used to be overcome with all the things I thought I should be doing (goals, though I didn't call them that), never felt like there was enough time for anything, including myself. No matter what I was doing, my focus would wander to something else I wasn't doing. If anything unexpected came up, it was a crisis. Even is something unexpected but good came up, I couldn't enjoy it because of all the things I wasn't doing that I "should" be. Hard way to live.

    Then my Beloved Spouse taught me the concept of eating the elephant one bite at a time. She made me a calendar and I wrote down what I was to do each day. The first thing it showed me was I had too much stuff on my plate. The next thing it showed me was how to defer something and not worry that it wouldn't get done. The difference in my life is enormous.

    I'm working on a book now. Finishing it is not a goal; it's a given. When I finish it? Beats me, but I will. I've also learned to find the benefits in things that don't appear to have any. No contract? No agent? That also means no deadline. The book will be done when it's done.

    It's not a goal. It's a given.

    There is no try. Just do.

  7. Barbie

    I have the hardest time saying no. This on the personal level of my life, of course. And, yes, people who are closest to me are perfectly aware of that and will take the most advantage of it. I wish I was kidding. My brother told me the other day, as I threatened not to do something, "For that, you'd have to be able to say no." And, in fact, I'm not." That happens because I'm consumed by guilt. Maybe because of my past, because of the things I've been through that made me take undeserved guilt upon me naturally, or my deep, deep insecurities and fear of abandon, that have me *sure* that if I tell them no, they won't love me anymore, or they will leave me, so, I'm always saying yes, yes, yes. Many times I'm compromising myself, sacrificing myself for others. I'm often sick of it, exhausted of it. Still, I know no other way that won't drive me to panic.

    I wish I did. Maybe therapy (and I do go twice a week) will help me put myself first eventually. I think learning to say no is essential.

  8. Lisa Alber

    This was a timely post for me. Lately I've been striving, and the more I strive, the less I actually get done. Frankly, I wear myself out…Also, I think it's different for folks prone to depression (which I am) — that Yoda quote doesn't mean diddly when you're depressed, it only creates anxiety. When depressed, every day is about "trying," at least trying and not giving up…I can say that from experience. I'm not depressed at the moment, so Yoda makes more sense to me. 🙂

    To return to the striving part. Yesterday, a beautiful day, I went out to lunch with fellow creative types, then putzed around the shops. It felt great! Now, this morning, I see what has been bothering me about the current revision. It helped to get out of my own striving head yesterday and talk about it and to have a little fun(!).

  9. debbie haupt

    JT, No as a positive, I think that could be a new College Course, would you consider teaching it. Just kidding. It is good to say no, but it's probably one of the hardest lesson I have ever had to learn, I was raised to please, my husband, my children, my employer, my friends and I reached the ripe old age of xx, and I wondered when I was supposed to please myself. I read now instead of cleaning the bathroom, I mean I don't pee on the side of the toilet, why should I clean it (just kidding), but I have cut down, I'm not a domestic Goddess any longer, no one's praying at my feet and guess what they never were. I take the time to do the things I enjoy and I'm a happier person. Really JT after the first very difficult nos the rest get easier.
    So I say good for you

  10. Allison Davis


    Timely post for me, thank you. I am in the transition right now in the last six months of saying "no" to get healthy and focus inward, to find more time that isn't planned. Note that you did accomplish your goals re: Books 7-9, so that just shows you prioritized what you really wanted to acoomplish and the other activities on the list were aspirations but not critical. Maybe that's the next sort. I try to carve out time that I call "nothing" time. No plan, I refuse to plan, and just do. I get so much more accomplished and feel much better after that time. I may not have met "goals" but I have followed some inner drive and that brings satisfaction. Of course, the distractions, the "pleaser" tendencies, the demands of family, friends and work all eat into the "nothing" — but I am working towards more nothing. Sounds odd eh?

    Congrats on your achievements this year (you still have a few months).

  11. Louise Ure

    This may be blasphemy, but I think you're going to go crazy without specific goals for three months, JT. Some of us are just wired that way, and it's not a bad thing. Maybe rethinking the size and number of your goals is in order, but my guess is that you are always going to be the girl who is happy to cross that item off the list — even if you just added it to prove that it was done.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I resemble these remarks.

    I THINK I'm being less crazy about saying yes to everything, but these days it's hard to turn down anything that's for money. On the other hand, making money at those things makes it easier to turn down the things that aren't for money.

    You're better at tracking your results than I am, JT, so I'm looking forward to seeing what you figure out.

  13. JT Ellison

    Sorry to be late to my own party, folks. Had to finish a revision by 2pm. It is done and sent and PHEW!

    Chuck, thank you. Maybe in our house is phrased as "That Might Work." I now know that means no way in hell, but it took a decade to decode it. I'm always a fan of either yes or no, because maybe gets too many hopes up, and in reality, you know you really mean no anyway, right?

    Alafair, I've always felt that you've found that perfect balance between your writing and your work life and your real life. Something to emulate. Hope the Duffer is doing better today! We're all pulling for him to get well soon.

    Sarah, that's a great example of a no that's excruciatingly hard to say, but in the long run, really healthy. Thanks for sharing – and for not being incompetent!

    Shizuka, I try to do that as well – no internet afternoons or full days, days that I only read. Haven't quite hit on the perfect formula yet, but I will. If I'm not here online everyday I feel like I've abandoned whoever's day it is, though I know they don't feel like I have, so I should really stop worrying about it. Right?

  14. JT Ellison

    Alaina, another great example of a healthy no. We have those roles in the writing world too – there are so many organizations, and so many offices to hold – that's just not some people's thing. I know we all do the maybe thing so we don't hurt people's feelings, but I wonder if that is really the case or if they know they're being mislead? I know some families have that kind of relationship down pat. We're really good at just ignoring something until it's too late. Also much too passive aggressive, but hey, who wants to hurt your fam?

    Dana, it's not a goal, it's a given. EXACTLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I know you'll get that book done. Just keep plugging along.

    Barbie, I think this is a topic that you could get a lot of help on through therapy. You're such a bright girl and so obviously insightful that if you know what you're afraid of, you can beat it. If someone walks away from you because you won't do what they like, then they are not worth having in your life. It's not your loss, it's theirs.

    Lisa, you've hit it – striving means we're unable to see the forest for the trees. We've gotten this cultural mindset that we mustn't be idle, that it's bad. And that's when us creatives get our batteries charged. Interestingly, i get down too, and the Yoda quote reminds me that I can do it, instead of being oppressive. Because sometimes, doing is the only thing that works.

  15. JT Ellison

    Debbie, I was going to mention how the sexes are so very different on this issue – men don't seem to have nearly as much trouble saying no than women do. Not fair! Damn hormones. Thanks for making the point for me!

    Allison, excellent point. My priorities have been met and the aspirations are what's left over. Hmmm….. might have to find a way to program that into the ole databases and see what gets spit out. Thanks for that bit of insight!

    Louise, dear, you may be right, I may last five minutes. What I think I'm going to do though is set an intention for each day – plan what I want to work on and focus solely on that instead of the firefly approach. Flitting from one task to the next is what gets me in trouble. One thing at a time, and saying NO more often – that's the real goal here. Shit. I just used the word, didn't' I? The three months starts again tomorrow.

    Alex, that's one of the places I'm drawing the line – things that pay me MUST get done first. Even though writing is a lot of fun, it is still, first and foremost, a business. Will report back at the end of the year how this is going, if not before!

  16. Tammy Cravit

    I've gotten a lot better at saying "no" to things, because I've learned (slowly, painfully, the hard way) that saying no at the front end hurts less over the long haul than over-committing myself and saying "yes" to things I can't actually deliver on. (Or at least, to things I can't deliver on in a reasonably sane fashion).

    As for goals…yes, yes, YES! Someone once told me that a goal is what you get when you take a dream and attach it to a schedule. Going through life without goals is like going to sea in a ship with no tiller: You'll definitely end up SOMEWHERE in the end, but it might not be where you wanted to go.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    As one of those things you said No to, I admire your strength of character and I guess I need to thank you for taking the decision out of my hands. No doubt I would have been overstretched, too, if you'd said yes. That Charlie/Taylor joint short story would have been fun, though, wouldn't it?

    I think I have to agree with Louise. You need to recognise what among your goals are realistic and keep them as goals, rather than try and go completely goal-free. Sometimes cutting down is a far more successful way to give up a bad habit than going cold turkey …;-]

  18. Reine

    Hi JT,

    Hanh, my Buddhist monk friend/hallmate from seminary set goals that he said flexed as the moment pointed the way. I tried that, but my moments do too much flexing.

    Checking out the digi-book, thanks! And congratulations on the new release. xo

  19. Lisa Alber

    Hi JT,

    I'm stll thinking about this post! What's stuck in my craw is striving versus Lao Tzu's notion of not pitting oneself against the natural order of things. As a little example, I'm normally a morning writer, but I'm going through a useless-morning phase. I've been fighting myself and getting nothing done. The answer seems so easy: schedule my writing for the afternoons. Why should this be so hard? (Somehow it is though, maybe because of transition issues as Cornelia discussed? :-))

    Thanks! Lisa

  20. JT Ellison

    Tammy, I like the idea of quitting goals in preference for dreams. Some may say the two are intrinsically linked, but I think you can separate the two.

    Zoë, that wasn't a no – it was a temporary delay until we both have our heads above water. BIG difference! I still want to do that story.

    Thanks, Reine! i love that idea – flexing in the moment. I agree, my moments are a little too inflexible.

    Lisa, I know. So much contradictory action there. But something to work on, for sure! Glad it struck a chord.

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