Are You a Scanner?
You could be a scanner like me!
What is a scanner?
A scanner is the contrary of a specialist. Scanners are unable to choose one single passion or career, and if they force themselves to do so, they suffer (and their productivity suffers, too). Scanners don’t have only one field of interest, they have many of them. They seem to be interested in just everything. They usually have many projects running at the same time, and permanently come up with some great new idea. They also tend not to implement their ideas or not to finish the projects they start.
A scanner is the kind of guy who works with disabled children, studies physics at the distance learning university, learns japanese, draws comics and reads everything he can find about archeology. But it’s not like having a job and then a few additional hobbies. The difference between a true scanner and a specialist with hobbies is that for the scanner, nothing is a “hobby”. For a scanner, all those things he’s interested in are equally important and he just cannot focus mainly or spend most of his time on only one of them, which would be required to do it as his career.
The word “scanner” comes from the book Refuse to Choose! by Barbara Sher. It’s a book about scanners and for scanners, to help them cope with life & career without denying the scanner in them. I totally love this book, it has changed my life.
Cyclical scanners vs. serial scanners
Barbara Sher describes different kinds of scanners she identified. The main distinction she makes is between cyclical scanners and serial scanners.
Cyclical scanners have many but stable interests and passions (from 2 to 20+), and they oscillate periodically between all of those. For example a cyclical scanner is someone who starts a painting, then suddenly abandons it to program a computer game. Halfway through the programming work, he goes back to his painting, or starts a new painting. He finishes it, or not, and goes back to program his game. This way he spends his time alternating between programming and painting. In parallel to all this, he may regularly take classes to become a massage therapist.
Serial scanners on the other hand don’t go back to a project once they have moved on. They do everything once and never look back. A serial scanner could for example work in a wholefood shop for six months, then quit and take classes in creative writing. After writing a screenplay, or only half of it, she loses interest and volunteers at an orphanage in India for a few months. When she comes back, she starts a business as a self-employed graphic designer. And so on.
Of course most of us are a mix of cyclical and serial scanner to some extent. There are many kinds of scanners out there. What we all have in common is that we hate to pick just one interest and concentrate on it for a long period of time.
What’s a “long” period of time is relative. The other criterium Sher uses to classify scanners is their attention span. Among both cyclical and serial scanners, some are able to focus on the same field for a long time, like the serial specialists, who can stick with one career for years till they master it, and then go look for a new challenge. Others switch interests very rapidly. The high-speed indecisives for example always find something more interesting to do after, say, two minutes.
How a scanner ticks
Being a scanner is socially unacceptable nowadays. We are all being drilled to be specialists. As you can imagine, a behavior like the above examples makes it difficult to get a job, to earn a living, or to study. We’re often said to be lazy, unstable or weird. In any case we’re highly suspect.
That’s because most people don’t understand how a scanner ticks. When scanners quit, they ARE done. They have gotten what they were looking for, the point is just that what satisfies them is not necessarily what other people would call being done. Scanners all have a good reason to do what they do and to quit when they quit. This reason varies from individual to individual, so each one of us has to find out what keeps him/her going (in both senses).
- Some scanners are extremely curious and just want to understand how something works. Once they’ve figured out how it works, they get bored and quit.
- Others get bored and quit when completing the project is only a matter of time and regular effort, but not a matter of developing artful strategies and overcoming challenging difficulties anymore. That’s the case for me, for example. When the road to success looks like a highway, damn is that boring. Bye bye!
- Some want to discover new things in order to compare, classify and store them in their head like in a big database. I tried out half a dozen martial arts because I enjoyed comparing their tenets and techniques, with no intention of learning any of them in depth.
- For some scanners, working somewhere is a way of experiencing other people’s lives. They want to know how it feels to be a baker/teacher/accountant/actor, so that’s what they do for a little while, but only till they know how it is. That’s the reason why I accumulate foreign languages. You don’t think in English like you think in German. Learning a new language for me is a way to experience being someone else.
These are some reasons I can identify with, but there are many many more of them. Each scanner has his/her own motivation to do what they do.
Undiagnosed scanners are poor devils. I know because I was one of them for many years. When you’re a scanner and you don’t know that you’re a scanner, it’s really difficult. You try to pick one thing and stick with it, but you fail. And try again. And fail again. You beat yourself up for being that inconsistent. You think you’re lazy. You might even mistrust your own sanity. It can’t be that difficult to pick one interest and stick with it, you think, everybody else is doing it too! So why can’t you help but switch your major, get interested in things you should not get interested in, and go off-track all the time? Why do you lack concentration like this? How can it happen that you get deadly fed up with your deepest passion at times? You feel weak and completely out of control. When you try to learn discipline and to prevent yourself from going off on a tangent, you get unbearably bored, you suffer, and your productivity drops because you procrastinate like hell.
I switched majors five or six times when I was a student, and left university after many years without any diploma. I studied literature, physics, maths, computer science, law and business, and attended additional classes in psychology, theater, cinema, history, russian, chinese… It was great! I loved it, and learned a lot of very interesting things. And most of the time I wasn’t allowed to take the exams because I had failed to submit my work regularly.
I couldn’t stand engaging in the same activity all day long, or even every day. This alone would not have been that much of a problem, after all I was talented enough to study only half of the time and still succeed. But I also had the coercive need to ignore my studies for several weeks in a row from time to time, in order to implement other completely unrelated ideas, or to explore some fascinating questions related to my studies that popped into my mind but unfortunately weren’t part of the program. This need definitely wasn’t compatible with studying.
Before discovering that I’m a scanner, these repeated failures broke my heart. Especially in the case of maths and computer science that I really loved very much. I used to beat myself up a lot for what I thought was a flaw. Now that I know myself better, I can see how being a scanner is a strength and a blessing, not a flaw.
In case what I’m saying resonates with you in some way, don’t beat yourself up. Maybe you’re just a scanner! Welcome to the Club. :-)
How to get things done as a scanner?
First of all, it IS possible to be productive if you’re a scanner. I bet most problems with not completing projects, procrastinating, and so on, stem from a lack of knowledge and/or acceptance of your scanner nature. You lose motivation when you try to force yourself into a specialist’s role, when you try by all means to do only one thing at the time and to finish this thing once you begin with it. It’s normal that you procrastinate and lose interest then, because this is just not who you are. Working like a specialist is for a scanner a highly ineffective way to work. But if you respect the way you function and organize yourself accordingly, then my bet is that you can very well be productive!
Conventional time management systems aren’t really appropriate for scanners. We usually don’t implement a project from A to Z in a linear way. We need to do many things at the same time. Working on several projects simultaneously doesn’t prevent us from being productive. On the contrary, I’ve found it to be much more effective. I work more and also more efficiently when I allow myself to freely switch between my projects as often as I feel like switching and to neglect some of them for a while. I usually don’t work on the same project on two consecutive days, and I never work on a project for longer than two hours at a single blow.
Barbara Sher developed or gathered from fellow scanners who invented them many awesome organizational tools for scanners that she shares in her book. For each type of scanner there are even particular time management techniques, life plans and job suggestions. I love some of her ideas. Generally, her more right-brained approach inspired me when I planned my new system. If you recognize yourself as a scanner, working with her tools can change your life and boost your productivity like crazy. I highly recommend to read the book. (Edit: a kitchen timer might help, too!)
The scanner’s daybook
One tool that she recommends to all scanners is the scanner’s daybook. It’s some kind of journal to keep track of all your ideas, all your finished and unfinished projects, and of your development as a scanner. My scanner’s daybook changed my life!
First, writing in it brought me an incredible relief. At last all those ideas crowding my head got out of there! The anxiety disappeared because I wasn’t afraid of forgetting something anymore. The ideas were safe, they were written black on white on the page, I knew they couldn’t escape anymore. I got more peaceful. It also was a big relief not to feel the need to implement all of those ideas anymore. I learned to appreciate them for what they are: ideas. I could look at them and think “oh wow, I’m creative, I have so many great ideas!” without getting nervous or thinking that an idea is worthless if no implementation follows. In that sense, writing in my scanner’s daybook was a boost for my self-esteem, too.
Second, a scanner’s daybook brings many insights. I learned a lot about myself! I thought I was a serial scanner (a sampler), but after journaling for a few weeks, I realized that I’m more of a cyclical scanner (a sybil). Of course I enjoy discovering new things, and I do things that I’ll never do anymore. But when I look at all those ideas that I found worthy of writing down, it’s quite obvious that many of them are, for example, about doing something creative, be it singing, dancing, writing, designing my own clothes or making sculptures. And many of them are related to personal development: creating PD related websites and eBooks, learning new languages, joining Toastmasters or starting a local PD club. Those I emotionally most resonate with are all about animals in some way: adopting a dog, teaching children how to communicate with animals, having a farm where old or sick animals could live in peace instead of getting killed, and so on. So even though all these projects are very different, it all boils down to only three major areas of interest. Oh wow, this was a big revelation!
Third, the scanner’s daybook will help you create your reality and implement your ideas. Since I write in it, I experience many synchronicities related to my projects, even those I don’t really think about. Before using the daybook, I had to remember everything and concretely take action on every single project. It was quite tiring. Now everything gets implemented simultaneously and I don’t need to remember anything because the opportunities just show up. It doesn’t feel like I’m the one implementing my ideas and making it happen. It rather feels like the Universe orchestrates what I write about in my scanner’s daybook. I take action not because I decidedly want to but because the opportunity arises and I’m by chance there to catch it. Things just seem to happen and I witness how they happen. It’s awesome. The scanner’s daybook has a huge creative power!
Goals setting for scanners
If you have many goals, don’t tackle them sequentially. Pursue them all at the same time. They will empower each other. Open your scanner’s daybook, let your imagination soar and have fun writing everything down. Draw sketches if needed. Then close your book and take the right next inspired action. It doesn’t matter to which goal this action belongs. It will all unfold magically :-)
It doesn’t matter how many goals you have. You can do it all. Refuse to choose! ;-)
I realize this post is something like a book review of Refuse to Choose!. I’m going to create a new category called Book Reviews and post it in there too. Oh, this gives me the idea of reviewing other great books as well! I already know which ones I’d review. There is this one, and that one… where’s my scanner’s daybook??