Wearing Your Blinders

Last Friday I was doing some offline work at a coffee shop. I wanted to write up a quick list of online tools that I’ve either tried, or used, or heard good things about from other people. Very quickly I ran out of space on the page. I started cramming things in sideways. A couple of days later I added even more tools than are listed here.

When I stopped writing there were more than 60 tools on the list (and now there are even more). That’s a lot of tools. Many productivity hackers will enjoy the thrill of finding and evaluating a new tool. But what if you just want to get on with your job (or your life)? Or what if you’re just getting started? How would you tackle such a long list without getting overwhelmed, giving up, and going back to what was old and familiar?

In the horse world, to minimize distraction, horses are equipped with blinders (sometimes called “blinkers” or “winkers”) to shield the horse from seeing the whole scope of what’s happening around it. When dealing with the overwhelm of technology you can benefit from putting on your own set of blinders. And when learning a new topic you can definitely benefit from the same.

When you’re new: everything seems relevant and important. It’s hard to distinguish. As you become more comfortable with a system it becomes easier to identify what you need. The key steps are as follows:

  1. Identify your primary goal or task.
  2. Scan the list of possibilities with the intention of grouping items by topic or function. Identify common themes.
  3. Using the common themes to group related items.
  4. Using a rating scale of 1-3, identify a group of functions is (1) related a lot; (2) not sure; (3) definitely NOT related.
  5. Discard all the groups or topics ranked 2 or 3.
  6. Review your primary goal or task.
  7. Using a rating scale of 1-3, identify within a group which individual items are (1) related a lot; (2) not sure; (3) definitely NOT related.

Now you’ve got a starting place.

If it seems simplistic, it’s because it is.

Let’s pretend you needed to share course notes with your students and you were going to use “an online tool” (i.e. something listed in the notebook).

  1. Primary goal: share notes with students.
  2. Common themes listed in the notebook: travel, social networking, video distribution, meetings, billing/bookkeeping, mailing lists/group notification, content management.
  3. Items by group: Travel (tripit, kayak, expedia); Mass notification (MailChimp, Aweber, Constant Contact, StatusNet, Yammer); Content management (Flickr, Picasa, Drupal, WordPress, LiveBinder, Notebook, Google Docs, Evernote); etc…
  4. Group ratings: travel = 3 (not related); mass notification = 2 (maybe? seems interesting to tell students…); Content management = 1 (definitely related); etc.
  5. Reject all things that are only maybe related: travel and mass notifications are now gone.
  6. What am I doing? I want to share my notes with students.
  7. Share notes with students. Flickr and Picasa are for photo sharing = 2. Drupal is for building data systems = 2. WordPress is for blogging = 2. (etc)

You’ll end up with a lot of “maybes” in the final step. Discard the maybes! If you’re left with nothing after discarding the maybes, go back to the list and look for maybes that should have really been “irrelevant”. Start to get really picky and you’ll probably find that some “maybes” were actually “irrelevant” and others were actually “related a lot”.

When you really focus on your goal and continue to narrow down the list of options, eventually you’ll get to a single (or small subset of items) that you can really start to evaluate.

This activity differs hugely from starting with a grocery list of tasks or functions. Start with your one true goal and then simplify your list of options. Maybe you’ll skip over something that you should have evaluated. oh well. By having a focus, and then narrowing your options based on that focus you should also be able to quickly evaluate a very few options against your most wanted outcome.

TMTOWTDI (there’s more than one way to do it). Give your self a break. Put the blinders on. And get on with whatever it was you needed to do.