Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Frustration of "Too Much Choice"

Hello, Internet world. My name is Michael. I'm a serial collector of informational tidbits.

"Hi, Michael!"

Seriously, I recently went through and realized something both frustrating and enlightening. I am a huge fan of Bookmarking and Favoriting (Liking on Twitter now, but I still think of it as Favoriting). In my world, "Favoriting" serves a specific purpose. It's not so much to say "hey, I want to show you I like what you've posted" (though I do that from time to time) but to say "this is something I don't have the time to look at right now, but I really want to look at it later". I subscribe to lots of services that send me emails with cool tips and tricks to test, code, and administer stuff. I have a digital library that has hundreds of titles on all sorts of topics. I have categorized listings of websites, forums and other services that are there to help me learn and do things better and easier.

The thing is, when I get up in the morning and I scan my Inbox, most of the time I just delete the notifications, unless there's something that really piques my interest.

Those links? Rarely visited.
That list of Favorites (Likes) on Twitter? Rarely reviewed.
That massive list of books? It's so big that most titles hide in plain sight.

I remember Cem Kaner saying at one point that having the information doesn't necessarily mean that it will be useful to you at that moment, but being able to reference it and know about it or where to find it is of value. Thus, for many of us, resources are just that, they are raw lumps that are there when and if we need them, but we have to understand what we have access to and when that access is relevant.

For me, I struggle with too much choice. If there are too many options, I simply get overwhelmed and never make a decision. It's all clutter. It's a challenge to organize it. I have a couple hundred CDs and whenever I go on a road trip, I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to pick something to listen to. Often, I give up and listen to the podcast I downloaded on my phone. Oh, that's another thing, which podcast to listen to and when? So many choices, so many options, but do I really have time for a deep dive? Have I truly let that one podcast build up to ten unlistened episodes? Yikes! When am I going to find the time to listen to that? Since my phone has a limited amount of storage, I tend to be a little more deliberate with what goes on it and I cycle what I download, so I have fewer choices. The net result is that I actually listen to what I put on the phone.

As I've stated in this blog before, I don't write about these things because I'm particularly good at them. I write about them because I'm particularly terrible at many things but want to do better. Thus, I'm trying my best to constrain those things that overwhelm me. Yes, I belong to a service that lets me download a free ebook every day. Many (perhaps most) of those books are "someday maybe" propositions that tend to crowd out the books that are actually immediately relevant. Therefore, I'm trying something different. Each week, I'm going through a particular category of expertise and/or criteria I need to understand or become more proficient with. I'm looking at this from a Marie Kondo approach. I'm looking at the resources I've collected, taking some time to categorize them into "immediately relevant", "relevant later", and "someday maybe". My goal is to locate the items that are immediately relevant and then focus on those for a short period of time.

In other words, I'm putting a physical constraint on the information I have an use, not to block out all of the resources I have, but to meaningfully work on the ones that can be most effective here and now. It's great that I have books that will help me master a particular technology, but if I'm just learning about it or trying to get beyond the Advanced Beginner stage, do I really need to deal with topics that relate to mastery at this stage? No. Yet just by their being there in my line of sight, I lose focus and my attention wanders. I also do something similar regarding other endeavors in my office. I have a lot of interests and it's tempting to have a variety of things out and ready to use. The net result, though, is that I dabble in lots of things and don't put any appreciable time into the areas that are most important. Frequently I end up dealing with what's urgent or pressing, and that's great for the moment, but it can leave me lacking in areas that are indeed important but aren't urgent.

I'm not sure if this is going to be helpful to anyone else, but it's currently helping me. Take some time to block out items you want to work on, that you need to work on and then think of the things that will directly help you meet those goals in the very near-term future. If they don't, don't delete them but perhaps put them in a place where you know they will come in handy later, and try to set a hard time for when "later" might be. If you can't do that, put them in the "someday maybe" container. The ability to pick and choose is wonderful, but sometimes, it helps a lot to limit what can be picked so that you actually make a choice and move forward with it :).


Anonymous said...

As a librarian in a previous life, two of the subjects I was taught in library school were "Organisation of Knowledge" and "Access to Information". The first was about categorisation and schemes for doing that; the second was about tools to drill down to that categorised knowledge. Of course, this was long before some loon went and invented the personal computer and the Internet, so we were talking for the most part about paper tools - catalogues, indexes, abstracts and bibliographies - and IT came into the equation when we looked at remote accessing big corporate databases. Keyword searching was the Next Big Thing.

I find this background helpful now when organising my own digital resources. Even then, occasionally I manage to miss something in my own searches and inevitably find exactly the resource I need about three days AFTER I needed it. This happens no matter how well I think I've keyworded/tagged the item. So it goes.

Calkelpdiver said...

Just make sure you back it up and have a couple of backup copies in case of disaster. I recently lost my "research" file (a TXT file with links and other notes) for the book I'm working on. The file got corrupted (could not recover it at all); end of day shutdown of computer and thought the file closed safely (er... wrong). Lost about 4 months of notes, fortunately most of them had been used as references and included in the book already. I made a point of making sure the references section was updated as I went. But I lost a couple of sections that were for a new chapter. Back to the drawing board.

I now make sure Notepad++ does a local backup (I double save the file to keep it all recent) of the research file, and the Word docs with the book are backed up as well. Backup early and often.

Jim Hazen

Michael Larsen said...

Thanks for the comment, robertday154. Yes, I am intimately familiar with the whole "finding what I need three days later" situation, or the flip side of that, discovering I need something that I knowingly got rid off a week or month previously because "yeah, I really don't need this". this new approach of immediate, near short/longish term and "who knows when I'll need that" is a little easier with digital media because, for the most part, it's just folders and files. Nailing down a good organization for that takes time, and I feel that I suffer because the sheer volume of it to organize terrifies me at times. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained :).

Michael Larsen said...

Jim Hazen, I know the feeling. I have played fast and loose and been lucky and I've also found myself being perhaps overly back-up conscious. Currently, I keep my active working folder sync'd to Dropbox and I also make regular backups via Time Machine or an external drive. I too know the pain of losing a big chunk of work that has had weeks or months put into it, and it's no fun.

Anonymous said...

I think this is why people end up going with something that they find familiar instead of looking into what's the latest and greatest. A perfect example of this is software adoption by small business owners. They might go with a mainstay like QuickBooks instead of a newer option with more responsive web features.