While working my way through the consultation paper on Canada’s Digital Advantage, I found myself:
- investigating the best way to copy and paste text from a PDF to Evernote, leading to an open browser window with a series of tabs about various options for Mac/Evernote integration
- considering the best way to annotate the PDF on my own, leading me to email the maker of my favorite iPad PDF viewer to ask about annotation features
- looking for a way of collaboratively annotating the PDF, leading me to a series of browser tabs about setting up a hosted instance of ReframeIt
- stumbling across a funding opportunity, leading me to set up a series of deadline reminders in iCal
- discovering a news story that inspired another draft blog post
One of the joys of working in a webbed, windowed and tabbed world is that it enables this kind of serendipity. And one of the enormous liabilities of working in a webbed, windowed and tabbed world is that it enables this kind of task cascade.
Start on one task and you’re just a set of right-clicks away from two new ideas, four new tasks, eight new projects. Hyperlinking leads to hyperthinking: to taking the current task at hand as the site of inspiration for a series of new possibilities, each one represented in a new window or tab or e-mail.
If you’re an expansive thinker, it’s delightful to explore these forking paths, to pop up each new window and travel as far along that mental road as your interest or time allows. You follow the train of thought, enjoy the experience of feeling a rush of inspiration or your neurons firing, and as the rush tapers off you close the window and return to your primary task.
Well, just take a look:
Does that look like the computer of a woman who closes each window when a thought loses momentum?
The net effect of hyperthinking is, as you can see, hypertasking: each task undertaken inspires a new set of possibilities, a set of branching tasks that promise fresh excitement. That’s terrific if you have a personal staff of 100. But if you’re relying on yourself or perhaps a small team, then it’s easy for a week that began with 3 items on your to-do list to end with a to-do list of 50 possibilities.
One solution would be to turn off tabs and windows: to force yourself to live in a single window environment rather than follow the branching paths. And there are apps that can help you do exactly that, as a way of maintaining your focus.
What you miss is the joy and potential of finding those new forks in the road. That’s why I prefer to indulge the hyperthinking, but tame it with a bunch of practices to help me refocus. These include:
- Using delicious religiously to bookmark all my interesting finds, so that I know that all my online discoveries are easily rediscoverable.
- Quitting my browser if it has more than 10 open windows (which can represent many more tabs). If something was that important I’ve bookmarked. If not, I’m clearing my mental cache by letting go of some of my explorations in progress.
- Using Evernote to capture all my thoughts in one place, however half-baked.
- Once or twice a year, making an Excel of all the projects I’m working on (even if “working on” just means stewing over). Seeing the 100+ tasks and projects I’m trying to move forward (no exaggeration!) forces me to make choices and let things go.
- Maintaining a Google spreadsheet of my top 4-8 priorities for the year, and checking in monthly (or failing that, quarterly) to update the spreadsheet with my progress and next steps on each one.
Of course, these practices are not a cure. That consultation paper on Canada’s Digital Advantage? I actually wrote this entire blog post — the one you’re reading now — before I got to the end of it. But that’s one more up side to hyperthinking: it’s a great way to catch up on your blogging.