How to Decide – Will a Tablet Help or Hurt My Productivity?

8137908684_df848e3622_cRecently I submitted an article I hope will be published by the Harvard Business Review blog having to do with performing an analysis of your productivity system before buying and trying to implement a new gadget.

I know… it sounds so blindingly obvious when I put it this way… analysis before purhase… except that most professionals have no idea how to do such an analysis even if they wanted to. For the vast majority, the thought doesn’t even cross their mind.

Manufacturers aren’t interested in doing more than putting out fancy advertisements with beautiful graphics, and getting people to line up outside their doors for the latest version with the coolest features. They only offer technical assistance on how to manipulate the device and access its doo-dahs.

They certainly don’t give a fig whether or not the damned thing actually helps you in the end or not. Not as long as you join the line for the latest upgrade at the appropriate time.

One of the blessings of my moving to live here in Jamaica might have been the need to adopt a “simpler” lifestyle. (Some would see that as a euphemism for what we call “broke-pocket.”) When I lived in the US, the latest gadget was literally five minutes away sitting on a shelf at Best Buy, waiting for me to arrive. Now, I don’t have that kind of access.

Here in the “developing world” one pays a 50% premium (due to import duties, extra shipping, higher security needs and high sales taxes) or waits for someone to bring a device down from the US at a reasonable price; which involves handling a number of tricky logistics.

Each option involves a waiting time… a cooling-off period. During this time, the effect of the envy, advertising or whatever else is driving the purchase wears off. In its place rises some well-placed doubts about the value of the purchase and its actual contribution to my productivity system.

For example, I went through a number of gyrations before buying my first smartphone. I took months to make a decision that takes others seconds, and I enjoyed asking the question – “Of what benefit is this… really?” I’m glad I did that, because when I do something stupid like answering the phone while driving on our infamous Junction Road, I am hyper-aware of the danger that I am putting myself and others in. (The truth is, I have scared/informed myself into picking up calls while driving in only the rarest of circumstances. I tell myself “I don’t care if Jesus Himself is calling…”)

Now, I’m feeling the itch to buy a shiny new tablet.

Oh sure, there is some gadget envy. My Mom just bought an iPad. The only reason I haven’t commandeered it (for experimental purposes of course) is that she’s away for a few months in Africa. Too hard to borrow it for a few hours.

Beyond these feelings is another one related to my productivity that I felt acutely, and its arisen because of a gap.

I use my calendar as my command center for all time demands, and I have two options at the moment to get into it: use my laptop – Outlook or Gcal – or use my smartphone. When I sat down at the desk this morning I felt the need to shuffle around my calendar for the day. Fifteen minutes later, I was finally able to start doing so.

Why? My laptop had to be rebooted. Both of my screens were useless while it updated whatever stuff it seems to like updating every single time it slows to a crawl. Thank you Microsoft. My smartphone screen is too small to see or do anything. (It’s a Blackberry 9700.) I doubt that a Samsung Galaxy screen would be big enough.

As I sat waiting, I started to feel the need for another screen, one that is instantly on that provides the kind of real estate that I need to get in and out of my calendar in a few minutes. In other words, I started to imagine, I need a tablet.

Well, that’s where my mind jumped and I have a few good reasons for doing so. Here’s a video of someone manipulating their iPad’s calendar in exactly the way I imagine.

Research shows that more screen space equates to greater productivity, a fact which I know from having two screens running at all times, not including my smartphone’s mini-screen.

There might be other solutions than a tablet, and I’m wiling to explore them, but once again I am back to where I was with my smartphone decision. I don’t have a single guideline to work with, other than “buy it and try it.” (Or, in my case, “wait until Mom returns from Africa and then borrow it and try it.”) Best Buy’s generous return policies meant that I could return it if I didn’t like it. It might come as news to some that here in the developing or Third world, that’s not an option.

But even if I bought/borrowed it, what the heck would I be using to evaluate its value to my productivity system? I suspect that I’d end up wanting to keep it for other reasons, like it’s effect on my friends, my ego, or the movies that I can watch while sitting on the beach… This productivity stuff would just be forgotten in a flood of cool graphics.

The fact is, I have nothing – not even a set of the most rudimentary tests to perform.

The gist of my proposed article to HBR is that we know how to make smart decisions around big corporate purchases like whether or not to use Oracle or Itanium servers. There is an established discipline for making such decisions.

However, when you hear that a company’s board has banned smartphones from its meetings you have to wonder. What sequence of stressful events led to that decision, and did it involve hilarious Pavlovian behavior?
“Put down that smartphone, Smith, we are trying to make a multi-million dollar decision here.”
“Give me a second, please, my next-door neighbor’s daughter just poked me, and I need to poke her back.”

How many of these incidents did it take for someone to “move a formal motion to prohibit smartphone use during board deliberations.” It’s remarkable that a supposedly time-saving device was inserted into the lives of the most powerful people in the company, whose productivity then became corrupted and disabled to the point where they could no longer make independent decisions.

I want to come up with something that helps me make this particular decision, before I buy one for lesser reasons or receive one as a gift: breaking the spell of not having one, and thinking about its value with some rigor. Once the spell is broken, I know from my smartphone acquisition that the device will fade into my system, and become invisible to me, even as it helps / hinders my productivity.

I notice that my mind jumps to what brand tablet I should consider, but that’s just too far down the chain of decisions to start. I need to be closer in time to the moment when I need to have instant, easy access to my calendar, and imagine myself reaching for… <fill in the blank> …in order to…<fill in the blank.>

Before the Palm was invented, Jeff Hawkins walked around with a block of wood in his pocket, pretending that his vision had been realized, and getting an idea of what he’d use it for, and when. That makes me think… not about blocks of wood, but starting to visualize what the perfect solution might be. For example, should it be a single-purpose device like my bottom of the scale Kindle, which is for reading books or listening to audio-books, and nothing else?

So, I need to go do some research on how to make productivity equipment decisions. After all, someone in this world must buy stuff like monster tractors. How do they decide what to buy? I imagine that the cost of making a mistake is enormous, so they might have figured out some decent critera, and a useful process.

I’d bet, however, that the same guy who buys those tractors is the one ahead of you in the line at the Apple Store, thirsting to get the latest i-whatever. After this article, you might be the only one to find it ironic.

P.S. If you know anything about buying monster tractors, let me know.