Today’s practice: The next time you dive into a time-consuming tech challenge, stop to ask: what would a normal person do?

Saturday morning I woke up at 4 a.m. in preparation for my flight to London — and accompanying time zone readjustment — later that day. I looked forward to having eons of time to relax before the kids woke up, or at least to getting a bit of work wrapped up before hitting the road. Instead, I spent three hours converting, transferring and syncing video files so I could catch up on my favourite shows while in flight.

About two and half hours into this process — after reading up on iPad video formats, updating to the latest version of HandBrake, finding and tormenting a couple of video files, queuing up my video conversions, troubleshooting our home wifi network,  testing transfer options, clearing hard drive space on my Macbook, and syncing my iPad so it would be backed up before I started transferring video — I stopped to ask myself:

What would a normal person do?

You know, a normal person: somebody who doesn’t want to learn about video codecs, install new software, tweak IP settings or do any of the other little techie fidgets that geeks like me accept as part of the price of online living. I am told that the very device I wanted to watch video on — the iPad — is designed for these normals. Apparently many of them use it to watch video. And I’m guessing that none of them use Handbrake or bit torrent. So what’s their secret?

Imaging the normal person alternative is something that has occurred to me during many of my recent tech (mis)adventures.

Like when I found myself two days into learning the Google Maps API…because I wanted to make a photo album of our latest family vacation. Surely, normal people make photo albums without learning any APIs whatsoever.

Or when I nearly clicked “buy” on a $200 WordPress Plugin that would let me integrate Amazon affiliate links….so I could monetize my compulsive shoe shopping. Surely, normal people indulge their shopping habits without expecting a direct ROI.

Or when I spent 10 hours trying to create a bootable dupe of my Windows netbook’s hard drive….before turning it into a “hackintosh”. Surely, normal people who want a Mac, buy a Mac.

Thinking about a normal person would do when confronted by a particular obstacle has proven to be a useful check on my habit of diving deep into a tech challenge without asking how much of my time it’s really worth. Unfortunately, by the time I think to ask the question, I’m usually several hours into the process, and so many steps past what a normal person would take on that I can no longer fully imagine pursuing the normal person path.

From what I see, the normal person path is usually one of the following:

  1. Pay money for it. Instead of doing my 8-step video download, conversion and syncing process, a normal person would just buy the damn show on iTunes.
  2. Take it or leave it. A normal person would use the digital photo book software as designed, even if it didn’t offer the ability to make a map of where all the photos were taken. If she didn’t like the way that photo book looked, she just wouldn’t use the software. Modifying it to make it work the way she wanted wouldn’t be a viable alternative.
  3. Don’t even think about it. A normal person wouldn’t try to do half the stuff I end up wasting time on. It just wouldn’t occur to a normal person that you might want to turn your PC into a Mac.

Of course, the normal person path has its limitations. Much of the knowledge I have to offer my clients and colleagues is acquired in the course of attempting some time-wasting, non-normal endeavour: just a week after I “wasted” the weekend learning all about Google Maps, a client asked me to mock up a web app that was a perfect use case for a photo+maps combo, and I knew just how to do it.

More profoundly, my fundamental ease with technology comes from a willingness to knock my head against a wall until I finally accomplish what I’m after. Sure, I may spend a lot more time than the task really warrants, and I may not always prevail.

But most of the time my efforts are guided by a simple philosophy: Big woman, small computer. I’m bigger, so I will make the computer bend to my will.

For some reason, normal people don’t make the assumption that being physically larger than a laptop or desktop means that you will prevail in a battle of wills. While they may miss out on the opportunity to test and strengthen their tech skills, they make up for it with sheer efficiency. They can crank out a lot of wax tablets (or more realistically, Word documents) in the time it takes me to set up an RSS aggregator that automagically creates a single web page with a highly customized content structure.

The normal person lifestyle isn’t for everyone. If you get a rush from making a computer or website do something that you weren’t sure it could do, you’ll continue to spend lots of time on tasks that no normal person would undertake.

But if you’ve ever found yourself wondering where the day is gone, only to realize you’ve spent it delving deep into some tech-low challenge you’d have been better-off pursuing in a low-tech way, it’s worth adding the normal person mentality to your repertoire. The more often you practice, the more quickly you’ll stop to ask: What would a normal person do?