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When Tech Drives You Crazy, Don’t Make the Problem Worse

Tame your knee-jerk reaction.

Impatience leads to frustration. Frustration leads to desperation. Desperation often leads to more problems than you started with.
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The Nuclear Option

I was helping someone deal with a problem on their computer. While diagnosing the problem at hand, I noted several other issues that could affect the machine.

As is my way, I poked around, looking at this and that. When I’m focused on a problem, it’s not unusual for me to mutter a bit to myself, saying things like “Well, that’s odd”, or “I wonder if that’s the issue?” It’s part of my exploratory process… just me gathering data, wondering out loud about what I’m seeing.

The person I was helping reacted to my words in an extremely common way.

Unfortunately, it’s often a dangerous reaction.

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TL;DR:

Don't make the problem worse

It’s common to assume the worst when dealing with technical problems and then assume a worst-case solution is required. While possible, it’s rare. More commonly, problems aren’t as horrible as they seem, and solutions are simpler than expected. The key is to slow down, not jump to conclusions, and be methodical about diagnosing the issue, often getting knowledgeable help along the way.

The knee-jerk reaction

That common reaction?

“Turn it off!”

“Get rid of it!”

“Delete it!”

While doing so may occasionally be the correct action to take, most often it isn’t. In fact, depending on what’s involved, randomly turning things off or removing things from your computer can make matters worse.

It’s nice to know those things might be optional to the person I’m helping, but we didn’t have nearly enough information to make a decision. Simply wondering if something might be involved doesn’t mean it is involved. Even if it turns out to be involved, that doesn’t mean some kind of nuclear option is the best approach.

Your computer is much too complicated for things to be that simple.

We want simple, fast solutions

The search for simplicity is part of the problem. We want the solution to our problem to be simple and easy to implement. “Delete” is probably one of the easiest solutions we can imagine, at least in concept.

Sometimes we don’t want to spend a lot of time researching whether whatever conclusion we jump to is the right solution. “Delete” is also one of the quickest solutions we can imagine, at least in concept. (Sometimes quick can cost you time later.)

And let’s be honest: in times of frustration, deleting things feels good.

We want things to work. When they don’t, we don’t want to spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what to do about it.

We have better uses for our time.

Unfortunately, jumping to conclusions ends up wasting more time than it saves. Throwing things at a wall to “see what sticks” generally leaves you with a messy wall and a big pile of failure on the floor.

Slow down

As frustrating as it might be, the best approach is to slow down and take your time.

Take your time to understand the problem to the best of your abilities and research proper solutions. Get help if you need it.

Yes, I’ll say it again. It’s frustrating, particularly if you’re under pressure for some other reason. Things should just work. But making ill-informed decisions or trying a series of half-baked solutions is likely to make things worse. Often much worse.

Slow down. Take a breath.

Do the work.

Solutions

I’m often surprised at how often seemingly horrific and insurmountable problems have a simple solution. Sometimes, rather than deleting something entirely, I find that a simple checkbox buried in an options page resolves the issue. It’s fantastic when the research you do pays off that way. But it takes research to get there.

Yes, the correct solution can also be painful. More times than I care to admit, the pragmatic solution really is the “nuclear option”: a complete reinstall of the operating system itself. I call it a “pragmatic” solution because while it sounds painful — and I’m not saying it isn’t — in many situations, it’s often significantly less painful than trying this and that repeatedly without success, only making matters worse along the way.

The difference between simple and nuclear? Doing the research to understand the options at hand. More often than not, the solution is somewhere in between.

In the case of the person I was helping, it might even be both. The problem bringing them to me was indeed solved by a simple checkbox. This resolved the pressing issue at hand quickly.

My advice for the other things that came up? “You know, if this were my machine, I’d back up, reformat, and reinstall.” Yes, the nuclear option was on the table.

But randomly making changes and deleting things without more information was never on my radar — and it shouldn’t be on yours.

Do this

At the risk of repeating myself, slow down. Don’t panic. Take the time to investigate the problems you’re facing.

Above all, don’t jump to conclusions that could make the problem worse.

You’ll find weekly advice on how to do that when you subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

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21 comments on “When Tech Drives You Crazy, Don’t Make the Problem Worse”

  1. Might be a time to keep your thoughts to yourself. By verbally saying those things people will take it negatively and will doubt your skills…

    Reply
  2. It’s comments like this that make me want to add a “Like” button to the site. (Sadly doing so has performance impacts not unlike the various items you’ve listed. :-( )

    Reply
  3. With most people’s phones being hundreds of times more powerful than the computers that helped us land people on the moon and an almost infinitely more complex OS. And with modern computers being many levels more complex than our phones, it’s amazing we have as few problems as we do.

    Reply
  4. “My advice for the other things that came up? “You know, if this were my machine, I’d back up, reformat, and reinstall.” Yes, the nuclear option was on the table.”
    how does one “reinstall” since installation disks have been phased out?

    Reply
  5. I once went through my usual schtick while running maintenance on a user’s PC. I emptied the trash bin, ran Norton System Works, cleared out temp files, etc.
    After feeling good about the system working much better, the user later called me back to say that her files were missing.
    There were very few files in the Documents folder, so I asked her where the files had been stored. She said, “Right here, in the Recycle Bin!”
    I explained that that is where only deleted files are stored, and she said, “But it’s the Recycle Bin! That’s where I keep all my important files that I want to use again, over and over, like recycling!”
    Arrgh.

    Reply
  6. You have the most logical solutions for fixing computers
    You have been in the business for a long while.
    I trust your theories Leo, that is why I subscribe.

    Reply
  7. Leo, your analysis of how the average non-tech person responds to complex problems is spot on. I see this “just delete it” attitude in so many other areas of life where self-appointed Decision Makers are unable to cope with complexity. A similar response I get is “We need a whole new …..” [whatever it is that is not set up right], when in reality a bit of expert tweaking is all that is needed. Thanks

    Reply
  8. Very true. But sometimes in the time that it takes to find that one little check box, you could have reinstalled the OS twice over. I tend to not reinstall soon enough, but recently I did wipe my laptop and reinstall Windows. It took care of a lot of frustration that kept me from working properly for several days. I should have done it sooner.

    Reply
  9. This morning a message popped up on my Android tablet. The message said that my tablet was infected and not to leave that page. I did leave that page and went to the software on my tablet to check for a virus and to perform a cleaning. It turned out that my tablet was not infected. A knee jerk reaction would be to react to the message and do the wrong thing and possibly infect my tablet. When this happens on my computer I shut down the computer and turn on again and perform a check. I have never had a problem taking these steps.

    Reply
  10. since getting my win10 computer, i’ve tried 2 recoveries, and both times i needed hp support to reinstall files, that didn’t appear…it seems as time goes by, it’s harder to fix things…the support couldn’t tell me what causes my mouse to jump and studder!!! i’d rather live with my problems, then make them worse!!!

    Reply
  11. I would add that before doing anything to backup the system before starting to troubleshoot. That way, one can always get back to the starting point if things go awry.
    Also, any files that were changed since the last backup would still be recoverable if restoring a previous backup.

    Reply
  12. A not-too-painful way of finding the solution to a problem is to do an internet search, e.g., “How can I fix ….” Often the third or fourth description of the fix is clear enough to understand, and works.

    Reply
  13. A few thoughts. First, Leo’s advice to slow down, research, and do the work is good advice, but it is, in effect, asking someone to change their personality. What Leo describes as an approach for a solution is the typical personality of a techie, otherwise affectionately known as a nerd. You either have it or you don’t. People take their computers to a shop to buy that methodical approach to problem solving. All techs don’t know everything immediately, but they do know that if take their time, try different things, and have patience they can eventually figure it out.

    The second thought is that it’s not all about the OS and backups. Many problems come up that an OS restoration will not solve. The following are a few of the problems I’ve come across recently: An old workhorse HP printer with a Centronics (parallel) port suddenly stopped working. My email client stopped working because my email provider said it no longer supports a security protocol. A Dell computer’s LED “On” indicator stopped lighting up. Another computer’s fan went into high gear indicating possible overheating. Stuff happens. Sorry, I’m not going to explain the details for these issues, but they were all solved – slowly and methodically.

    Finally, the methodical, techie approach described in this article actually includes a few specific processes beyond taking it slow. The most important one is to write down what you did and what the outcome was. This is a part of the learning process and this is what (true) professionals do. And when you do finally find the solution, write that down for yourself, because you’re going to need it again.

    Reply
    • “it is, in effect, asking someone to change their personality”

      I disagree. These are techniques, not personality traits, I’m talking about. Anyone can learn them. Yes, like any skill it will be harder for some than for others, and will be done to lesser or greater degrees, but nonetheless, it’s all learnable. What’s critical here is to realize how hard you’re shooting yourself in the foot when you overreact. (And yes, I realize “shooting yourself” “hard” is a mixed metaphor at best, but you get my point.)

      “Blaming” it on your personality is one of the first steps to failure that frustrates me no end. Right up there with “I’m too old”, or “I’m too dumb”.

      Reply
    • Even if you consider taming knee-jerk reactions a change of personality, it’s a personality trait that should be changed. This change will help in more situations than just IT problems and can help in interpersonal communication.

      Reply
  14. I’m a very fortunate person. I have been a problem solver all my life. When anything goes wrong, my first reaction is to ask myself “How can I fix this?” or “How can I prevent it from happening again?”, not “Whose fault is it?”. As a problem solver, I prefer to seek a solution to any issue rather than to place the blame for it. Blame can come after issue resolution if appropriate. I don’t know if my natural problem-solving bent can be learned, but it has saved me more times than I can count.

    For the past several weeks, I have been using my laptop because my desktop PC suddenly shut down and displays no indication of getting any power. I keep a spare PSU on hand for such emergencies, but that did not solve this issue, so my next step is to confirm that the original PSU is functioning correctly. Fixing my desktop PC has become a side project because I discovered that my VOM no longer works, so I had to wait for a new one to arrive. Now I can step through logical steps to discover what is causing my desktop PC to fail as it has.

    After confirming correct PSU functionality, my next steps will be to confirm continuity in all the cables in my PC, as well as checking the power button’s correct functionality. If none of that leads me to a solution, I will consider starting over with a new mother board (and perhaps a new CPU too) because I don’t have a service manual (and I have not been able to find anything) that I can use to properly test the motherboard/CPU.

    The bottom line here is that I did not try the (as Leo put it) ‘throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks’ approach, and I am dealing with the issue in a step-by-step manner. Only time will tell, but I will eventually find a solution, and perhaps I’ll learn something along the way. I am also considering getting the newest version of “Upgrading and Repairing PCs”, the book I used to learn about how my PC works (under the hood) back in the MS/PC DOS days (before the advent of Windows). My approach can take longer, often significantly longer that the nuclear approach (where, in this case, I just start over from scratch, and build a new machine – again), but it will save me money. Since I’m retired, and I have a very nice laptop PC, there is no real urgency in getting my desktop PC working again as soon as possible, but I will get it back.

    My2Cents,

    Ernie

    Reply

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