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The Single-Most Important Thing You Need to Do to Be Successful Using Your Computer

I’ve trained thousands of adults on all sorts of computer applications and programs, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that most people make one huge, gigantic mistake when they are sitting in front of a computer screen. Luckily, it is easily remedied if you are willing to make the commitment to changing your behavior.

That’s right. This mistake has nothing to do with the computer and everything to do with you. In the computer business we call this a PICNIC error: Problem In Chair, Not In Computer.

So how do you resolve this error? As it turns out, if you can remember another acronym and follow some incredibly simple rules you can cut way down on the frustration you feel when using a computer. All you need to do is take a deep breath and S.U.R.F.

SURF: Slow down. Understand before you go on. Read and Follow the instructions.

Now I hear you. Really? That’s your big advice? Slow down and read the instructions?

But the truth is, most adults are incredibly impatient and go way too fast when they are learning how to do something on a computer. If I had a nickel for every time I watched someone click on the Cancel button, close a window, press Escape, or just hit the Enter key before they had any idea what was being asked of them I would have, um, a whole bunch of nickels.

What I see and hear over and over again as I train people in person is “What’s that? I don’t want that! Make it go away!!”. Or, when helping people via e-mail Error messageor in a forum I’ll get “I saw an error thingie pop up but I didn’t read it or know what it meant, so I just clicked away. Now what?” That usually ends up in an “Ack! Darn it!” from someone.

So let’s take a quick look at how you can apply the principles of SURF as you learn to use a computer. It doesn’t really matter what kind of computer you’re on or what you’re trying to learn, but since we’re talking about designing your own web site we’ll use examples from your web browser and the WordPress application as we go along.

Slow Down!

That whole slow down thing could also be written as “Don’t Panic!”, or “Relax, You Didn’t Do Anything Wrong!”. But that would sort of mess up the my acronym, so I’m sticking with Slow Down.

What I mean by that is that you have to expect to see pop-up windows and warnings that provide information to you or ask you for more instructions. You have to expect to see entire sentences of instructions on how to do things. It’s the nature of how computer applications are written that a human being has to tell the machine what it is supposed to do. Lots of people assume that the computer will just know what you want it to do, and while computers and programming is getting smarter all the time, ultimately it’s still a machine that requires direction.

So when you are trundling along, learning how to do something or trying something for the first time, you have to slow things down, expect that the computer will need to know what to do, and be prepared to read the instructions. Just remember. Take a deep breath. Breathe. Slow down, and be prepared to work just a little bit at what you’re trying to accomplish.


So what is it you’re trying to do again? Are you printing, uploading, copying and pasting, trying to save a picture from the web? You didn’t sit down at the computer without a goal, and your time is certainly valuable, so keep yourself focused on what you want to get done.

Seriously. Learning how to do something with your computer sure is easier if you relax and focus. Don’t worry about the machine. Keep your eye on what you want to do, slow down, and get to it.

Read the Instructions!

Now this is where we marry up those first two and start to really change your behavior. Yes, I know, you saw the message that appeared or looked at the box on the screen, but did you really read it? Do you understand what the program is asking, or are you skimming over the first seven words and then losing your focus?

Believe it or not, research into how people get information from a computer shows that many, many people never read past the first seven words of an e-mail, Dialog exampleset of instructions, or a pop-up window that appears. Now seven words doesn’t really give the programmers of the software much time to pass information along does it? But the fact is if you see instructions like the example shown here—just sort of losing interest after reading the first fe words—you aren’t going to have much luck in getting things done.

So keeping in mind what it is you want to do, read the instructions on how to do it! All of them! Read them out loud if that helps, but as you are learning you really must take a little time to slow down and read.

I get asked by a lot of people how it is that I’ve learned so many computer programs and have never had any formal training. My answer is always the same. I read the instructions and then I…

Follow the instructions

Yes, that is indeed the secret. To successfully learn how to get things done on your computer you have to slow down, understand your task and stay with it, then read and follow the instructions.

If you take those four simple steps you’ll be amazed at how quickly you are able to pick up new procedures and processes and programs on your computer.

The rest? Well, that’s just a matter of learning some vocabulary, knowing where on the screen to look for various buttons and links and menu items that let you tell a computer program or online service what to do. And of course, that’s exactly the approach that is used in the “Building Small Business Website” eBook.

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Here’s a fun little video that brings home the point