How I Beat My Browser Tab Addiction

It's the least ambitious way to feel less stressed.

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Jan 31 2017, 3:00pm

I know multitasking is a bad idea. Plenty of studies have shown that splitting your attention among too many things makes you slower at completing tasks, and I know from experience that it stresses me out. Still, every day when I open up my laptop, there are at least 12 tabs waiting for me. That's about three times the national average, according to a dataset that Mozilla Labs, creators of Firefox, pulled together in 2010, enough to put me somewhere around the top three percent of offenders. 

My browser is a disaster zone: half-read stories, half-written articles, unanswered emails. I keep tabs open for social media, tabs for financial spreadsheets, tabs meant to remind me of tasks that I don't currently have time for but hope to once I address the more immediate needs of the other tabs.

And the clutter seems to move straight from my screen to my head. It's similar to what happens in real life: One study found that women who described their homes as "cluttered" and "full of unfinished projects" were more likely to show signs of depression and see spikes in the stress hormone cortisol. Another suggests that multitasking—in that case, consuming several different types of media at once—could even negatively affect brain development. That said, most of us don't need a scientist to tell us we'd be better off with fewer distractions. After all, how can I focus on writing an article (like this one) when I can see all those open tabs taunting me with every other to-do in my life?

On a recent Sunday night, before I went to sleep, I shut my computer down completely. It was a symbolic act—I never turn my computer off. But the following day, I planned to start my first week of tab-free living. 

Monday: It's immediately clear that zero tabs is an impossible goal. So I settle into some reasonable rules: I can run tabs for email and Google docs, where I generally write. And if I'm working on a project that requires research, I can open multiple tabs related specifically to that. But it's still one task, and whenever I get up to take a break, I'll close down my browser to give myself a complete restart. 

Tuesday: I was feeling good about my single-task life, so I instituted a new rule: I would no longer bring my laptop to meetings. The immediate payoff was that I paid better attention to my colleagues, but then there was an upshot that surprised me—I returned to my desk feeling like I'd just come from a break. I was refreshed and better able to focus. Later, when I went to the gym, I decided to forgo scrolling through social media between exercises. I ended up with a better workout in less time. 

Wednesday: The honeymoon was over. I wanted my tabs back. I was struggling to stay organized and keep track of things that needed to be done, so I experimented with Chrome extensions like OneTab, which allow you to bank multiple tabs into one. Then I moved on to WorkFlowy, which lets you manage tasks by making lists and lists of lists. It was a good solution. By writing more things down, I could close more tabs and stay focused. 

Thursday: Another day full of meetings, so no laptop allowed. I struggled a bit during a big team gathering that involved metrics that didn't really apply to me. But without Twitter or Facebook, I decided to take notes to keep myself busy. Maybe I learned something new.

Friday: My new streamlined approach to work paid off in the best way possible: I finished everything and left work early. I used some of my free time—free time!—to read the articles I'd been saving in Pocket, an app that allows you to archive stories to read later.

Saturday & Sunday: I generally do a little freelance work on the weekend, so I was hopeful that my tab-less ways would transition from my office to my apartment. And it did—I never had more than five task-related tabs open at once, and I was noticeably more productive because of it. 

Now? I still keep my computer on, and I still use tabs. But this morning, with the experiment behind me, I sat down at my computer to see just just four tabs in my browser. Just four. That's just barely above the average. I'll call it progress.