One Tab

November 27, 2016 - By

I love optimizing workflow. I often think about focus, interruptions, and the negative consequences and issues with multitasking. Recently I was challenged by the idea of going through an entire day using a single browser tab. Here’s what I discovered. 

The Problem

Funny enough, I’m old enough to remember life before tabs. My first tabbed browser was IE7, for years if I wanted to look at more than one website I’d have to open another instance of the application (like IE6) which would in turn open another window and take up more space in the bar at the bottom of the screen. Check out this screenshot I found:

A screenshot with 2 browsers open, circa Windows 98

I would actually subconsciously try to keep the number of open applications in that bottom bar to a minimum. It’s hard to explain, but a part of my brain was dedicated to feeling stressed out about this mess. Could the same be said about tabs in Google Chrome? TLDR: Yeah, I think so.

I know I’m not alone in feeling some kind of intangible stress at having so many tabs. Last week a friend shared this headline from The Onion “Accidentally closing browser window with 23 tabs open presents rare chance at new life”. That resonates even though I try not to use tabs as a read-it-later system anymore.

Onion screenshot

Talking about the reminded me of this “Single-tasking is the new multitasking” video I saw, but never acted on.

It’s quirky and funny, and the illustration of the tangents is a bit too relatable. I watched this with my wife who didn’t completely get it. This level of focus is how she works daily.

In the past year if you were to look at my default browser you’d typically see between three to seven pinned tabs and up to 10 open tabs. In the same way that I got stressed in Windows 98 I do feel freaked out if my tabs are shrinking to a point where titles aren’t meaningful. I also like using Command + Number shortcuts to jump to tabs; so having many more than 9 open is bothersome.

a screenshot of pinned and normal tabs in Chrome

How many tabs do you have open? Do you use pinned tabs? I started asking people what they had open right now. 3, 7, 8, 10, 14, 25, 32, 100+,

My upgrade to MacOS Sierra has been fraught with so many issues. At one point in the same week as seeing this headline and video again I had to close nonessential tabs for performance reasons. It was so cathartic! I knew I had to try this experiment. It’s just tabs, no big deal right?

The Experiment

Last week I made a decision to try a One Tab day. It was a hard day. It wasn’t my first tabs experiment either, but had better results than my experiments with tab-sets and tab-manager extensions.

  1. If you want to try this you have to be resolute from the start. If you’re thinking “Huh, maybe I’ll give that a shot”, I can almost guarantee you won’t last 10 minutes. The first hour was the hardest.
  2. My first ticket of the day was to compare our beta site to a franchise site. It was almost unbearable, but I left the ticket (we use JIRA, in the browser; so leaving was hard), and went to the first site. Then I used paper to take notes. Not gonna lie, it felt like innovation even though this is what paper is used for almost exclusively. I’ve heard writing physically has benefits, I did wonder if the process of committing ink to paper was actually reinforcing the task in my mind.
  3. At one point I needed to pair-program. I tried to suggest we use one tab, but what with Colemak, Alfred, french Apple keyboard, and all my other workflow experiments I decided not to push it. I’m probably a bit weird to work with.
  4. I found focus was a necessity, if I forgot why I came to a page there was no tab flipping for reminders. I would have to do the somehow-rare workflow change of seeing a task through to completion. It seems insane that this isn’t the norm.
  5. In a typical day one is faced with distractions constantly. Suddenly checking gmail, checking out a link from IM, social media, or the news carried much more of a weight. I could check them, but it would mean leaving the page I was on which often felt like too big of a commitment. Distractions were dismissed more often, and waste-of-time reaction gif fetching was quelled (I’m trying to keep this).
  6. Leaving a page by going to a new URL vs. leaving a page by switching tabs seems like a hair splitting difference at one level, but it was pretty liberating. I knew I would feel some kind of relief in doing this before I started, but didn’t know it would be so great.
  7. Opening a new tab is a deep reflex, and it’s built into websites and apps. I honestly wouldn’t have made it without my steely resolve, and the Chrome extension xTab which I set to prevent new tabs.
  8. This experiment isn’t possible for everyone. A coworker explained his SSL certificate workflow. Dozens of tabs are needed, anything else is untenable.
  9. Probably the biggest benefit to my focus was patiently waiting for pages to load, resisting urge to take that 5s to check social media or start a new loop. I didn’t make a conscious decision, but somewhere over the years I just stopped waiting for pages to load.
  10. What’s the Difference between an app and browser tab? Not much. I use Google Calendar, but I could just as well use Outlook. My point is that in addition to changing the volume of tabs I can try to keep the open apps to a minimum too. It’s all somehow tracked in my mind, and I found the most I closed the more focused I felt.
  11. By the end of the day one tab that I missed was the web.whatsapp web app that I use to communicate with my wife. I just shifted that to my phone, which I didn’t really check. Not a good long term solution. Now I’m trying to use Fluid App to make Whatsapp be an app on MacOS. This has a benefit of hotkey toggling, but the drawback that I seem to have to login with a QR code daily Thankfully there is an app!
  12. It was a good thing to have a music client as opposed to tab for streaming.
  13. In the end, I couldn’t do this every day. Monthly definitely, weekly possibly.

After a day I was very happy to start using tabs again, it was very constraining to use only one tab. However, I did feel some benefit, so I’m no longer up to as many as before. As I write this I have three. I typically have the most open at work. It’s not uncommon for up to half of my day to be one tab now. It’s nice.

I’m borrowing the ALARA principle from nuclear health physics. As Low As Reasonable Achievable is a dose minimizing principle. The “Reasonably” part is my favourite part. It’s human nature to want to take everything to the extreme (like forcing one tab!). Avoiding radiation doses is a good thing, but you can be unreasonable about it. Did you know that bananas give off radiation? It would be unreasonable to store them in thick lead walled facilities though. By the same token I think I can get by without permanently pinning tabs I check a couple times a day. If it’s important I’ll remember it.

It’s not a big thing, and it’s not insignificant. Definitely worth an experiment. Think about your workflow and tab debt.

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This post was written by ArleyM