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I Tried Living On One Browser Tab And Almost Died

Tabless Thursday: A supposedly productive thing I’ll never do again.

I Tried Living On One Browser Tab And Almost Died
[Photo: Flickr user James Lee]

Editor’s Note: Join Tabless Thursday victim John Ness and our resident habit expert Rachel Gillett on Friday, October 3 at 11 a.m. ET for a live chat about whether going tabless is worth the payoff, and weigh in with your own thoughts.

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Maybe you’ve heard of Tabless Thursdays, the simplify-your-Internet lifehack created by James Hamblin. (The 31-year-old “media doctor” has found success at The Atlantic with his made-for-2014 combination of wonkishness and youthful looks.) Basically, it’s a call to keep one tab open at a time in your browser(s). Hamblin explains it at length below:

I tried it for four hours as part of this week’s Habit Challenge, and it just about gave me a panic attack. Close all your other tabs at your peril, and read on:

9:30 AM: The first thing I do is try to widen my options as much as possible while still staying within the letter of #TablessThursday law. That means using (ugh) Safari. Along with Chrome and Firefox, that gives me three browser windows to divide among the websites I usually have open throughout the workday: Gmail, Outlook, Slack, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and Fast Company’s CMS.

My starting lineup, just to scroll through messages and alerts: Gmail, Outlook, and Slack.

9:33 AM: Someone shares an interesting link in Slack, and to open it I have to close and then re-open Gmail for the first of what will be dozens of times today. I keep closing Gmail because I trust it to save my half-finished thoughts as drafts, and I keep opening Gmail because I do most of communication on it. Not responding to Gmail in 2014 is like having a busy signal on your phone for a whole day in 1984.

9:43: I need to start editing a feature about wearable tech, which means I need Google Docs, which means I need to make a decision between closing Slack or closing Outlook, which means a decision between formal or informal communication. If I’m not on Slack, I don’t know what’s going on with my peers. If I don’t have a tab open on my official Outlook email, then I may miss a ping from some (possibly very important) person on the other side of the company.

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I decide to close Slack. Now when I come back to Slack I’m going to be the person who posts a GIF everyone’s already seen, and this is part of the problem: Narrowing your options isn’t just about your own workflow, it’s about everyone else’s, too.

10:13: I close Gmail on my Safari, open Fast Company’s CMS to check out the art on the story I’m editing. Looks great. I want to check Outlook quickly.

For reasons that make no sense, I cannot log in to Outlook in Safari. I try it five times, with no luck, so I give up, close the story I’m editing in Google Docs, and open Outlook in Firefox, where my password works on the first try. I assume there’s some formatting to my username log-in I’ve never noticed before. That or I’m going insane.

10:16: No new Outlook emails, so I reopen Google Docs in Firefox and I open Gmail in Safari again. I get this same pop-up question I get every time I open Gmail in Safari:


Do you want to trust Google Talk? I don’t know. Is Google Talk going to sneak into my home and steal my toaster? I’d rather not make a decision, but this is getting old, so I click No.

10:40 AM: I get a PDF sent to me on Gmail, which I open, with the following result.

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Are you fucking kidding me, Safari?

10:41: In my frustration, I’m starting to think about the logic behind Tabless Thursday. We all assume that we’re over-stimulated, and we want to have fewer devices sending us pings and push alerts all day. We look at our 20 tabs open in a browser and it seems silly at first glance. Why should we have an irrational fear that if we close a tab that we’ll lose an important insight?

All fair questions. But challenging that irrational fear every two minutes of the workday is not freeing. It’s exhausting.

11:01: OK. Safari won’t look at my PDF, which means I have to close Google Docs to open the attachment, so now is as good a time as any to start formatting this piece for Fast Company’s CMS. (If you want to give yourself a nervous twitch, trust a giant block of text you’ve spent an hour editing to stay attached to your clipboard.)

11:22: The dishwasher in the Fast Company kitchen is being fixed, so they’ve turned off the water in the kitchen, which means the coffee machines won’t run, which means there’s no coffee today of all days, which is like taking a tub of vanilla ice cream from a heroin addict. (Yes, that reference is almost 20 years old, which is older than Dr. Hamblin appears to be.)

This is all seems somehow related to my inability to open PDFs or log in to Outlook today. Or to my impending insanity.

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11:59: Searching for a specific document within Google Drive every time you need it is inhumane.

12:14: TweetDeck seems to work at first in a tab-deficient lifestyle, if just because it’s a way to cheat Twitter out of a tab. Except! When you click on a link and it opens a tab in your browser, you have to instantly nuke the tab next to it. Now all your workday diversions are bittersweet.

12:35: I’m having a brainstorm with two coworkers on Gmail about how to art the Tabless Thursday piece. I close Gmail to open Slack to check up on what happier coworkers are talking about.

12:55: I return to Gmail and one of my coworkers has come up with a very strong idea for how to art a story about Table-less Thursday, which is when you try to go through your workday without ever relying on a table: putting a laptop on your lap, your coffee between your knees, and leaving everything on the office floor surrounded by orange cones when you have to go to the bathroom. It sounds less disruptive than what I’m doing. (This is the kind of miscommunication which gets cleared up in seconds in Slack.)

1:49: I start writing this piece, and it’s easy. Tabless life works just fine when you’ve done your research and all you need to do is write. How often is that? How many people these days are asked to do one thing at a time?