“Anxiety-inducing,” “impossible,” “painful”–these are just a few ways people described last week’s habit challenge, and if you’re a tab-hoarder like the rest of us, you can probably understand why.
With the promise of better focus and getting work done faster, a number of us at Fast Company and several readers embarked on a journey of working with only one browser tab open at a time, or as we came to call it single-tabbing, in a nod to the intention of working on a single task at a time.
The premise behind this challenge is that multitasking rarely works–yes, we can walk and talk at the same time, but when we’re quickly shifting between email, filling out spreadsheets, and checking our Twitter, all we’re actually doing is juggling tasks, and this just kills our focus and makes work take longer.
Check out our vintage video on multitasking to see what we mean.
Even though for the most part we agree with this assessment, was closing all our tabs for a week really the right way to go about getting our focus back on track?
Even James Hamblin, whose concept of Tabless Thursday inspired the challenge, has his doubts.
All of us came up against a similar problem when we single-tabbed: Our workflow often requires us to use multiple tabs to complete one task.
Assistant News Editor Rose Pastore, who runs Fast Company’s Twitter account, details the problem best with her nine steps of tablessness:
- Open Twitter.
- Think “crap, I need the story link.”
- Close Twitter, open article page.
- Copy link.
- Close article, open Twitter.
- Paste link into tweet. Start typing tweet, realize I need to make sure the CEO’s name is spelled correctly.
- Close Twitter, open article. Copy CEO’s name.
- Paste name, but realize I now don’t have the story link.
- Leave office, yell.
- Return and open 10 tabs.
I experienced a similar issue when promoting our stories on social media. After a day of rigidly sticking to the challenge of only one tab at a time, I amended the challenge in some circumstances to only have the tabs open relative to one task. But before I opened a new tab I would think, is this really relevant and necessary to get this task done? If no, then I wouldn’t open it.
Forcing yourself to really think about if you need that piece of information one tab over that very instant is never a bad idea. Hopefully it will help us rewire our brains from needing to be instantly gratified.
Contributing Features Editor John Ness also says single-tabbing can be useful, but only when used strategically and in moderation. He compares it to following a low carb diet. “Eating less carbs is good! Denying your body of basic nutrients in the food pyramid for months at a time maybe isn’t.”
Travis M. Andrews, an associate editor at Southern Living, tweeted about the good and the bad of Tabless Thursday and raised an excellent point.
While we’re fixated on getting one task done at a time, are we also isolating ourselves from everything else, and is that okay?
Leadership Editor Kathleen Davis points out that this could be considered FOMO (fear of missing out): “I feel like people are too concerned with FOMO,” she says. “Unless you work in breaking news, you can still be a well-informed person if you check in with news a couple of times a day instead of ALL.THE.TIME.”
But FOMO extends beyond worrying that you’re missing the latest news about the royal baby. By being hyper-focused on one task at a time, we may worry that we’re missing out on the benefits of working within a team or that people will think less of us for not being plugged-in to the conversation. So how do you step back when you really need to focus?
For Ness, it’s as simple as gently letting people know you’re going to ignore them for a certain amount of time. As he found when he went tabless for a few hours, “unplugging is as much about other people’s workflow as it is about yours.”
“If you’re disrupting them by being unavailable in a tab, you have to find a way to negotiate that,” he says. Ness says he justifies disconnecting for a while because his job editing feature articles takes some quiet time.
For me, FOMO took hold when researching stories. I worried that limiting my tangential tab opening was also, in a way, limiting my creative potential. I worried that when I second-guessed opening another tab I was also missing out on an interesting nugget that could improve the article.
In researching a story, I could open a ton of tabs that were tangentially related to the story, but in the end I felt this was a slippery slope: I would more than likely become overwhelmed with all the open tabs and become distracted from the thought at hand. So if in my research I found a related link worth exploring, I added it to a text document and explored it later, staying on the one tab at hand.
At the end of this dastardly experiment I think we at least walked away with a better sense of what single-tasking means. And I think we can all agree that single-tasking has its benefits, though whether or not it’s attainable is another question.
“It was SO refreshing to have just one thing to do,” Pastore says. “I was actually having creative ideas (something that usually doesn’t happen in the middle of the work day). It made me realize I need to take more opportunities to single-task.”
In my experience, single-tasking and actually getting something done before the end of the day gave me this exhilarating feeling of accomplishment.
For a more detailed view of our discussion, check out the transcript from our livechat here. This week we’ll be challenging ourselves to say no to nearly everything in the name of getting more done. Join us for a Live Chat on Friday October 10 at 11 a.m. ET to find out how it went.