If you’re reading this story in a single browser tab, because you only focus on one task at a time, congratulations, you can stop reading now. You likely know everything I’m about to say.
This piece is for the rest of us, those who invariably juggle multiple tabs at once, convinced that we can bounce seamlessly between web pages and digital tasks without losing focus.
I’m here to propose a radical alternative: You should work, as much as possible, in a single browser window at a time. Your results may vary, but in the six weeks I’ve been “unitasking” online, I’ve felt calmer, more creative, and able to sustain deep attention for longer periods of time. I rarely feel the mental whiplash of starting a task only to be drawn into Twitter, lurking two tabs away, or distracted by the asterisk next to the Slack icon, letting me know there’s a new message.
Even better, the habit has influenced my offline routine. If I receive a text while walking, I stop to reply if one is necessary. When I need to order groceries online, I set aside time specifically for that rather than squeeze it in during other things, like cooking dinner, readying my daughters for bed, or watching Queer Eye. Living in one browser window at a time has helped me see the value of doing only one thing at a time.
This newfound discipline doesn’t mean I’ve stopped tab hoarding altogether. I think that’s an unrealistic goal for most of us. Our tabs are deeply significant, even if they seem like digital clutter. Instead, they’re elements of our to-do list, reflections of our anxiety about losing valuable information and labor, and signals of our aspirations to be well-read, smarter, or adventurous.
Of course, by no fault of our own, we bought into the myth that we can multitask our way through each day, crossing off items on the list, reading that 5,000-word article on climate change, and researching a post-pandemic trip to Hawaii. When we cling to tabs, we’re often holding tight to an illusion of productivity. This mirage isn’t our own but the product of a corporate obsession with efficiency, and business models that reward speed above thoughtfulness, quality, and equity. When we’re handed far more tasks than we can complete in a single day, we rush to find shortcuts and try to finish unrelated assignments simultaneously. It’s no wonder we spend the day zig-zagging between tasks. At the same time, social media algorithms are eager to steal our already fractured attention, armed with staggering information about our preferences and ready to serve up ever-enticing content.
So working in a single tab isn’t just a way to win back focus — it’s also a way to reclaim personal agency in a world where we often feel powerless against financial and technological systems that want what amounts to a less meaningful life for us.
“Tabs are a metaphor for the wider mistake we’re making”
When I told Johann Hari, a journalist and author of the new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again, about my tab management efforts, he described the act of using one window as “precommitment.” In behavioral science, precommitment is the decision to limit your options for temptation or impulsivity in advance.
“It’s about knowing your strengths and limitations,” says Hari. “We all have tremendous capacities to focus and pay attention, but it’s about knowing that certain environments enable those abilities and certain environments undermine and destroy those abilities. In the moment, we’re living in an environment that’s profoundly harming those abilities.”
I know that multiple tabs interrupt my focus. If I’m bored with the drudgery of checking email, escape is only a few tabs away in the form of a movie review I started but never finished. I can finish a work survey in another neighboring tab or Slack a colleague about their latest story. These two are important tasks in their own right, but upon returning to my inbox I can’t recall where I left off or how to prioritize responses for the day.
This whirlwind feels like my personal responsibility until Hari reminds me that the gospel of productivity primes me and other workers to believe that multitasking is humanly possible, and even ideal. Research tells us that it is not. Humans can only consciously think about one or two things at a time. What we mistake for multitasking is actually task switching. Digital technology makes our erratic online movements appear frictionless, but research suggests that it takes significant time to regain focus after an interruption or distraction.
At the same time, social media and technology companies profit when they use algorithms to draw our attention away from competing professional and personal tasks and keep us scrolling instead. Your tab hoarding, in other words, is partly a reflection of a culture that values productivity, and has tricked you into believing that everything can be done if you’re just organized enough. Then as you’re struggling to get through the day undistracted, algorithms are ready to pounce. In large part, we’ve accepted this as the reality of digital life, and convinced ourselves that it’s manageable — maybe even enjoyable — with the right savvy.
“We’ve fallen for a mass delusion.”
“Tabs are both a real thing but also a metaphor for the wider mistake we’re making,” says Hari, citing research that teens and young adults commonly believe they can pay attention to several forms of media simultaneously. “We’ve fallen for a mass delusion.”
What we lose in all of this distraction is the invaluable experience of flow, a form of deep, sustained attention, which Hari describes as periods in which “ego and time fall away.” Flow states are about deep thinking, problem solving, and goal achievement. Without them, “you become a kind of stump of yourself,” says Hari.
No one ever reached a flow state by toggling between tabs.
Why tabs can make us miserable
Joseph Chee Chang, a former Ph.D. researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, has studied why tabs can be so perplexing to manage. After a series of interviews and surveys, he and his co-authors, who published their findings last year, settled on a conclusion: People feel pressure to both close their tabs and keep them open.
With a manageable number of tabs, which varies by person, participants in his study felt “in-control and productive.” But when the number exceeded a participant’s tipping point, they felt emotions like shame and stress, along with the compulsion to close tabs they’d worked hard to collect. (For the 103 participants, eight open tabs was the median number that triggered stress.)
Chang and his colleagues likened tabs to a digital workspace because people frequently open multiple to support the same task. The researchers found that many people struggled to close tabs because they worried about not being privy to valuable information or opportunities. Bookmarking, on the other hand, represented a black hole where tabs lost their power as visual reminders.
“How do we help people cope with the fact that they’re never going to process all the information they want to?”
“A fear of mine where a tab will get closed out and I won’t know what I’m missing… It’s the fear of missing something important or something that will lead to enlightenment, to more knowledge, or something that will help you get a job. It’s the fear of missing out,” one participant told the researchers.
Others reported leaving tabs open because they weren’t sure if they’d be able to find the links again, particularly for content shared by colleagues during group projects and collaborations. Some felt that open tabs represented a “sunk” cost they weren’t willing to sacrifice in exchange for a less chaotic browser window.
Based on his research, Chang believes that many of us are aware of the disconnect between the amount of information we aspire to consume and our capacity to actually process the content in those tabs — and yet we’re still scared to close them. In that regard, tab management is about recognizing and accepting that there’s far more knowledge on the Internet than we’ll ever be able to meaningfully acquire.
“How do we help people cope with the fact that they’re never going to process all the information they want to?” says Chang, now a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI. “I don’t really have a concrete answer on how to get there.”
The future of tabs
Chang is skeptical that we can work effectively in a single browser window, largely because so many of our tasks require micro-decisions, and thus, new tab after new tab. That trip to Hawaii, for example, means looking at Yelp reviews of restaurants, tracking airline deals on competing sites, and researching COVID-19 vaccination and quarantine policies. Should all of this be done in a single browser window?
My current approach is not absolutist. If you’re working on a specific task, like booking travel, open a window in which that is the only thing you do. If you started by researching excursions on Maui but three tabs later you’re reading The White Lotus recaps because the namesake hotel is a real resort in Hawaii, you’ve gone too far.
At first, email was tough. If I clicked on a link in a newsletter, for example, I had to decide whether I’d read the article immediately or save it to my browser’s reading list. Full disclosure: I still haven’t revisited that list, but there are only six items in my queue. I’ll admit that it’s impossible for me to write a story like this in a single window. In addition to our publishing backend, I need to have a Google docs tab open so I can access my notes. Sometimes I open a third tab to confirm a fact or grab a link. A fourth tab might spring up if I want to search for a synonym. But my practice now is to close those tabs once I’ve finished using them, and keep all open tabs closely linked to the task at hand. During that time, I minimize my other Safari and Chrome browsers, which contain tabs for email, calendars, Slack, and unrelated research, and turn off any distracting notifications. Multiple windows can become messy, so it’s important to prune them once finished with a task.
This experiment has worked so far because I don’t feel pressure from my manager and co-workers to immediately respond to emails and Slacks, which should be the norm. Companies can’t expect employees to be attentive and focused if distractions are a structural part of their work day, whether in the form of too many meetings, constant messaging, or an always-on culture.
Chang believes that we’ll get relief from our tab woes once they’re designed to perform as task managers, a project his former colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are working on in the form of a private beta test of a “digital workplace” that helps users prioritize what information is most important. In the future, your browser might draw on artificial intelligence to help screen and rank which tabs you should keep open, resurface helpful information from past tabs, or enable highlighting and clipping. The efficiency sounds appealing. Yet I can’t help but think that when we offload the skill of focusing to a machine, we erode our own innate ability to make critical decisions about what matters to us. The practice of being fully present in the moment is arguably one of the most vital skills of our time, however mundane it may seem.
Johann Hari, the journalist and author, offers bold solutions for reclaiming our focus, including a four-day workweek and banning the business model that allows tech companies to profit from how many minutes we spend on their platform, and therefore how effectively they can wield technology to steal our attention.
We need big-picture solutions to this problem. It’s not one we should fight alone in the form of unitasking, or any other new tech habit. But I was also surprised at how different I felt after using a single window, as much as possible, for six weeks. Urgent tasks usually got done in one sitting. I read articles to their end. I engaged in undistracted digital conversations, pausing while someone typed a response instead of jumping to another tab. The noise of social media faded into the background because I stopped randomly dropping in when bored with another task. I spent lunch at my desk staring out the window, watching the trees grow buds, instead of mindlessly scrolling. I’m unsure of what I’ve missed when limiting my attention to a single activity, whether online or off, but I’ve also made peace with not knowing.