Finding it hard to focus at work? You may be suffering from ‘tab overload’

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Jun 13, 2021 at 09:18 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes


Point of view: you are on the editorial team of an online media agency. Every morning, your computer purrs to life and you set sail for the latest news floating around on the internet. You open a bunch of tabs—some already lined up and waiting for your love and attention to load again—as you notice a particular piece of news worth following up. You then open an empty tab to research more about it. You later end up opening individual tabs for the first five articles trending on Google, but never close the one with the search results since you have to go back to it and load the next five.

While reading through the first article on the topic, you find another potential story under the website’s ‘popular reads’ section. You open and save that onto another tab for later only to hear music floating around from one of the tabs. Now you’re on a mission to find that one tab that’s probably auto-playing a video ad and purge it from your browser before your computer overheats and explodes.

Welcome to tab overload. If reading that didn’t stress you out enough, I’m pretty sure the tabs waiting for you tomorrow morning at work will.

What is tab overload and how do I know if I’m suffering from it?

Tab overload is a situation where you open multiple tabs on your browser to be productive but end up failing to manage them—in turn being the most unproductive one on your team. Symptoms include lack of attention, tab-induced anxiety and emotional attachments to that two-year-old tab sitting on the top right corner of your browser. “If this is some humorous editorialised content, I’m closing this tab,” I can already hear you say. Well, don’t leave just yet, because the following paragraphs are going to make you wish I was kidding.

A team of researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) of Pennsylvania recently completed the first in-depth study of browser tabs in more than a decade. Their paper, titled When the Tab Comes Due: Challenges in the Cost Structure of Browser Tab Usage, surveyed 103 diverse participants, conducted an interview study with ten researchers and held exploratory design interviews with seven additional participants to analyse the impact tabs have on productivity and mental health as a whole.

According to their conclusion, most people use tabs as short-term memory banks—particularly if the information is required by them soon. Others admitted to using tabs as a to-do list. “It’s like a manifestation of everything that’s on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now,” a participant admitted. “At the moment, in this browser window, I have a web project that I’m working on. I don’t have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it’s sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it.”

But using tabs as a to-do list seems to counter productivity rather than aid it. Let’s break down a user’s decision-making process to understand this better. If a person is looking to invest in a piece of equipment, for example, they would first absorb information from various sources (shopping sites, reviews on YouTube), stitch it together (either write it down or compile it in a word document) and then come to a conclusion (the actual purchase). The study basically highlighted how using a plethora of tabs to make such a decision essentially overwhelms the user—countering the decision-making process in itself.

“Managing this sort of task is really one of the most important aspects of productivity in our lives,” explained Aniket Kittur, head of the research team, in a press release. “And the number one tool that everyone uses for it is tabs, even though they don’t do a good job.”

The study further highlighted how people often become emotionally invested in some tabs. “Even when I’m not using those tabs, I don’t want to close them,” a participant said. “Maybe it’s because it took an effort to open those tabs and organise them that way.” The researchers added how such tabs are often queued up because the user fears about never going back to them. “Fear of this blackhole effect was so strong that it compelled people to keep tabs open even as the number became unmanageable,” Kittur added.

The study also outlined how tab overload can strain not only a person’s attention but their computer as well. According to the researchers, around 25 per cent of the participants reported that their browser or computer crashed because they had too many tabs open.

So how can I help myself?

Since the researchers can’t coax you into severing your overdue ties with tabs themselves (the only permanent solution if you ask me), they proposed a new browser model to organise the workflow better. Skeema, a Google Chrome extension, reimagines tabs as tasks—helping users group, organise, prioritise and switch between tabs efficiently. Skeema essentially uses machine learning to suggest grouping choices for open tabs and support nested tasks as well as complex decision-making.

According to the software’s press release, users of an early version of the tool reported a significant reduction in both stress and the number of open tabs while staying focused on the task at hand. Many of the early beta testers have also started using the tool daily to manage their tabs and tasks. “As our online tasks become increasingly complex, new interfaces and interactions that can merge tab management and task management in a browser will become increasingly important,” said researcher Joseph Chee Chang. “After 20 years of little innovation, Skeema is a first step toward making tabs work better for users.”

On 13 May 2020, Google introduced its tab grouping feature for beta users. With a simple right-click, users can now group tabs together and label them with a custom name and colour. Once the tabs are grouped together, they can move and reorder them on the tab strip. So, is it worth opening another tab to download and install these extensions? As an ex-user of Google’s built-in grouping feature, I would advise you not to embark on a grouping journey during the middle of the week if you’re planning to try it out.

When you are grouping tabs, Google lets you choose separate colours for the labels along with text to help differentiate them as I mentioned before. These colours and labels are very distracting. Maybe it takes a little bit of time to get used to but I suffered a mini ‘tab-cleansing overload’ while doing so.

However, if you are looking to make small changes to your workspace for better productivity next week, experts recommend the age-old practice of bookmarking your tabs and opening them only when you need to. Snoozing your tabs to appear at a more convenient time or pinning regular ones to take up less space on the bar are other practices you can engage in. You can also update yourself with a list of keyboard shortcuts to let your fingers do their magic.

But no matter how many solutions are being curated to address this problemespecially in a digital-first age—the only permanent solution is to close it. So let it go, don’t hold it back anymore. It would only bother you anyway.

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