I open up my laptop in the morning, and instinctively load up several tabs — messenger, twitter, MyUCLA, and Gmail being the most frequent ones. I then spend some time responding to messages, scrolling through Twitter, checking class deadlines, and clicking through email.
I spend a lot of time like this — reacting to external stimuli, instead of taking control of my time spent online. Throughout the day, it’s not uncommon for me to have 30+ open tabs — from random things I’m researching about, to interesting articles I’ve found on Twitter, to YouTube links sent by my friends, to class material.
Information is good, except when you have too much of it. I slowly realized that having constant sources of information fire-hosed at me resulted in me learning and retaining much less than if I just focused on one thing at a given moment.
Even still, if you’re focusing on one thing at a given moment, having multiple other tasks you need to do — work for another class, or research, or messages to respond to — in front of your eyes in a different tab still distracts you from the task at hand. What often ends up happening is springing from task to task, giving each one about 5–10 minutes of attention, instead of working deeply for an extended period of time.
This is a lot like having stressful or distracting things in your peripheral vision, like undone laundry. It occupies mental space and takes away from the present moment. This results in a fragmented mind — even though you’re doing one thing, your mind is already thinking of the next thing to do. This is caused by even a glance at your inbox or quick check of your unread messages.
It’s similar to how operating systems are constantly context switching between running programs. Except this context switch is a lot more significant to humans. It’s commonly recognized that for software developers, a single interruption can be incredibly costly — and I’m certain that this is true for students, writers, creatives, and many others.
Just like it’s important to have a clean, distraction-free space to work, it’s also important to ensure your software is setup to allow deep work when deep work needs to be done.
One way I’ve tried to do this is minimizing the number of tabs I have opened at once, trying to keep it under 5 as best as I can. Some of the downsides I’ve seen with this is that it makes it harder to save things to come back to, since I’d often open up articles or videos with the intention to peruse them later. The chrome extension OneTab relieves this somewhat, though I still find myself overusing it as a catch-all instead of actually thinking about if I’ll come back to something later or not.
Overall, I’ve realized this is a hard problem, but being mindful about how you use software and spend time online is well-worth it.