I want you to stop what you’re doing and count the number of browser tabs you have open

Did you do it? How many do you have open? I’m willing to bet it’s more than just a handful. According to a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, 30% of participants agreed to having a “tab hoarding problem.” Some people argue that tab hoarding is a shield against boredom – the need to have many stimuli available. But Fast Company reports that Aniket Kittur, a professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon, and the head of the research team, has another explanation:

People are attached to tabs because they view them as opportunities…They’re kind of like opportunities for a better life: gathering more knowledge, getting a better job, becoming enlightened. People are queuing up these things and hoping to get to them because no one likes to lose out on opportunities.

Keeping the tabs open is like a visual signal that those opportunities exist and are attainable. Conversely, closing a tab may feel as though that opportunity is forever lost. According to Metro UK, Professor Mike Berry, a psychologist at Birmingham City University explains, “It is a case of, ‘I might miss something’ if I close a tab.” Others have echoed this idea, describing it as a sort of digital FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

The Carnegie Mellon study found a common pattern amongst the study subjects: “People feared that as soon as something went out of sight, it was gone…Fear of this blackhole effect was so strong that it compelled people to keep tabs open even as the number became unmanageable,” says Kittur.

The problem with this tab hoarding phenomenon is that it can cause a digital form of multitasking, or task switching. Dr. Daria Kuss is the course leader of Cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University. She says, “Having lots of tabs open can potentially result in information overload – whereby multitasking is requested, which may be difficult to handle by the human brain, and rather than creating efficiency, switching frequently between tasks may lead to short attention spans and a lack of depth in the ongoing tasks.” 

Multitasking, and the cost of task switching, is a topic addressed in Thriving on Overload. While humans may feel a sense of productivity when juggling multiple tasks, thoughts or projects, attempting to multitask has short and long term effects, not only on our cognitive performance, but physically as well. Research estimates that you can lose up to 40% of productivity when attempting to multitask. In fact, Fast Company reports, “a number of research studies have concluded that our brains are actually ‘dumbed down’ while multitasking.” Similarly, a study at the University Of London concluded that participants who multitasked “experienced drops in their IQ comparable to someone who missed a night of sleep.”

Furthermore, Georgetown Professor, Cal Newport, writes that jumping from task to task actually deteriorates the muscle allowing you to focus. He says the more you do this, the less ability you will have “going deep for extended periods of time.” The importance of “going deep” and truly focusing on one thing has been echoed by Sophie Leroy, a professor at the University of Minnesota:

People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task, and their subsequent task performance suffers.

Multitasking, not allowing yourself to fully focus on one task at a time, is detrimental not only to the tasks you’re attempting to complete, but also to your brain. So why should we care about the browser tabs? Well, as Ellen Scott of Metro UK puts it, “Having a bunch of tabs open is a digital way of us task-switching, and it’s the ultimate form of distraction. We may think that while we’re focused on one tab, we can block out all the others that are open. But in truth they’re still there, in the corner of our eye and taking up mental energy.”

Have you ever noticed that when you have too many tabs open, your computer begins to slow, it takes pages longer to load, and your cursor begins spinning more often? Similarly, “when we overload our brain, we become tired, forgetful, irritable…The tabs are another version of our working memory. We treat our computers as if they have an unlimited capacity, just like we treat our brain. When we forget to close tabs, they use up our working memory,” says Marc Hekster, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at The Summit Clinic.

Now, that’s not to say tabs are completely bad. They can be a very helpful and effective tool in organizing and categorizing information. I encourage you to reconsider your browser tab behaviors. For example, if you fall into the task-switching category, consider hiding tabs not related to the task you’re currently working on. If you’re a tab-hoarder, think about setting a specific amount of time to get through the tabs you have opened. 

Or if you’re ready to give your computer and your brain a break – just go ahead and close those tabs! 

Header image: Sigmund

June 24, 2022

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