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The Hidden Costs of Tab Switching

June 06, 2023 (4 min read)
Tab switching can lead to loss of focus, lost information, and an overall drain on resources

In the three years since the corporate world shifted to a remote-forward work culture, employees have been able to see into the lives of their coworkers. With video conferencing, people can view someone’s living room, their family walking around in the background and, most importantly, the way their browser looks when they share a screen. So, it’s safe to say that everyone knows by now that there’s always at least one person in each team who has way too many browser tabs open.

The open tabs often result in a moment of humor from the meeting’s audience, but they are a more serious issue than one might think. Too many tabs open means a computer is doing more work than necessary, so those screen-sharers with myriad Xs on their screens are likely making the call buffer more for everyone.

Even outside of web conferencing, open tabs slow down work in general by offering more confusion and a less streamlined workflow. Here, we will discuss the hidden costs of this “tab switching,” also known as the practice of multitasking and how it can best be avoided.

How we got here: The rise of multitasking

Firefox first added tabs into their browser in 2002, and other popular companies followed suit, leading to an absolute overturn in how people used browsers. Researchers at the 2021 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems found that 55% of the people they surveyed left tabs open simply because they wanted to revisit the information those sites offered.

One of the researchers involved in the tab hygiene study, Carnegie Mellon professor Amiket Kittur, told Fast Company, “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.”

If our browsers are a map of our brains, the open tabs are all the different thoughts we are tabling until we have a bit more time to dive in. And while it can be tempting to save up a to-do list of sites to explore or articles to read, it’s not always advantageous for overall workflow.

MORE: What is workflow and why does it matter?

The negative side of multitasking

While multitasking certainly can have some positive aspects, and society often sees “juggling multiple balls” as a skill instead of a deficit, the costs should not be undermined. According to Stanford University’s Neurosciences Institute, multitasking is almost always less efficient than focusing on just one thing, and it can even lead to long-term memory issues.

Stanford neuroscientists homed in on the idea of “task switching,” or going between multiple to-do list items. When someone shifts between one task to the next, they experience a “switch cost,” which is a “loss of accuracy or speed that comes when [from] shift[ing] between tasks.”

While this might not seem like it has a major impact, task-shifting (including switching between open tabs when doing research) can really derail your process.

MORE: How to choose the right workflow technology tool for your company

The impact on productivity and workflow

The “switch cost” can be thought of as a small catalyst for larger workflow issues when it comes to tab switching. In fact, research has shown that it takes an average of 20 minutes to regain focus when task switching. So, if you constantly switch between different tabs—not to mention email and message notifications—you risk losing a substantial part of your day.

Consider this loss of productivity happening for every employee in a company, multiple times an hour, and it’s clear that the act of multitasking can be a far bigger issue than just a simple brain lapse moment. The bottom-line costs are ultimately larger than a business understands at face value.

In general, workflow goes smoothly when each employee has a direct arrow from “assignment” to “completion” of a task. Finishing a task before going onto the next work item is a key way to streamline a process, and tab switching does the exact opposite of this.

MORE: Creating an effective workflow practice

Reclaim your focus with streamlined workflow technology

Internet browsers have offered tabs for 20 years, and it’s hard to imagine going online without them. However, new innovations can help us avoid a cluttered screen in ways that still feel intuitive.

Google’s new tab groups function, for example, allows users to group articles so that your “to-be-read” folder stays separate from your more urgent work.

When you do get a chance to read those saved articles, browser extensions like the new Nexis® Hub allow users to quickly highlight and store information from a page, so you can close out a tab without feeling worried about losing key insights. Nexis Hub will compile that data and organize it, too, saving the time of copying and pasting or transcribing certain information.

Working with these tools will save you time and expended energy lost by switching back and forth between tasks. By streamlining your research into one hub, you can focus more on deriving insights from that information and making important information to help you reach your business goals—which is a much better way to spend time than switching tabs for 30 minutes to find ‘that one article’ or quote.