Recently, someone found the maximum number of tabs that Microsoft Edge can handle. The number is sixteen hundred. One tab over this and it crashes.
Not too long ago, I felt like my brain had sixteen hundred tabs open at all times. Even while I focused on one task, I would keep several tabs open in the background, mostly to remember to do things after the current task.
I’d try to remember:
- What I planned to do next
- The email or slack message I need to follow up on
- Questions I need to ask my team
- Issues I need to address
- And so much more
Even when I focused deeply on a task, I still had to dedicate a large portion of my processing power to all these other “open tabs” that I needed to hold on to.
It’s not just a metaphor, though. This was reflected in the literal open browser tabs on my computer.
At any given time, I would have open:
- The current page I’m working on, perhaps adjusting a component or adding a feature
- MDN or StackOverflow to answer some question I have, related to the current task
- Maybe a few more MDN and StackOverflow tabs that might be useful
- Gmail, google calendar, jira, trello
- Some blog posts I want to read later
- Random tabs I opened and forgot about but I’m not sure I’m ready to close them yet
- And probably a lot more too
This trend of open tabs and “open tabs” continued until I discovered the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
Write It Down
Most people laugh or don’t believe me when I try to explain how helpful this method is, because it sounds too simple.
If you have something you need to remember: write it down.
Once you write it down in a place that you can easily come back to later, you can finally close that open tab. Once you write down everything that you need to remember, you can close all of your open tabs and start to truly focus on one thing at a time.
For this to work, you need to write it down in a place that…
- Is consistent across all the things you think about
- You can trust to remind you
- Allows you to prioritize and reprioritize tasks
For the rest of this post, I will show you how I use Trello to keep one tab open. However, Trello is just one of many tools that you can use. It probably will not be right for everyone. I hope what you’ll see is the strategy I use, rather than the specific tool I use to accomplish it.
Step 1: Record All Inputs
Throughout your day you’ll receive countless inputs.
- Old-school snail-mail
- Slack messages
- Calendar Invites
- Your spouse asking you to do something
- You’ll notice an issue with your house or work
- You’ll remember something you forgot to take care of
Typically, you have a few options to handle these inputs:
- Completely ignore it
- Try to remember it for later
- Drop what you’re doing to handle it immediately
But there is another way: record the input, along with any relevant information such as dates or links, so that you can come back to it later.
For me, this looks like dropping a new card in my TODO column in Trello. When I notice a slack message or email that requires follow-up, I drop a card in the column.
Step 2: Add Detail
The cards alone are useful as a prioritization and reminder tool. However, the real benefit materializes only when you are able to decrease your mental load and “close some tabs”.
That’s where adding detail comes in.
When I create a card, I add:
- Any relevant links to get me back to the slack message, email, or related information
- A brief description containing whatever thoughts I have on the task.
- “Make sure to talk to XYZ person about this before responding”
- “See if this has already been implemented in another system”
- A due date if there’s a deadline or even ideal time to have this task complete
Details are crucial to staying focused. With only the card you have a reminder of what you need to do, but not how to do it. So you may find that the task itself is off your mind, but you’re still attempting to hold on to all the extra things required to complete the task.
Step 3: Focus
This is the hardest part. You now have the tools to focus on one task at a time. But it still takes conscious effort to do so.
In Trello, this looks like literally one card in the “Doing” tab at all times. There should always be a card in that tab unless you are actively choosing to be “off” or “wasting time” (which is a totally valid and normal thing to do, by the way, life isn’t only about productivity).
It’s pretty common to start a task, only to be interrupted and forced to switch to another task. This is notoriously difficult for “knowledge workers” like Software Engineers. However, your cards can help you context switch easily.
When switching tasks, you need to be able to completely turn off the current task and focus on the new one.
- Write down any new details you’ll need to remember when coming back.
- Add relevant links, such as the path to the file you were working in or the StackOverflow answer you were reading.
- Move the task back to “TODO”
- If the new task will take more than 5 minutes: Create a card for it and move it to “Doing”.
Whenever you finish a task, move it to the “Done” column.
At the end of each week, I review the completed tasks to see if I’m satisfied with my work.
I like to ask myself:
- Did I spend my time wisely this week?
- Did I get stuck on a certain task for too long?
- What were the affects or results of the tasks I completed?
If I’m not satisfied, I try to understand why, and prepare to spend my time differently in the next week.
The more you do this, the more you will accumulate cards. At the end of each week, I move my “Done” column to a different board. I don’t delete the cards, because I occasionally like to browse back through them to do a longer retro on my work.
I also set up an automation to remove cards that are older than thirty days. Again, it does not delete the cards, it moves them to an “Archive” board. I do this because I have a lot of ideas, but often find that they are unimportant to me a month later. I think it’s healthy to let go of ideas once I no longer feel they are relevant. I don’t need to power through unimportant tasks, just because I incorrectly thought they were important in the past.
Putting it All Together
- Write down every input
- Record enough details that you can truly get it off your mind
- Focus on one task at a time
- Do a weekly retro on your completed tasks
- Regularly prune your tasks to focus on only what is currently relevant