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The Science of Single-Tasking: How Focus Unlocks Extreme Productivity

How many browser tabs do you have open right now?

While writing this post, I had¬†18 tabs open. I’d like to say they were all for research, although I’m pretty sure one or two slipped down a YouTube wormhole.

Does this sound familiar?

It seems like my multi-tab madness is right in line with the status quo. We all love to have multiple tabs open at once, adding more and more as we find new articles to click and sites to visit. Pretty soon, it’s likely we’ve forgotten what we were online for in the first place.

You might say browser tabs are the new litmus test for multitasking.

The more tabs you have open, the more multitasking work you’re doing, and the less likely you are to be as productive as possible. The same goes for anything else that might distract you from your main objective. Working on multiple items at once is a recipe for inefficiency. Fortunately, there are some fun new ways to experiment with the idea of single-tasking—both in your browser and beyond.

single tasking

A 3-second distraction leads to double the mistakes

Researchers tested 300 Michigan State students on their ability to persevere through interruptions while taking a computer test. The interruptions came in the form of pop-ups that required the students to enter a code. In one case, the interruption lasted a little more than four seconds. In another, the interruption was 2.8 seconds.

With a 2.8-second interruption, the students made double the errors when they returned to the test. With the 4.4-second interruption, the error rate quadrupled.

Experiments like these confirm the mountain of scientific research that points to multitasking as being bad news for productivity, accuracy, and efficiency. Here are just a few  more examples:

  • An Ohio State University study found that media multitasking—e.g., reading a book while watching TV—results in poor cognitive performance on both¬†tasks;¬†we keep doing both anyways¬†because we get an emotional boost when we do.
  • A group of business psychologists from Harvard, UNC, and HEC Paris found that spending time reflecting on a task¬†leads to better performance and recall on subsequent tasks.
  • University of Utah professor David Strayer confirmed that talking on the phone while driving a car (one of the most common forms of multitasking) is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. Reaction and attention decrease such that drivers missed half the things they’d normally see, like billboards or pedestrians.

And yet, despite the evidence that doing more than one thing at a time just doesn’t work, we continue to fall victim to doing more and focusing less.

These stats from Statistic Brain paint a picture of just how difficult it is for us to pay attention anymore.

  • Average attention span: 8 seconds
  • A goldfish’s average attention span: 9 seconds
  • Percent of people who forget their own birthday from time to time: 7 percent
  • Average number of times per hour an office worker checks their inbox: 30

multitasking and attention

Single-tasking: 1 task, no distractions

What is single-tasking? Well, it’s all there in the name. Single-tasking means¬†doing one activity at a time with as few distractions and interruptions as possible.¬†

I like to think that single-tasking lives at the intersection of a couple other popular lifestyle ideas: the slow web and essentialism.

Slow web: This idea is a reaction to the demands of the fast web. It values timely notifications rather than real-time alerts. It values rhythm rather than random. The slow web encourages people to embrace life on their terms, rather than feed into the constant drip of information from the web.

Minimalism: With minimalism, you celebrate having less because you recognize that what you do have is what’s most important. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus write about the topic at The Minimalists, and they have a beautiful way of defining the idea:

Minimalism is a tool used to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.

If you squish these ideas together, you’ll¬†end up with a pretty good idea of single-tasking. Here’s how I like to view it:


Alternately, you can approach single-tasking from the perspective of what it’s not. Single-tasking is not multitasking. It is not having dozens of browser tabs open at once, it is not checking email every 10 minutes, and it is not a perpetual chat window open on your desktop.

Single-tasking is one task at a time, zero distractions.

And yes, it is easier said than done. So here are some fun ideas on how to put a little single-tasking into your workday.

Single-tabbing:¬†1 tab,¬†that’s all

Since I¬†talked about my addiction to browser tabs at the top of this article, it’s fitting that the first idea for single-tasking deals directly with the issue of tabs.

Single-tasking Trial #1: Keep your browsing sessions to one tab.

Sound impossible? It’s likely to be a tall task indeed if you’re going from dozens to one. So perhaps it’s best to begin with baby steps.

That’s the route that The Atlantic’s James Hamblin advises in his video on single-tasking. Hamblin picks one day each week to try single-tabbing. He calls it Tabless Thursday.

His idea even has its own e-commerce shop to back it up. You can buy #TablessThursday stickers and t-shirts, featuring the hashtag and a single-tab picture of meerkats hugging (the meerkats are explained in the video).

meerkats tabless thursday

Buffer’s co-founder Leo created a single-tabbing habit, helped along by a to-do list. The night before, Leo writes out a to-do list for the next day so that he can track the most important tasks that need to get done and then plan his single-tab browsing accordingly.

If you need a little extra nudge—okay, an¬†extreme nudge—you can even download a browser extension that limits tab browsing for you. Extensions like xTab will close tabs once you reach a certain threshold. For instance, if you have your limit set at 10 tabs, xTab will close your oldest tab automatically whenever you begin to open Tab No. 11. (You get to choose the threshold and what gets closed when you reach it.). What limit would you feel comfortable starting with?

How we built single-tasking into our Buffer culture

Single-tasking is in our DNA at Buffer—and in our culture slidedeck, too.

Right there, on the slide for “Live smarter, not harder,” you’ll find our call to single-task. For us, living smarter means making decisions that positively impact our productivity and happiness, and we’ve realized from early on that having a scattered day and being pulled in too many directions at once is not what’s best. We prefer focus, clarity, and engagement.

You single task your way through the day.

You always aim to be fully engaged in an activity.

You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest and most productive, and you are not afraid to find out where that is.


The way each of us works out this value in our own lives and workdays might differ from Buffer teammate to Buffer teammate, but we all seem to share the same purpose to be productive.

One of the team-wide implementations of single-tasking is in the way that we report back to the group about what we accomplished each day. We use iDoneThis to fill out our daily accomplishments, which are then emailed to the team at the start of every day. In this way, we have a clear sense of purpose for what we’re working on (as well as a neat way to stay in touch with our distributed team.)

10 more ways to single-task

Single-tabbing is perhaps one of the most fun and radical ways to get started with single-tasking. It’s not the only way, though. As long as you keep focus front-and-center and do your best to minimize distractions, you’ll be getting at the heart of single-tasking. Here are 10 more ideas on what you could try.

1. Try the Pomodoro Technique. Focus on a single task for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. The times can be adjusted based on your ideal workflows. The idea is to focus as long as your brain will allow, then to rest up with a bit of a lull before starting again.

2. Silence your phone. Or turn it off. Or forget it at home.

3. Close your email.

4. Make a to-do list.

5. Turn off notifications from phone apps and web apps.

6. Watch this entire 3-minute video. If nothing more, it’ll be a good exercise on focus and patience.

7. Install Anti-Social. The software blocks websites for whatever amount of time you choose. For instance, if Facebook is a constant source of temptation, block it for the next 25 minutes while you focus intently on the task at hand. (HT: Todoist blog)

8. Write in a distraction-free editor. I compose blogposts in WordPress’s distraction-free editor, a full-page ode to minimalism. There are no buttons while you’re typing and no sidebars or menus whatsoever.

9. Use multiple monitors/desktops. Try placing distractions on one screen and focused work on another. Mac users can create an entirely new desktop for distractions; press F4 and then hover your mouse near the top of the screen. Click on the plus-sign that appears in the top-right corner to create your new desktop.

10. Clean off your desktop files. Delete all the files from your desktop at the end of each day. Less clutter, more focus.

Over to you

I’m still taking baby steps toward single-tasking, but the early results are encouraging. I’ve found greater productivity in keeping tabs to a minimum, doing each task fully before moving on to the next, and blocking out my day so that there are set times for different activities.

What tips have you found to stay focused on a single task? Do you think single-tasking might work for you?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. (Feel free to share how many tabs you’ve got open, too!)

Image credits: Death to the Stock Photo

  • Blaine Fallis

    I have found the Chrome app called Close All Tabs is a handy start-fresh way to clear my browser.

    • Hi Blaine! Sounds like a winner! I’ll need to give that one a try. :) Thanks!

  • Lukegray

    Another amazing post Kevan. Thanks so much!

  • Tom Vanhout

    Great post! I follow my daily routine with 3 MIT ( most important tasks) & MITW (1 most important task weekly) which I define a day before. Only read my email between 11:00 am and 12:00 and 04:00 and 05:00 pm. And everything else on mute. (Cell, notifications, etc) and it works fine together with my GTD technique!

    • Hi Tom! Looks like an amazing routine you’ve got there! Love the two windows for email checking. That seems like a great one!

    • I might need to borrow this technique @tomvanhout:disqus!

  • Thanks for mentioning Todoist! We’re all about single-tasking ;)

    • Hi Brenna! You all have such an awesome resource there! I’m happy to share! :)

      • Really appreciate hearing that, Kevin, thanks again!

  • Hey Kevan, what a great summary of why not to multitask! Great job!
    I completely agree that multitasking is a killer and singletasking works perfectly. But I can’t imagine the single tab idea :) I always need at least two. One is many times for example a document or spreadsheet and the next one is the “research” tab from which I get the data and information to the spreadsheet. But I will definitely try using multiple monitors effectively. One for single tasking – bringing tasks from the other one.

  • Instead of single tabbing, I use two. One for what I’m working on, and one for the Chrome plugin OneTab. When I’m going through my email, on a break, etc. and open up a link, I sent it to OneTab to save for my next break or when I move on to that item on my to-do list. It really helps since it’s technically open, but the visual clutter isn’t there to distract you!

  • Katya Pavlopoulos

    Loving this post! Both practical and inspirational :) Great job, Kevan!

    I want to share my positive experience with the Pomodoro Technique. While working on a novel, I would usually have a few tabs open, be chatting with someone on FB, refresh my twitter feed periodically, etc. As a result, I would write about 1k in an hour. Not bad, but I wanted to write better and faster. So I changed up my routine a little bit. I would close all of my internet browsers except one — the one with the timer set for 10 or 25 minutes. I would outline (on paper or in my head) the next scene, go hide in a corner somewhere, and in complete silence start hammering away at the keyboard. On my first try, my word count doubled to 2k/hour. Most recently, I was able to write just over 600 words in a 10 minute single tasking sprint. That’s a word per second! Now, granted I had to master a couple wrist-stretching techniques after this breakthrough, but my productivity in writing shot up through the roof. I was able to reach a point where I no longer need that much time to make significant progress on my manuscript. This has been my best productivity hack so far :)

  • Andre Rozenbaum

    As usual, such an awesome article.

    Probably you don’t know, but cousera lunched a course called learning how to learn last week. I saw several techniques over there.

    I think it worth checking in it.

  • Pomodoro all the way! I’ve also been using Teux Deux with great effect!

    • Awesome to hear, Josh!

  • That awkward moment when you realize that a goldfish has a longer attention span than you. #sadface

    Great tips, as usual Kevan! I’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique (I think I learned it from you guys) a number of times and it really works. Other techniques are the “eat that frog” technique (starting your day by completing the biggest task first).

    Two other extensions you might want to check out: 1) To-doist (it asks you what your big goal is for that day and keeps stores your to-do list, so you see it every time you open another browser) and 2) StayFocusd (it seems similar to Anti-Social – it blocks whatever sites you consider to be a distraction for a period of time).

  • Oh, I forgot to add, Session Buddy is another extension you might want to check out. It stores all of your tabs for you as a session every time you open your browser. You can save them and name them as well.

    If I’m doing the single-task technique, I might have certain tabs open for a specific project. For example: when I’m doing my web design course, I save all of my training and exercises in a session so that when I’m done with that section, I store the session and close it when I’m done. Then I can get back to my next task.

    When it’s time to start my training another day, I just pull up that session and continue where I left off.

  • Great post. I love this topic. I constantly find myself getting distracted and multi-tasking. I noticed it especially while reading this post. My cell phone rang, an appliance delivery arrived which meant walking away from my computer no less than four times. Once I got back to it, I found a number of distractions embedded just in this post; two videos, at least 15 links to other content, the social media sharing calls to action on the left side, the invitation to “follow @kevanlee” and I don’t want to forget, the ad from Buffer that popped up in the lower right corner of my screen. I’ve never really thought about this from a reader’s point of view until today but I wonder if, as writers, we are including too many links and distractions that add to the problem.

    • Dora@Yuca’s

      I thought about all the links, too! I made it a game to ignore them all until I finished the article. It amazed me how much I wanted to move onto the next shiny thing!

  • David M Hobson

    Hey Kevan,

    another ripping post.

    Here’s a great resource for applying everything you have mentioned here, particularly the Pomodoro technique.

    It’s called Focus At Will ( *no affiliation. And it is my favourite productivity tool.

    The perfect companion for single-tasking.

    You simply set the time for the task, choose the music and tempo for the duration of the task… and off you go. More than just the pomodoro technique alone, the music and a starting bell help condition you into focusing when you use it. Really brilliant stuff.

    Also, another great source of info on this topic that you may already know is John Medina’s Brain rules:

    Keep bringing the awesomeness.

    Thanks Kevan,

    • Focus at will is awesome, good add David!

    • Great tip, David! Think I’ll try using this one soon! I’m quite familiar with John Medina – although I’ve yet to read Brain Rules! Medina was/is a professor at Seattle Pacific, where I went to school. Awesome to hear you enjoy his resources. :)

  • PointSpecial

    I’m not sure that multiple tabs is always multitasking. For example, I had about 20 unread emailed posts from Buffer that I hadn’t read yet. I went through which ones I wanted to read and opened then up in browser tabs on my tablet. I’ve monotasked my way through reading them. My multiple tabs has essentially been my feed reader. In fact, I went out if state for two nights and came back and am continuing to read!

    I simply don’t allow myself to even open the pieces I want to read most during work hours because I KNOW that they will ultimately distract me from my job at hand.

    • Dora@Yuca’s

      That’s a good way to know when you’re done. Tabs gone, articles read.

  • Julie Bodin

    I managed to have only one tab opened, I was reading mindfully this great post, I even watched the entire 3-min video (!) and then I don’t know what happened but I … I now have 5 tabs opened! Damn it!

    • Hi Julie! Congrats on reading mindfully and finishing the video! You earned extra credit for those ones – enough to cover 5 or more tabs. :)

  • Super article Kevan! I am constantly preach against multi-tasking in my various time and email management workshops and have developed a little exercise that really highlights the point that we humans can NOT truly multi-task.

    I get participants to write out the letters of the alphabet as quickly as they can and time them (a single task). Then they write out the numbers 1 to 26 (another single task) and time them. Finally, they try to multi-task these two activities by writing letter then number alternately (ie: a1, b2, c3 through to z26).

    The results consistently show that it takes 40-100% longer to do the same two tasks when trying to multi-task them. Plus it’s harder work mentally and mistakes are often made, sometimes recognised and sometimes not!

    Try it yourself – it’s an eye-opener!

  • krussellnd

    Oh my! I am down to three browsers (total of 20 tabs), Echofon, HipChat, and a few office programs open at once. No wonder I feel scattered! Gotta make some BIG changes.
    Thanks for the great post!

  • Javier D

    And now with every Buffer App update you too can achieve [forced] single tabbed browser success… Wonder how much productivity I’ve lost due to Buffer App?

  • Sylvia

    Good reminder, Kevan, of how to build discipline into our days! I’ve started to try a very loose version of the Pomodoro technique, and I can tell it’s helped boost my focus and productivity!

    However, even though I’m a huge fan of “To do lists,” personally for me that often isn’t as effective to keep me focused as scheduling a chunk of time to tackle a task by adding it to my Google calendar. Of course, scheduling takes a bit of forethought to prioritize and determine how much time the project will take. But that little extra work in making a decision on when to do the task helps me to set my day and get through my “to do’s” more effectively with less brain drain.

  • Thanks, great read Kevan. My former job required me to multitask a lot (or so I thought) and work as well as non-work related distractions were popping up constantly through my day. Currently I am working into the opposite direction and planning my activities in shorter slots, including active breaks, setting my phone to DND and using tools like moosti have helped me a lot. I still have some work in front of me though. PS: That video was loooong. :)

  • Thanks for the great read Kevan. My former job required me to multitask a lot (or so I thought) and work as well as non-work related distractions were popping up constantly through my day, making it difficult to stay on track. Currently I am working into the opposite direction and planning my activities in shorter slots, including active breaks, setting my phone to DND and using tools like moosti have helped me a lot. I still have some work to do though. PS: That video was loooong. :)

  • Sandra McCann

    Watched the three minute video… and was bored…and then discovered the time-jumps in the background clock. Less bored… slightly freaked out tho :-)

  • David Higgins

    Working at home and having ADHD, I pretty much have to do this.

    Your post, and even that YouTube video played a part in convincing me to build an app that blends single tasking with time blocking.

    I actually linked to this article on our Kickstarter page:

  • Luis Magalh√£es

    I think planning my web browsing the day before might be a bit too hardcore for me. I did notice that, after a few weeks of a constant meditation practice, I felt less frazzled and much more willing to focus on a single thing for larger periods.

  • Ramona Flowers

    thanks for this! As I have read in the Consumer Health Digest, work focus is a fickle thing, like if you got distracted for a bit, it will take a person at least 20 minutes to get back on track. I guess multi tasking is not really the way to go, having more task in one sitting can really make a person prone to mistakes

  • Stella Smith

    thanks for this, I would realy need this, as I have read in the Consumer Health Digest, our brains can only process much of the information that we are receiving. I would really think that multi tasking is counter productive

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