Pluralistic: Tabs give me superpowers (25 Jan 2024)

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A screenshot of Firefox opening several tabs at once.

Tabs give me superpowers (permalink)

"Lifehacking" is in pretty bad odor these days, and with good reason: a once-useful catch-all for describing how to make things easier has become a pit of productivity porn, grifter hustling, and anodyne advice wreathed in superlatives and transformed into SEO-compliant listicles.

But I was there when lifehacking was born, and I'm here to tell you, it wasn't always thus. Lifehacking attained liftoff exactly 19 years and 348 days ago, on Feb 11, 2004, when Danny O'Brien presented "Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks" at the 0'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (aka ETCON). I was there, and I took notes:

O'Brien's inspiration was his social circle, in which people he knew to be no smarter or better or motivated than anyone else in that group were somehow able to do much more than their peers, in some specific domain. O'Brien delved deeply into these peoples' lives and discovered that each of them had merely ("merely!") gotten very good at using one or two tools to automate things that would otherwise take up a lot of their time.

These "hacks" freed up their practitioners to focus on things that mattered more to them. They accomplished the goal set out in David Allen's Getting Things Done: to make a conscious choice about which things you are going to fail to do today, rather than defaulting to doing the things that are easy and trivial, at the expense of the things that matter, but are more complicated:

One trait all those lifehacks shared: everyone who created a little hack was faintly embarrassed by it, and assumed that others who learned about their tricks would find them trivial or foolish. O'Brien changed the world by showing that other people were, in fact, delighted and excited to learn about their peers' cool little tricks.

(Unfortunately, this eventually opened the floodgates of overheated posts about some miraculous hack that turned out to indeed be silly and trivial or even actively bad, but that wasn't O'Brien's fault!)

I'm one of those people whom others perceive as very "productive." There are some objective metrics on which this is true: I wrote nine books during lockdown, for example. Like the lifehackers O'Brien documented in 2004, I have lots of little hacks that aren't merely a way of getting more done – they're a way to make sure that I get the stuff that matters to me (taking care of my family and my health, and writing books) done.

A lot of these lifehacks boil down to making your life easier. There's a spot on our kitchen counter where I put e-waste. Whenever I go out to the car, I carry any e-waste out and put it in a bag in the trunk. Any time I'm near our city dump, I stop and throw the bag into their e-waste bin. This is now a habit, and habits are things you get for free: I spend zero time thinking about e-waste, which means I have more time to think about things that matter (and our e-waste still ends up in the right place).

There's other ways I use habits to make my life easier: after many years, I learned how to write every day:

For longer-form works like novels, I "leave myself a rough edge," finishing the day's work in the middle of a sentence. That way I get a few words for free the next day, meaning I never start the day's work wondering which words I'll type:

One of the most powerful habits I've cultivated is to have a group of daily tabs that I open in a new browser every morning. The meat of this tab group is websites I want to check in with every day, either because they don't have RSS feeds, or because I want to make sure I never miss an update.

This tab-group habit started before RSS was widespread, when most of the websites I wanted to check in on every day didn't have feeds yet, and for many years, this group was just a set of daily reads. But over the years, I started throwing things in the tab-group that I needed to stay on top of.

My daily tabs are in a folder called "unfucked rota" (they were originally in a folder called "rota," which got corrupted and had to be reconstructed in a folder I called "fucked rota," until I finally took a couple hours off and got it in good running order, hence "unfucked rota"). As I type this, "unfucked rota" contains more than a hundred websites I visit every morning, but it also contains:

  • The edit-history pages for four Wikipedia entries I'm watching;

  • Chronological feeds of my books on Amazon and Audible, to catch counterfeits as they are posted;

  • The parent notification portal for my kid's school;

  • The mileage history for the airline I flew on yesterday (I'll delete this once the flight is posted);

  • The credit card history for a card I reported a fraudulent charge on (I'll delete this once the refund is posted);

  • The sell-pages for three products that are out of stock (I'll delete these once the products are in stock and ordered);

  • A bookmarked newest-first Ebay search for a shirt I like that has been discontinued by the manufacturer;

  • The new-survey-completed pages for my last two Kickstarters;

  • The courier tracking page for an item being shipped sea-freight to me from Asia.

The tail end of this unfucked rota changes all the time, but as you can tell, it's got a lot of stuff that would be time-consuming to build a whole new system to track, but which has a web-page that can be easily added to a daily, habitual check-in and then removed when it's not relevant anymore.

Some of these things have email notifiers or RSS feeds, but those are too easy to lose in the noise. I generally delete email from ecommerce sites unread, since 99.99% of the messages they send me are unsolicited marketing nonsense, not the "notify me when this is back in stock" message I do want to see (same goes for my kid's school, which sends me fifty unimportant messages for every message that I must reply to).

Most of the internet is still on the web, which means it can be bookmarked, which means that it takes me one second to add it to the group of things I'm staying on top of, and one second to remove from that group. I get up in the morning, middle-click the "unfucked rota" item in my bookmarks pane, make a cup of coffee, and then sit down and race through those tabs, close-close-close.

It takes less than a second to scan a tab to see if it's changed (and if I close a tab too quickly, the ctrl-shift-T "unclose" shortcut is there in muscle-memory, another habit). The whole process takes between one and 15 minutes (depending on whether there's anything useful and new in one of those tabs).

Tabs, like lifehacks, are also in bad odor. Everyone stresses about how many tabs they have open. It's even inspired Rusty Foster's excellent newsletter, Today In Tabs:

But this is a very different way to think about tabs. Rather than opening a window full of tabs that need your detailed, once-off attention later, this method is about using groups of tabs so that you can pay cursory, frequent attention to them.

In a world full of administrative burdens, where firms and institutions play the "sure, we'll do that, but you're going to have to track our progress" game to get out of living up to their obligations, this method is a powerful countermeasure:

My little tab habit is so incredibly useful, such a powerful way to seize back time and power from powerful actors who impose burdens on me, that I sometimes forget how, for other people, tabs are a symptom of a life that's spiraling out of control. For me, a couple hundred tabs are a symbol of a couple hundred tasks that I'm totally on top of, a symbol of control wrestled back from others who are hostile to my interests.

This isn't how tabs were "meant" to be used, of course. It's an example of the kind of "innovation" that comes from users repurposing things in ways their designers didn't necessarily anticipate or intend.

This is what Jonathan Zittrain meant by "generative" technology back in 2008, when he published his incredibly prescient The Future of the Internet: And How To Stop It:

For Zittrain, "generativity" was the property of some technologies that let its users generate new, useful tools and solutions for themselves (this is very different from "generative AI!")

Zittrain described how "curated" computing systems, like mobile devices that relied on apps that couldn't be adapted by their users, were dead ends for generativity. 15 years later, the dismal world of apps has proven him right:

To the extent that "lifehacking" is about doing more, rather than being more deliberate about what you accomplish, it can be harmful. I am not immune to the failure modes of lifehacking:

But overall, using tabs as something I close, rather than something I open, is a source of comfort and calm for me. For one thing, ripping through a group of tabs every morning means that I don't have to worry about missing something if I go too fast. I'll get another chance tomorrow:

Decades ago, Dori Smith dubbed her pioneering blog her "#Backup Brain":

At their best, our systems – be they physical, like a spot on the counter where the e-waste goes, or digital, like a tab-group – are "cognitive prostheses." They allow us to move important things from the highly contested, busy and precious space between our ears and out there into the world:

Like those lifehackers that O'Brien studied for his presentation in 2004, I confess to feeling a little silly about telling you all about this. For me, this habit of decades is so ingrained that it feels trivial and obvious. And yet, when I look at people in my life struggling to stay on top of a million nagging administrative tasks that could be easily watched through a morning's flick through a tab-group, I can't help but think that maybe some of you will find a useful idea or two in my unfucked rota.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Towards a non-evil social networking service

#20yrsago What kind of people are companies?

#15yrsago Disagree with a flight attendant? You’re a terrorist

#10yrsago Korean plastic surgeon removes towering jars of excised jawbones after fine

#10yrsago #Euromaidan: Must-see photos and stories from the front lines

#10yrsago Why the hyper-rich turn into crybabies when “one percent” is invoked

#5yrsago Predatory lender found to have swindled veterans’ pensions for eight years, so Trump’s CFPB fined him $1

#5yrsago Spies tried to infiltrate Citizen Lab and trick them into talking about their research on Israeli spytech company NSO Group

#5yrsago The Curse of Bigness: Tim Wu channels Brandeis on Big Tech (and Big Everything Else)

Colophon (permalink)

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