Talking about their struggles with a stressful life, someone said to me: “My problem is that I’ve got too many tabs open in my brain.” At the time, I thought it was just another example of the increasing habit of using computer terms for ordinary life, as when you hear someone say, “Sorry, I’m in data overload mode,” or “Let’s interface over coffee.” On reflection, however, I think it says something important.
The background to this idea of “having too many tabs open” is something that today many of us are all too familiar with. We load a web browser (Safari, for example) and open a webpage, perhaps to check our email. Then we chase up other things, checking on weather, sports, news and then, perhaps, continue trawling around the web as we research things, read reviews and so on, without closing any of the previous webpages. The result is that open tabs proliferate: I gather there are people who quite commonly find themselves with a hundred open tabs. Eventually the browser slows down and up pops the warning: Too many browser tabs open. It’s a computing habit that has been well studied and been found to be bad practice. Although it may give the user the illusion of successful multi-tasking, in reality it isn’t very productive. It leaves lots of things unfinished, weakens the focus of the user, and encourages the sort of displacement activity where you find that you have mysteriously left a hard activity for an easier one.
Applied to life, having “too many tabs open” is a very common phenomenon. Many of us have lives in which there is simply too much going on, and which we don’t manage in the best way. On the screen of our existence there are far too many tabs open. We may have one cluster of tabs to do with work: projects, trips, a forthcoming meeting; and another cluster to do with home: that DIY job, the tidying and the gardening. Then there are all those other collections of tabs associated with our social life, families, finances, holidays, hobbies and so on. Matters are made worse because these are open browser tabs. They are not some sort of static to-do list; they are live issues that we have commenced but not completed. We have either found ourselves bored with them, or been distracted away by the call of some other tab.
In part, this is a problem of the modern age. Life is so complicated. Today, everything from a toaster to a car comes with a manual that is at least 30 pages thick – and a demand that it be registered online, connected to the Internet and given a software update. Where once we only received communications from other people once a day, when the post fell through the letterbox, now we undergo a continuous deluge of emails, tweets and updates from the moment we wake to when we fall asleep. Once, when we left our houses, we left our telephones behind; now they pursue us everywhere. Once we lived in a world in which we had space to think and live; now we are under pressure to respond and react continuously. We have too many tabs open.
There’s a lot wrong with this. One danger is that we find it easy to slip from those difficult issues we need to address, into easier ones that don’t need our attention. Another is that it’s confusing: I doubt I am the only person who finds himself asking: “What exactly am I supposed to be working on now?” It’s also stressful. In our minds we know that these tabs are open; we can hear them whispering for our attention. It also discourages serious thinking; after all, you can focus deeply on a little but not deeply on a lot.
What’s the solution? First, we need to have the humility to know our limits. It was always a wise rule to never bite off more than you can chew, and it’s even wiser in today’s hectic world. I can well imagine that, somewhere, there’s already a gravestone with the sad inscription: ‘He just had too many tabs open’.
Above all, prioritise. We need to ask ourselves: do I need to do this? Do I need to do it now? Can I do it well? I suggest we need to reflect on the following little story in Luke’s Gospel, and note its application both to our mind and spirit.
‘As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what He taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said: “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to You that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But the Lord said to her: “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42 NLT)
Indeed, there is only one thing worth being concerned about! Let’s make that priority our priority.
Rev Canon J.John