Too many tabs open – education & work design

Photo: Pawel Szvmanski

12 weeks into lock-down I succumb to an anxiety brain fog. I dialled my 4th emergency service, IT.

Irritable, an acute sense of slow thinking and processing, not feeling myself, I admitted to having forgotten a standard access code used over twenty times a day!

An exceptionally tasking week on all fronts – home working, homeschooling and ‘life’ and possibly the memo from the Welsh Government about no life beyond a 5 mile radius for the foreseeable. With heavy heart, I stared into my captor screen.

A moment of clarity teased. Too many tabs open.

System overload

Metaphorically speaking, hit operational overload, then we all slow down, becoming less efficient. The constant switching between tasks and an increasing number of tabs reducing attention span and depth of thinking. A difficult one to accept if you take pride in multi-tasking. Human symptoms including fatigue, forgetfulness, confusion, irritability, and unstable emotion.

Lost ‘space’

Respectful of the need to shift ‘online’ as a means to get life back into motion, I still worry about societal speed of embedding a heavier geared education and work-life online existence for the long term. I am experienced in both, yet still find myself somewhat bruised and battered by the dissolution of dedicated personal time, rumination and digestion, lost in a race against the clock. We have seen that for many, lock-down output has grown, in part due to the difficulty to judge the beginning and end of the working day. Yet, this is not a new awakening. We already have mounds of research that evidences, for example, the WFH or part-time brigade ‘pay’ or ‘gift’ well for their shift flexibility. That those who gain schedule control over their work increase their amount of unpaid overtime (Chung & van der Horst, 2018). A more recent Covid-19 poll by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES, April 2020) found 48 per cent were putting in longer and more irregular hours than they would under normal circumstances. And this excludes the wider impact on diet, exercise, mental health and even alcohol consumption. I can personally testify to poorer sleep patterns and more frequent bouts of exhaustion. As our ‘safe space’ is entirely subsumed by our work or ‘connectivity’ it’s nigh-on-impossible to detach.

Questioning ‘how’ as much as for ‘how long’

Mapping a deteriorating human ‘lockdown condition’ to long-term work and education design, and considering both the employees and educators, not just the benefits to customers and learners, we all have some key post-COVID19 challenges to navigate.

I both enjoy and embrace online pedagogy and blended work life, it’s an effective design yet am sensitised to the dangers of over-commitment or over-loading to an online existence. And quite, specifically, canvass for the need to hard-wire in personal time and space in both education and work contexts.

Overload with ‘content’ online or treat ‘online’ as a technology -supported replication of the offline status quo, we risk a decline in attention, concentration and quality. While we should look to balance intrinsic cognitive load depending on the complexity of the task e.g. the number of elements and the degree of interactivity required by the learning materials or interactions, we should also now be striving to cut the ‘extraneous’ cognitive load i.e. the irrelevant cognitive activities that just unnecessarily distract or over-complicate (Van Merrienboer & Sweller, 2005). And yes, that does mean a more considered and depthful review of what ‘engagement’ should look like on-line. What ‘indeed ‘presence’ requires, or when it does/does not benefit, in interactions such as the ‘new norm’ regular teams/zoom calls.

The tools employed themselves, the computer or phone, also create a heavy draw of off-task activity (Neiterman & Zaza, 2019). There is a distinct lure of a new tab, or call of a filling inbox or app notification. Florida State University (2015) are able to show that just awareness of notification, without looking at it or responding to it, will steal some of your attention. Firth et al. (2019) warn ‘media multi-tasking‘ must be distinguished from typical multi-tasking, as the internet has an amplified effect on our attentional capacities.

Being online for so long each day also impacts our memory. The sheer amount of data or information available is changing the way we are remembering things. We take fewer notes and remember less from a virtual meeting. The internet has become a “supernormal stimulus” for transactive memory, changing the way we store, retrieve, and even value knowledge (Firth et al, 2019). The long-term implications to the structure and function of the human brain unknown.

Any mitigating strategies in the short-term?

These are my current top 5:

  1. Self-limit number of tabs open at any one time – to reduce cognitive overload
  2. Down-dial the new time-thief, the teams call to reduce online synchronous activity – yes, a quick call/memo will suffice!
  3. Timetable/embed space or think-time between online activities/tasks/work output demands – we all (workers/learners) need time to think and reflect on our responses, especially if they are to be meaningful
  4. Reduce tool overload: avoid exposing ourselves/learners/employees to too many tools at once – sometimes simplicity is just better!
  5. Invest time in offline ways to connect and maintain a work-life balance (Bali, 2020) – review personal priorities and what it is, or means, to ‘live’ life away from the white glare of technology


Bali, M. (2020) ‘Response to The Shift to Remote Learning: The Human Element‘ by Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, 25th March 2020 [online]. Available: [Accessed 13th June 2020].

Chang, S.L. & Ley, K. (2006) ‘A Learning Strategy to Compensate for Cognitive Overload in Online Learning: Learner Use of Printed Online Materials’, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 5(1), pp 104-117.

Chung, H., & van der Horst, M. (2018) ‘Flexible Working and Unpaid Overtime in the UK: The Role of Gender’, Parental and Occupational Status, Soc Indic Res, (2018), pp. 1-6.

Eshleman, K. (2020) ‘Response to The Shift to Remote Learning: The Human Element‘ by Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, 25th March 2020 [online]. Available: [Accessed 13th June 2020].

Firth, J., Torous , J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J.A., Steiner, G.Z., Smith, L., Alvarez‐Jimenez, M., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C.J. & Sarris, J. (2019) ‘The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition’, World Psychiatry, 18(2), June 2019, pp. 119-129.

IES (2020) ‘IES Working at Home Wellbeing Survey 2020’, Institute for Employment Studies [online]. Available: [Accessed 13th June 2020].

Neiterman, E., & Zaza, C. (2019) ‘A Mixed Blessing? Students’ and Instructors’ Perspectives about Off-Task Technology Use in the Academic Classroom’, The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(1).

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015) ‘The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), pp. 893-897.

Van Merrienboer, J.J.G. & Sweller, J. (2005) ‘Cognitive Load Theory and Complex Learning: Recent Developments and Future Directions’, Educational Psychology Review, 17(2), pp. 147-177.


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