Why Browser Tabs Are Secretly Making You Unproductive and Unhappy

Are you ever sitting at work feeling totally brain dead, struggling to find the momentum to complete the day’s tasks? We’ve all been there.

At this moment, you are likely experiencing cognitive overload. Symptoms include a lack of motivation, fewer completed tasks, and general frustration.

Cognitive overload is affecting people more than ever, drastically affecting productivity and happiness.  To solve this problem, we need a new approach to simplify how work gets done.

The majority of your colleagues are probably searching for a new opportunity

The Washington Post found in a study of 19,000 professionals that ~71% are looking for a new opportunity. Major contributing factors include feeling underappreciated, underpaid, and stressed.

percentage employees unhappy at work

Sales jobs are especially stressful. Harvard Business Review estimates that annual sales rep turnover is around 27%. To put that in perspective, if you took a new sales job with 3 other people, you can expect that 1 of you won’t be there in a year. When companies account for recruiting costs, training costs, missed revenue, customer churn risk, and effect on morale, this is a HUGE problem.

Maybe those 27% just weren’t cut out for sales. But what other factors could be contributing to such a high percentage of turnover?

Cognitive overload is a growing epidemic

Cognitive load is the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory.

In other words, it’s the amount of info we can process at once. Surpassing this threshold leads to cognitive overload, causing productivity to plummet and frustration to ensue.

To understand cognitive load, we first need to explore how our memory works.

There are thousands of pieces of information surrounding us at a given moment. We can’t process everything at once, so our mind must pick and choose what to focus on.

There are three main parts that make up our memory: our sensory memory, our working memory, and our long-term memory. Our sensory memory is taking in all stimuli and filtering out the vast majority. The information that our sensory memory dubs important makes it through to our working memory, where it can either be encoded into our long-term memory or filtered out and forgotten.

For example, consider how you stop noticing an annoying sound after a few minutes even though it’s still there. It’s being filtered out by our sensory memory.

George Miller, a Harvard psychologist, found that our working memory can hold anywhere from 5-9 pieces of information at a time (Miller’s Law). Anything beyond this creates an error or some kind of interference in the task at hand, which ultimately leads to inefficiency, failed tasks, and frustration.

Miller’s Law: our working memory can hold anywhere between 5-9 pieces of information at a time

The Split-Attention Effect: why we feel overwhelmed by too many tabs

Another interesting principle, known as the split-attention effect, explains how cognitive load drastically increases in poorly designed systems.  When people are required to split their attention in two or more places, their ability to learn and effectively complete tasks drastically decreases.

Here’s an example:

cognitive load at work

Which figure is easier to understand?

Example 1 is easier to understand because you don’t have to split your attention in 2 areas; Example 1 puts the angle measures directly where you need to interpret them.

Could this be affecting us at work?

browser tabs cognitive overload

Look familiar?

Browser tabs, which split our attention across dozens of web pages, are leading to an extreme case of split-attention effect.  The result: cognitive overload.  Having too many tabs is sapping your energy and sabotaging your results. But how did we get here?

The software as a service (SaaS) boom of the past 10 years

Over the past 10 years, the number of SaaS applications has exploded. According to the National Venture Capital Association, from 2006 through 2016 the number of VC investments in software grew 200%.  This massive investment in new technology caused the number of applications being used by the average employee to jump 24% from 2015-2017 (Okta’s 2018 Business @ Work.)

The number now hovers around 15 different applications used per employee.

Source: Okta Business @ Work 2018

The average employee uses about 15 SaaS applications today

What does it look like to manage so many applications?

The first browser with tabs was launched by Adam Stiles in 1997.

In the mid to late part of 2000, as software began to move to the cloud, people began to work more and more in their browser and less on their desktop. Browser tabs became the core of application organization.

cycle of browser tabs

The Cycle of Browser Tabs

The importance of organization to salespeople

Organization is always a positive skill, but it’s critical in selling. Being organized can mean the difference between being a top performer and finding a new career outside of sales. But why?

Salespeople are typically managing anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred accounts. Each company has specific information must be taken into consideration (i.e industry, size, location, etc.). Within each account, there are a variety of stakeholders (5.4 on average according to CEB) that can be involved in the decision. Many factors about each of these people must be taken into account. What is their role and goal? What is their DM power? Are they positive influencer or negative influencer? What is their dog’s name? etc.

Now consider the different applications that these salespeople are managing, each containing important information related to each account and each person at the account.

One salesperson who sells B2B explained his process:

“Before hopping onto a call, I check my notes in Evernote, then jump to Salesforce and search for the account. I’ll pull that up, and open up the contact record for each person alongside their Linkedin profile, involved in the deal. I’ll then check Intercom, Gmail, HubSpot, Google Docs, and Slack to gather any other important context.”

He manages over a hundred accounts, all of which are in different stages of the sales process, if even in the sales process at all. He’s also managing a Business Development Rep (who books meetings for him) and answering to a sales manager and director who often hop onto his calls. There are literally dozens of pieces of information he needs to keep track of and understand…for each account.

sales rep tech stack

The Sales Rep Tech Stack

Making matters even worse, he opens each of these different pieces of software in a different browser tab.  This results in massive split attention.

The same sales rep above mentioned he typically has between 10-15 tabs open for each account.

Remember Miller’s Law of 5-9? This doesn’t cut it.

Remember split attention effect? Tabs silo all of this information out of view.

Now add in all the other distractions at work.

A salesperson’s cognitive load doesn’t stand a chance. And these are the people who are providing a company with revenue, the life and blood of an organization.

This rep has been selling for over 6 years and has mastered this process, but what about new sales reps? They are in BIG trouble.

Modern selling takes a new kind of sales rep that possesses incredible organization, memory, candor, interpersonal skills, hunger, and business acumen.

It’s no wonder turnover is so high and sales rockstars are so rare.

The current solution to cognitive overload?

There really isn’t a good one.

Many companies choose a “Mothership” software. These are platforms that aim to be the “hub” of all of this dispersed information and data. They use their clout in the industry to encourage other smaller, specialized solutions to integrate with them.

But this solution has problems.

Problem 1: Integrations are extremely resource intensive. They often require development work to build, an IT team to manage, and a lot of money to maintain.

Problem 2: Each function (sales, marketing, support) has their own personal “Mothership” platform.

silos with sales marketing support

Yet all of these functions are dealing with the same accounts and all have the same goal:

They are all aiming to provide an incredibly personalized experience to close and grow these accounts into more revenue.

Problem 3: – These platforms live inside of more browser tabs…

You are less happy because of cognitive overload

From a biochemical standpoint, completing tasks releases dopamine, the happiness chemical.  In contrast, cognitive overload reduces your output and creates errors.  As a result, cognitive overload leads to less productivity, less dopamine, and less happiness.

5 Steps to take right now to decrease cognitive load at work

What are some actionable steps that can be taken to combat cognitive overload?

1. Limit distractions at the office

Limiting distractions doesn’t mean sucking the fun and energy out of a workplace. Instead, maybe it means having your team turn off their cell phones at certain hours.

2. Audit your tech stack

Explore what software your team is using. What’s helpful? What isn’t? What is or isn’t being used? Check out Intello.io which helps teams understand how their tech stack is being utilized.

3. Build out processes to streamline how certain tasks are completed

Shadow the most productive people. Learn about their process and how they get from point A to point B in completing certain tasks. Build out a best practices guide for everyone, especially new employees, to follow.

4. Better organization = Fewer clicks and fewer tabs = less cognitive load = more productivity and happiness

The fewer steps that need to be taken to complete a task, the less cognitive load, and the higher likelihood of that task being completed effectively. Building on the process above, how can you help your team to limit clicks and be more organized? Maybe explore an investment in automation, or hire cheaper, less experienced team members (like an intern), to help with the more tedious tasks.

5. Stay tuned on what RocketVisor is building =)

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