Tips to escape the clutches of multi-tasking

2020-03-02 @Technology

Let’s explore some ways to minimize the stimuli which deviates your focused attention from the primary task.


Eliminate Tabs

Tabs, or any equivalently cascading viewports to multiple workspaces, I consider inherently evil to productivity. They incite switching between workspaces in micro time slices; tabs rob your attention.

In addition, tabs drain further system resources (especially pertinent to graphical browsers) and the tab bar consumes screen real-estate.

Web browser tabs, VIM/Emacs tabs, image editor tabs, terminal multiplexor (ie Tmux) tabs called windows, or any workflow related tabs exhibit the same pitfall.

Instead, opt for buffers.


By buffers I refer to an invisible stack of workspaces, where typically the last-opened occupies the top.

In a web browser, for instance, as you follow a link in the existing window, the opened page appears on top, while the previous, possibly cached by the browser, remains beneath. You then cycle between these using the back and forward buttons/shortcuts.

Though entirely academic, the consequence of such a serialized mode of navigation is the huge incentive to stay put on the current page or branch of exploration until it has exhausted its need.

Other examples of buffers:

VIM buffers

A buffer is the natural abstraction for an opened file within VIM. Any further windows or tabs are nothing but viewports to existing buffers.

Without opening these windows or tabs, you don’t see any but the current buffer. The others may be referenced with the :ls normal-mode command.

Eliminate the window/tab mode of operation within VIM to gradually limit your attention to the current buffer. As a bonus, you regain screen real estate consumed by the tab/window lines.

To quickly cycle between the current and previous buffers, you can set up a handy mapping. In my case, I’ve designated the normal-mode backspace key:

nmap <BS> :b#<cr>

W3M buffers

The W3M console-based web browser (my likely second-favorite application next to VIM) handles buffers and tabs pretty much identically, at least on the surface.

As you eliminate tabs and follow links in the same window, buffers begin to stack. The paradigm likewise enables you to immediately recuperate the tab bar real-estate and emphasize the present webpage.

I use the following ~/.w3m/keymap shortcuts to switch back and forth between W3M buffers:

keymap B BACK
keymap < PREV
keymap > NEXT

BACK differs from PREV in that the former closes the present buffer, whereas PREV maintains the page cached, retrievable via the NEXT command. And in contrast to a graphical browser, terminal web browser cycling of cached buffers (pages) occurs instantaneously, given that the browser caches nothing but text.


The Tmux terminal multiplexor also employs tabs (called windows) and panes - multiple terminals aligned in some grid pattern in the active window. Take these possible steps to eliminate some of this visual stimuli:

If engaged in a focused activity, remove any stimulus to switch to the nonessential. Examples:

For the last two, it helps to be a bit of a hacker. See my Linux single-tasking write-up.

Opt for the console over graphical

For the Linux/Unix inclined, the merits of a console/terminal-based workflow are manifold. With emphasis on text over the graphical features, this type of workflow naturally eliminates much visual, attention-stealing stimuli.

Example reference posts:

Eliminate YouTube subscriptions.

Follow the updates via RSS feeds instead.

You might deem the approach unfaithful towards the channel/content provider. But ultimately, YT employs varied metrics towards ranking and promotion. Not subscribing to a channel does not prohibit you from effectively supporting the content provider.

What you gain in exchange is the freedom from opening the primary YouTube platform and becoming submerged into the ever consuming feed of recommended (and largely degenerate) content. Use the RSS reader to open the direct video links instead, economizing an incredible amount of otherwise wasted time.

See my instructions for migrating YT subscriptions to an RSS feed reader.

Eliminate the music player (not the music) from your attention.

Music can assist, but be wary of the visual provocations the music player itself is liable to render. Instead, launch your playlist, establish a set of shortcut keys to play/pause/skip a track, but otherwise eliminate the player from sight.

Choose the right type of music to aid your workflow.

Though highly subjective, what I consider the right type is the conductive, yet non-distracting. Much instrumental music facilitates the role.

My preferences lie with the soft industrial, the lighter electronic, and the minimal-chord change, mode-oriented Jazz compositions (much of the Post-Bop period).


Hide the screen toolbar and status bar

Find a way to hide whatever bars appearing at the screen edges, especially when engaged in a focused task such as writing, designing, or programming.

You don’t need a constant reminder of the date and time, WiFi signal strength, list of open tasks, the currently playing song or the CPU statistics, all lurking in your field of attention; not when involved in a focused activity.

This applies to a range of devices and environments: laptop, tablet, Windows, Linux, iOS, BSD, etc. As a bonus, you also gain the extra screen real estate.

These days I operate mainly within a Termux (pseudo-Debian) environment on an Android tablet, which I’ve configure to eliminate these bars whenever Termux (or a handful of other applications) load. Being a 7-inch screen device, this freed a severe portion of screen space.

Opt for analog tools when plausible.

A computer naturally facilitates a multi-tasking environment that ingrains (quiet virally) the varying task-switching mechanism (ie the shortcuts Alt-Tab, Ctrl-Tab) into muscle memory, priming us subconsciously to split our attention and deviate from the priority.

Paper, on the other hand, makes habitual cycling between tasks more difficult. At least I can’t immediately fathom any easily accessible ‘trigger’ to incite us into jumping between pages of a notebook.

The same applies to reading. It’s far easier to jump between reading materials on an electronic device in contrast to a paper book.

You cannot cultivate long, focused reading attention if you cycle between a 10-minute session of a classic novel, a few-minute blog post, a quick Wikipedia article and a social media feed.

When possible, ditch the electronic, opt for paper.

Eliminate the smartphone from sight.

When engaged in a focused activity, this tip should demand no explanation.


A consistent meditation practice helps retain attention span on one activity. Specifically:

Stop, stand up, and unplug every X minutes

You may find yourself immersed in the flow for hours, clenched to the seat, neglectful of any form of movement. While this mode of operation seems ultra-productive in the short term, you set yourself up for longer-term physiological pitfalls, including risk of burnout.

For a more sustainable workflow, stand up and take few-minute breaks every 20/30/40 minutes. Stretch, meditate, or simply walk around in that interim. Disconnect from the task.

Questions, comments? Connect.