The Rule of Sevens, or, Taming the Tab-Slut

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If you’re an information architect or user experience designer, or even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard the “Rule of Seven” axiom. That is, Seven (plus or minus 2) is the magical number of things your brain can comfortably hold in working memory before it freaks out and either shuts down or needs help. Call it “channel capacity” or “user-friendliness”(why does that term seem so antiquated?), call it what you will. Information architects know that chunking things into seven or less items or categories in a navigation bar is just a good, humane thing to do. It has been posited that a tightly-knit group of seven people is an optimal community size, because above that number communication tends to break down and not everyone interacts naturally with each other and cliques begin forming. Seven digit phone numbers, seven days of the week, seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the Magnificent Seven…the list goes on and on if you want to look for it. You can speculate as to why there is this natural limit on our perceptual machinery (my tongue-in-cheek hypothesis is that it’s the average of the number of fingers on one hand and the total number of fingers) but whatever the real reason, I accept it as a nice and useful constraint.

Recently, I started thinking about applying the Rule of Sevens (plus or minus two) to my own version of “Getting Things Done”. You see, I am a tab-slut.

If you walked by my monitor at any point in the day (or night) you would probably be astounded at the sheer number of tabs I have open at one time in my browser. On average I’d say I have at least 20 to 30 tabs open. And one day I asked myself, Why? Why does each and every one of these different websites need to be open? Is this a symptom of ADD? Or am I just lazy? I mean, you could say the same thing when you see the stack of dirty dishes in my sink (though I’m not as bad about that).

So as an experiment in productivity, I decided to impose the following rule on my browsing:

Thou shalt not have more than 7 browser tabs open at any given time.

Of course this also implies that Thou shalt not have multiple browser windows open (if you can help it).

I welcome anyone else to try this experiment with me and share your discoveries. I promise to post my thoughts at the end of today, because after tomorrow, I will leaving for my honeymoon, where I have decided to take things a step further and go completely off the grid. Wish me luck! (I’m gonna need it! Bad!)

Related Posts: Reflections of a tab-a-holic, Stuffing our faces with information

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