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The Intentional iPhone Web Browsing Experience

In this Mindfulness Monday post, we explore the freedom of using a browser with intention on your iPhone.

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the concept of limiting the opportunity for distractions on the super computers we carry around on our person every day. These devices are incredibly fast, ubiquitous, and connected to everything and everyone all the time. It can be so easy to fall into a black hole of “just checks” in a matter of seconds if you allow your phone to control your attention.

The Problem: OMG Tabs!

Over 18 months ago, I noticed a pattern in my own iPhone usage that made me unhappy. I’m sure many readers will relate to the feeling of convenience an iPhone provides when a random thought or question buzzes through your mind. The answer is just a few taps away!

While handy, these rabbit trails aren’t always related to the task at hand, and they probably don’t deserve our immediate attention. In my case, I’d end up with dozens of Safari tabs that ranged from shopping sites, Wikipedia articles, tech news, command line documentation, one-off unit conversions, and who knows what else (and I’m not even counting the orphan tabs that web conferencing apps like Zoom or Webex generate when you join a meeting from your phone).

Several days later, I’d go back through all these tabs and try to pick up where I’d left off, only to find that I had only a vague sense (if any) of why I had even searched for something in the first place. I’d end up declaring “tab bankruptcy” and start a brand new session. But in a matter of days or weeks, I’d be back at the same confusing place, wondering who opened all these random tabs and why.

That was when I finally recognized this pattern as a problem that I wanted to fix. And, I also realized that the main impetus of this problem was distraction and a lack of focus.

The Solution: A Trusted System

While I’ve used a pocket notebook in the past to jot down random I wonder… questions or topics I’d like to learn more about, there are times when using an internet-connected phone is just quicker. For example, if I want to convert fluid ounces to milliliters, I probably need that information now versus looking it up later when I’m at a computer. You could also argue that voice assistants are the perfect solution to this problem, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The key here is finding a system that you can rely on. Once your brain knows that random thoughts are actually collected and acted on a reliable way, you can focus on what really matters instead of feeling anxious about a cloud of unanswered questions.

In terms of the Getting Things Done methodology, I decided to establish an inbox — a place where I could drop an idea and decide what to do with it before moving on.

For me, the solution I decided to try 18 months ago was a completely new browser: Firefox Focus.

What is Firefox Focus?

Firefox Focus main screen

Well, you’ve probably heard of Firefox, right? It’s the same browser under the hood, but it’s been intentionally limited in functionality. There are security and privacy features that Firefox tout in their marketing, but that’s not what draws me to this particular browser.

I use it for one reason: it does not include tabbed browsing functionality.

That’s right. You get one tab, and there is no functionality to open another. If a web link includes instructions to open the page in a new tab, Firefox ignores it and opens the page in the current window.

Compared to full-fledged browsers, this simple limitation would be maddening. But in my use case, it’s perfect because it makes me focus on one thing at a time.

The other major feature for me is the fact that Firefox Focus erases my session after a few hours. The knowledge that my session is always temporary adds a more intentional focus to my time in the browser. If I get distracted by something important, I know that whatever I was looking up may be gone when I open the app again. If it’s truly important, I have to do something to make sure it doesn’t fall through the cracks. But, it’s also nice to always see a blank slate when I open the app.

How I Use Firefox Focus

18 months ago, Firefox Focus took the place of Safari in my iPhone dock. In that time, I haven’t noticed an urge to bring Safari back. In fact, Safari is stuffed away in some folder a screen away. I use Firefox Focus as an inbox for my random questions and quick lookups for information. I’ve noticed a few common themes in how I process these things now.

  1. Quick lookup. Once I open Firefox Focus to look something up, I know that I have to either finish the task quickly or figure out where it needs to go. In most cases, I’ll find the answer I need and close the app after erasing my session.
  2. Process for later. If I determine that I need more time to look into something, or want to browse a site on a bigger screen, I have to decide in the moment where it needs to go. Does this belong in Pocket? Do I need to send this to someone else or to a Slack group? Do I need to add this link as a note in my task manager for later?
  3. Stay focused on one thing. In some cases, I’m already reading or browsing something in the app when I have an idea to look up something else. This usually spurs me to act on the current item (process it) so I can move on to the next item.

In the first case, the old me that used Safari would have closed the app without closing the tab, contributing to the messy list of tabs that didn’t need to stick around. Firefox Focus takes care of that problem for me by always clearing the cache after a few hours. It’s nice that it doesn’t clear it immediately when I close the app in the event I need to switch back and forth from another app, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that anything I’ve neglected for a few hours probably wasn’t important and deserving of my attention anyway. In fact, I’ve even developed the habit of pro-actively erasing my session when I’m done looking something up before I close the app. That way I’m always greeted with the blank slate.

The second use case is where my workflow has really started to shine through. Falling down a Google black hole is sometimes productive, but it’s more often just a time-suck. If I want to learn about something, there are better ways of reading and researching. Staring at my phone for hours is not how I prefer to do that, and Firefox Focus keeps me on track. I have to ask myself exactly what I want to do with this page or idea before I can move on to the next thing, and I also know that I can’t procrastinate the decision because the page will eventually disappear. The stakes are relatively high, but that’s a great motivator in my case!

The third case is really just an extension of the second, but just shows how the system works for me. I trust it, and that’s what matters.

What does a trusted “browser inbox” system look like in your workflow? Maybe this isn’t something you struggle with, but I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who has dealt with dozens of forgotten tabs. This newfound intentionality and deliberate focus when I’m using the browser on my iPhone has brought a calm and trust to my busy brain that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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