Browser tabs. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They’re both incredibly useful and an extremely annoying suck on your productivity and your computer’s system resources. But perhaps there is a way to use multiple tabs the way the universe intended without letting them run roughshod over your life.
It seems barely believable now, but in the early days of the web, we mostly made do with a single tab for our browsing. You loaded up one page, and then when you were done with that, you loaded up the next one. If you really wanted to treat yourself, you might open up a second browser window.
And we’re not here to bash browser tabs too much — for jumping between documents, articles, social media posts, and everything else, they’re invaluable. Web browsing would be a slower and more frustrating process without them. The trick is to know how to use them smartly.
Use your browser’s other features
Let us reintroduce you to a browser feature too often forgotten: the browser window. For the youngsters out there, it works a little bit like a tab, only it pops up in its own separate window, hiding what’s underneath. In most browsers, Ctrl+N (or Cmd+N on a Mac) will launch a brand new browser window.
The benefit of browser windows rather than tabs is that they stack up on top of each other rather than slotting in side by side. Admittedly, your computer might still slow to a crawl if you open up too many of them, but you won’t be constantly distracted by movement in the tab bar as a new message, email, or tweet comes in; nor will you lose pages in the same way as you do with tabs as their size shrinks down to a sliver.
You can always use tabs inside windows like normal—have separate browser windows (with tabs) for each project, have one window for work and one for leisure, keep one window dedicated to social media and one for everything else… use windows however you like, but use them to wean yourself off your tab dependency.
Another built-in browser tool you might be neglecting is bookmarks. We’ve written before about how this venerable browser feature can still be useful—keeping your research and read-it-later lists in order, for example, and generally helping you get a handle on the sprawling expanse of the web.
Many of us are no doubt familiar with opening up tab after tab that we meant to get back to and then never do, leaving them to either gather dust for days on end or to be closed en masse with a bunch of other tabs, never to be looked at again. Why not save these tabs as bookmarks instead? Even better, save them into separate folders depending on how you’re going to use them again in the future.
For example, you could have one bookmarks folder for every interesting link you come across during the course of the working day that you’re going to get back to when you’re not actually working; or you could have a folder for all the material related to the essay you’re writing, rather than having them all sprawled out as open tabs. Even better, your browser will sync your bookmarks across devices for you.
Install the best tab add-ons
Plenty of third-party app developers reckon they can do better than the major browsers when it comes to tab management, and a lot of them are right, too. Dive into the add-on and extension libraries for your favourite browser—especially if that browser is Chrome or Firefox—and you’ll find numerous add-ons to help you use tabs in a more productive way.
Some of the best ones are the simplest ones: The Great Suspender (Chrome), simply suspends tabs that you haven’t looked at in a while, freeing up system resources. You can choose how long the add-on waits before suspending tabs, set certain sites and pinned tabs as exempt from the process, and set several more customisation options.
Meanwhile, Tree Style Tab (Firefox) gives you a new perspective on your tabs—in a tree-style structure, if you hadn’t guessed—and that in turn might help you figure out which tabs you really do need and which ones you can live without. It also makes it much easier to group tabs based on topic.
Tab Snooze (Chrome) does exactly what its name suggests—it lets you snooze tabs until later in the day, later in the week, later in the month, or whenever you like. Throw a few dollars a month in the direction of the developer, and you can access bonus features like keyboard shortcuts and support for snoozing blocks of tabs at once.
If you must open up multiple tabs—and maybe a few more than you should—then All Tabs Helper (Firefox) can come in handy. It lets you manage your tabs in lists (for quick opening and closing), can spot duplicate tabs, lets you search through tab titles, and much more. It’s like the ultimate browser tabs toolkit.
Last but not least is xTab (Chrome), which simply limits how many tabs you can have open. Pinned tabs, tabs playing audio, and tabs you haven’t looked at yet are exempt. When you hit the limit, you can choose to sacrifice the oldest or the least recently used tab as new tabs open up, or just block new tabs from opening at all.
Know your tab tricks
We’re not here to banish tabs from your browsing life altogether—we just want to help you use them in a more intelligent way (Ctrl+click or Cmd+click is a handy way to open up links in new background tabs, for example).
Right-click on a tab in your browser to see what other options are available. Depending on the browser, you can open up new tabs, reload tabs, duplicate tabs, pin them to the left of the tab bar, mute audio from a tab, bookmark tabs, close all tabs except the current one, send tabs to other devices, and more.
You can select multiple tabs in some browsers, including Chrome and Firefox. Ctrl+click (Windows) or Cmd+click (macOS) on tabs to select more than once. You’re then able to manipulate all your selected tabs as a group, whether you want to pin them, mute them, or drag them all into a new window.
A browser task manager is available to you, if you’re on Chrome (More Tools then Task Manager from the Chrome menu) or Firefox (More then Task Manager from the Firefox menu). This can help you figure out which tabs are using up most memory and CPU time, and give you some clues about which ones you should be getting rid of.
In the interests of cutting down on the number of tabs you have open, remember that you can always farm them out to other services and apps, including note-taking apps, read-it-later apps, bookmarking apps, even tools like IFTTT. Get the right browser extensions installed to get this set up and you don’t have to use your browser tabs as a jotter or a read-it-later service.
Finally, is there some other way you can get what your browser tabs are giving you? Could you switch to the Spotify desktop app rather than the web app, for example? Or use Twitter on your phone rather than having it open all day in a tab? Or keep your emails inside a desktop client rather than having a distracting Gmail tab pinned in Chrome? You’ve got multiple ways of getting at the same information, so make use of them.