Tabbed browsing: What a blessing and what a curse it is. It revolutionised the way we surf the intensely complex web of interconnecting ideas, resources, and information. And yet, it brings out the pack rat in many who flood their screen with dozens upon dozens of tabs, articles that should (but ultimately won't) be read, products to buy, and more and more information to absorb.
The problem with having an excessive number of browser tabs open is the excess of course – not the browser. The desire for this excess comes from you.
Regular readers of my organisation-themed articles may have noticed that my proposed solutions for organisational problems seldom require you to buy a product or install software. I don't have a problem with tools per se, but I do believe that being organised is partially a state of mind, a lifestyle choice, and a series of habits. Technology alone cannot shape your habits. A software solution will help you manage the excess, but it will not reign it in or get you to reassess why you have so many open pages in the first place.
To me, excessive tabbing seems to be frighteningly similar to hoarding emails, or keeping every single photo you've ever shot on your local drive. We save digital files and data because there appears to be no immediate consequences for keeping them, and besides, what if we need them?
Usually, though, we don't need much of what we store, and the most obvious consequence, aside from eating up space, is that unnecessary data creates clutter. And clutter fosters further and higher levels of disorganisation. Most people cannot work or think effectively when they're disorganised. If you look at a sea of open tabs all pointing at articles you should read, products you ought to buy, and so on, you're putting unrealistic expectations on yourself and perhaps even creating unnecessary stress. The thought in your mind, whether implicit or explicit, becomes, "Look at all this information I haven't absorbed yet!" That's not exactly an efficiency driver.
The very simplest solution is to compartmentalise.
If I need to read extensively about a given topic, I often start a new browser window and keep all the related tabs only in that window, which accomplishes a few goals. First of all, it allows me to quickly minimise or quit that group of tabs when I'm done with it. Second, all my other work-related tabs are out of view while I'm focusing on reading. Third, if I'm focused and diligent, I can close each tab in that window as soon as I'm done with it and have a finite selection of content to read, rather than an endless string.
Another trick I use, especially when I work from home, is to run two browsers. One remains dedicated solely to the tasks at hand, and the other I keep loaded with personal pages that I like to keep an eye on throughout the day, such as web mail and social networking sites. (Of course, if you find personal mail and social media distracting you from the task at hand, it goes without saying that you should quit that second browser entirely).
Get to know your browser's tools
All the major browsers have some built-in tools for helping you manage tabs.
Bookmark all. One of my favourites is the button to bookmark all open tabs, shown above in Safari, which lets you close tabs knowing that you can quickly relaunch them from their bookmarks.
Reading list (Safari). When your list of tabs comprises of articles only, Safari also has the option to add all open tabs to your Reading List, a feature that lets you access those tabs from any Safari browser that's synced to the current one, and read the pages in a pared down view for optimal concentration.
Recently bookmarked. Another standard feature on all the major browsers, the ability to view the most recently bookmarked pages (shown above in Firefox), gets around the problem of losing your pages among a sea of other bookmarks.
Beware of the following two built-in features of Chrome and Firefox that may seem to help with tab management, but in my opinion only exacerbate it...
Don't use synced tabs. One neat, but ultimately dangerous, feature for tab hoarders in Chrome and Android is the ability to sync the browser so that you can see and access tabs that you currently have open on other devices. Excessive tabbers could be lured into opening large numbers of tabs on their home laptop, office computer, Android tablet, and then find they've multiplied their original problem by three.
Don't use pinned tabs. Both Chrome and Firefox let you "pin" tabs by right clicking on the tab to shrink the actual tab size. Again, it's a great feature for some purposes, but not for tab addicts, because it ultimately creates room for more tabs.
Third-party tools for tab management
Several wonderful extensions for Chrome and Firefox really whip tabs into shape, and many more are out there. After testing a number of them, these two remain my favourites:
TooManyTabs. This free extension for Chrome shows all open tabs in a visual display and lets you "suspend" idle tabs to save them for later. At its core, TooManyTabs steers you towards compartmentalisation and bookmarking, but in a highly visual fashion that's easy to digest at a glance.
Tabs Outliner. Chrome extension Tabs Outliner shows a tree view of open tabs, indicating the source page of the link when applicable.
I have seen and tried a few other browser plug-in tab management tools, and I should mention that my least favourite tend to be the ones that merely put a limit on the number of tabs you can open. If that is an appealing prospect for you, try Controlled Multi-Tabbed Browsing (for Chrome), or a little thing called self-control.