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Microprocessing

Browser Tabs Are Ruining Your Brain

Here’s what to do about it

Image: Lefler/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

TThe state of your browser is like the state of your kitchen: If the counters are cluttered with pots, pans, and dirty dishes, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to cook dinner than if you were getting started in a clean and tidy space.

Research has found that a browser with so many tabs that you can barely see the favicons is a stressful, productivity-killing time suck. One study from 2014 analyzed how poorly-organized computer screens affected physicians’ response times and productivity in emergency rooms. It found that cluttered screens increased the time it took for doctors to find medical records as well as how long it took to scan and identify needed information within those records. If a doctor was already stressed, the negative effects became even more pronounced.

Most of us, of course, are not doctors or nurses desperately attempting to sift through messy electronic medical records while a patient waits. But we still have often disorganized work lives in which timeliness is crucial — even if it’s just a report you have to turn in by 2 p.m. — and scanning through 50 tabs to find the one website that will help you complete your task is, frankly, a waste of time.

But, like your kitchen or desk, your browser doesn’t have to be messy. Several different tools and methods can help you keep a tidy, well-organized browser and stave off information overload.

OneTab

If you’re in the market for a tab organizer that is easy to use and extremely no-frills, the browser extension OneTab is an excellent option. Its functionalities are limited but simple: When you click the browser extension, it automatically closes all your tabs and lists them as links in a new window. You can rename this tab group and share them with a link — or a QR code if that’s your jam, for some strange reason. It’s currently available for Chrome and Firefox.

Privacy is an often overlooked facet of software recommendations, and given how much information a program can glean from a person’s internet usage, its privacy policy for many of us should be a crucial component in deciding what software we use. OneTab’s website asserts that “information about your tabs are never transmitted or disclosed to the OneTab developers… Tabs are never shared unless you specifically use the ‘share as a web page’ button.” (OneTab didn’t immediately respond to a request for a full privacy policy.)

Pocket

Pocket is another simple and aesthetically pleasing browser extension to help with maintenance. It allows you to save links to read or access later so you can avoid sifting through piles of content to find that one report you actually need. It’s an option for Chrome, Opera, Safari, and Microsoft Edge, and it’s built into Firefox.

Like OneTab, Pocket’s capabilities are limited; it only saves one tab at a time, so it can take awhile if you have a lot to sort through. But what I like about Pocket is that it integrates with Twitter, so if you want to save someone’s tweet, you can easily do that. Saved tabs can be tagged for later reference, which is helpful if you’re working on a number of projects at once and need to keep your tabs organized. It also has an app version, so if you save a tab from your browser you can read it later from your phone.

One thing that makes Pocket stand out is that it offers recommendations. When you save a tab to Pocket from your browser, an automatic drop-down menu will show you other stories similar to the one you’re saving.

Pocket also has a recommendations section on its homepage where you can find more stories similar to those that you’ve Pocketed.

I find this recommendation engine incredibly useful, particularly if you’re looking for something to read on a commute, but I think Pocket is best used for recreational or low-stakes tab-saving, where you only need to save a couple of tabs for later reference. Pocket does share aggregated data with third parties, so it might not be for you if you want total privacy.

Toby

David Murphy, an editor at LifeHacker, wrote that he’s “one-hundred percent Toby now” after discovering this browser extension and for good reason. It reminds me a bit of Trello, another app I love. Toby is beautifully designed, comes in either white or dark mode, and relies on super-easy drag-and-drop organizing tools.

With Toby, you can either save one tab at a time or all your tabs at once. When you open a new tab, you can see everything you’ve saved in Toby and select which content you’d like to access.

You can also share your collections with others, so if you’re working on a collaborative project and want to send someone the research you’ve done so far, Toby makes it easy.

Toby is available on Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, and it shares aggregated data with third-party vendors for advertising purposes.

Evernote

Evernote might be my personal favorite because it’s the most robust option, but it’s also the most complicated. More than just a tab-saving browser extension, Evernote is an entire productivity app, with a note-taking feature and to-do lists as well as tab-saving.

What I like most about Evernote is that, true to its name, you can annotate your tabs. Since I frequently reference studies and previous news stories for my articles, I need to take a lot of notes. Evernote simplifies that process, allowing you to highlight and mark up websites before saving them to your “notebook.”

When you save a tab in Evernote, you can do so either as a full webpage with corresponding graphics and ads; as a simplified article (shown by the image above) with just the central text and images, leaving off ancillary images and ads; or as a clip where just the feature image, title, and a one-line excerpt are saved to your notebook. The clip option is the best if you just want to remember to go to a particular link later.

Like Pocket, you can only save one tab at once, so Evernote is probably best to adopt at the beginning of a project rather than when you’re trying to wrap it up. For sharing, though, you can share either specific tabs or notebooks full of tabs. Also similar to Pocket, Evernote has a recommendation feature, so when you save a tab, a drop-down menu will show other stories similar to the one you’re saving.

Evernote is available on Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Microsoft Edge. Its privacy policy states that it doesn’t sell or give data to third-party parties for advertising purposes, and it also offers two-factor authentication. That said, though, Evernote did endure a scandal in 2016 in which it abruptly changed its privacy policy, allowing its employees to read its users’ notes “to improve machine learning analysis.” Following a customer backlash, the company reversed course, allowing users to opt-in to authorize Evernote employees access to their notes. Evernote’s responsiveness to its users’ concerns is refreshing in an era when our very DNA is a potential data gold mine, but it’s worth noting that privacy policies — even those of more enlightened companies — can change suddenly.

Other methods to cut down overload

If you don’t want a browser extension, or if you just like having 50 browser tabs open, there are other ways to keep organized or at least lessen the load all those tabs take on your computer’s RAM. Depending on how many tabs, windows, and extensions you have open and running, it can be brutal.

Great Suspender, a browser extension, has a very simple purpose: It saves your computer’s RAM. If your tabs are slowing down your computer, Great Suspender “suspends” any tab not currently in use. It’s available for Chrome, and its privacy policy states that it doesn’t share any information.

Another option is using your browser’s bookmarking feature. Nathan Zeldes, the president of the Information Overload Research Group tells me that a good method for keeping your Firefox or Chrome browser window organized is clicking “Bookmark Open Pages,” or Ctrl+Shift+D, and then saving those tabs to a folder for later reference.

Despite the abundance of browser extensions I now have, I’ll probably stick to my typical and rather niche method: saving everything in a Google Doc. I create one for every story I write for saving everything I might need to reference: contact info, studies, other articles, interview transcriptions, and random notes and thoughts. They look like this:

This allows me to keep everything I need for a story all together in one document so I don’t have to jump from browser extensions to apps to Google Docs and back again. But it takes more time to assemble rather than having a webpage automatically saved to a folder somewhere, so it’s not a practice for everyone.

A messy browser is like a messy home: distracting, unnecessary, and after a certain point, probably unhealthy. A couple tools and coping mechanisms can take you far, freeing up the mental space you waste searching through a trillion tabs so you can focus instead on the task at hand — and maybe even leave work early as a result.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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