Breaking the tabit: the fight against tab-hoarding

Illustration of person interacting with a web browser

An obscure piece of JavaScript code. A how‑to guide on making money through affiliate marketing in 2022. A hard‑to‑find film that I might watch, one day. A now‑outdated comparison of the best web hosting services. An instruction manual for the combi‑boiler. These are just a few examples of the assorted junk that could be found clogging up my web browser.

That’s because I was a chronic tab hoarder. You might be one too.

What is tab-hoarding?

Tabs are a standard piece of functionality in many modern computer applications, and particularly in web browsers. They’re a good thing. Maybe you’re about to buy something and want to compare several retailers for the best price. Perhaps you’re cross‑referencing multiple sources for an essay. Or you might be following a web development tutorial, with instructions open in one tab and your project in another.

But there’s a dark side: excessive, long‑term collection of tabs. Or tab-hoarding as it’s commonly known. A tab‑hoarder doesn’t just flit between a couple of tabs concerning their current task, but instead stockpiles hundreds of tabs for future reference. These are things that they might return to. But, you know, probably won’t.

Example of tab-hoarding
Does your browser look something like this?

Why is it bad?

At its peak, my tab empire spanned multiple applications across multiple devices. It was bolstered by clusters of operating system folders, and a daily barrage of personal reminders.

Together, these items form a vast but fragmented to‑do list. An overwhelming one that will never be cleared. That’s a stressful thing.

And you know what else is stressful? The fear that at any time, human error or technical mishap will wipe out a portion of this eternal backlog. And it does happen. This misuse of tabs creates a fragile house of cards. Upon its collapse ensues a frantic effort to regather what was lost.

There’s another problem: technological dependence. Not every tab is necessarily something that a person plans on actively doing, but perhaps a piece of information deemed potentially useful for the future. Tab‑hoarding trains the brain to lean on a digital crutch. Computer on, brain off.

It’s time to settle the tab

I conquered my tab-hoarding, but only after an essential first step: awareness. Throughout years of this behaviour, the only resistance was subsconscious. A nagging but easily‑ignored whisper. Consciously‑speaking, I wasn’t particularly aware that what I was doing was harmful. The amassing of tabs, although frequently a hassle, was simply standard procedure.

The catalyst came when setting up Firefox on a new computer. Immediately upon installation I rushed to find the option to retain open tabs rather than forget them. The fact that is was not the default setting made me pause for a moment. Why is it not? Am I doing this wrong?

That behavioural evaluation led to a conclusion: tab-hoarding is bad. I realised that I would never need to come back to 99% of the screen‑cluttering tabs in my collection. And the few that I did would be important enough to remember. At that point it became surprisingly easy to close all tabs and similar items on my other devices, and avoid starting a fresh batch on the new PC. The feeling of relief was palpable.

Of course, the tab-saving urge revisits from time to time. That means a risk of relapse. But it’s a small one. The hard part is already done. The impulse to save a tab soon evaporates when the question is asked: will this act improve my life, or make it worse?

What do the experts say?

In short: lots of things. Tab-hoarding has been associated with anxiety and procrastination. It’s often attributed to a concept familiar to marketers: FOMO – the fear of missing out.

Tab-hoarding is part of a much larger topic: the impact of computers and the internet on the malleable human mind. Dr Larry Rosen explores this subject in detail in his book, iDisorder. Our always‑online world has transformed the way we communicate and acquire information, but does it also foster addiction and compulsivity?

The rapidly‑developing digital age represents just a tiny speck so far in human history. Only time will tell what it truly means for human development.