5 min read

Reading List vs. Tabs: A Better Workflow

I have long held that having many tabs open in your browser was a poor way to work. A bunch of tiny icons filling up the top of your screen with stuff to read in whatever order you happened to get them put there just doesn't make much sense. Not only does it potentially greatly increase your memory footprint for a browser, increasing your resource usage, but it also makes it hard to remember where you were, what you were doing, and why you wanted that tab in the first place. It's an organizational nightmare, and people have abused things like session managers for decades trying to make tabs more usable as a queue of "to be read" items.

So let's first talk about why people do this in the first place. Here are some good things about using Tabs to store your "to be read" web pages:

  1. It's super easy. There's literally zero overhead in just opening a tab as if you wanted to read that document and then doing nothing. They just continue to accumulate in the background and you'll get to them eventually, some day.

  2. There isn't a number 2.

That's it really. There is only one single benefit that has traditionally made using tabs appealing as an option for those who wanted to store up a cache of things that they wanted to read someday.

But Tabs as a "To Be Read" list comes with a bunch of negatives:

  1. It's memory and resource intensive.

  2. It greatly interferes with normal day-to-day browsing. I can't tell you how many times I have seen people struggle to navigate their endless sea of browser Tabs not because they wanted to read through something, but because they just wanted to get some work done. They interfere with the normal usage of Tabs because now Tabs are doing two distinct jobs instead of one.

  3. It's easy to lose. Traditionally browsers did a poor job of session management and made it difficult to preserve your tabs across different runs of the browser. Power users found ways of managing their sessions more effectively using session managers and browsers like Opera and Firefox made a lot of friends back in the day with their excellent session management. Unfortunately, sessino management is still something of a state of the browser itself, and in this day of cloud synchronization of state across multiple devices, it's not very convenient to have a session that is difficult or impossible to share across devices. Imagine having 100+ web pages open on your mobile device.

  4. It's very slow to retrieve. While you can power through your Tabs pretty easily if you just click a random Tab and start going from there, finding a specific Tab that you want to read or just browsing through the Tabs to identify what you want to read isn't easy at all. This is because Tabs aren't designed to present the kind of information that you want at a glance to browse your list of "To Be Read" documents. They are designed to show the title of the web page and maybe a small preview to help you navigate to a page that you are working with actively. Neither of these are much help when you are looking at a Tab that is months old.

  5. You cannot easily filter them. Say you want to start going through all of those items that you have queued up to read on your favorite blog. Quick, out of the 300 or so Tabs that you have open right now, which are the 15 to 20 that belong to the blog that you want to read right now and how do you find them? Oops. Tabs are something that modern browsers have made easier to manage, a little, but they are not easy to navigate through when you have so many of them as those who use their tabs as a "to get to" list often have (100+). They simply weren't designed to make filtering and organization easy. Finding something amidst that mess is difficult and annoying.

  6. You cannot easily organize them. Going along with #5, it's almost impossible to put any meaningful organization on your list of Tabs, since the organization is flat and requires completely manual organization if you want to use it.

Fortunately, browsers like Microsoft Edge are finally bringing features like the Reading List into the forefront as a workflow. This feature has actually been around for some time as an explicit feature in browsers like Opera. And even before that, if you were able to leverage your Bookmarks/Favorites effectively, then you could use that as a Reading List. Modern implementations of the Reading List feature are hands down the better option for working with lots of queue'd up documents to look at in the future than many Tabs in your browser:

  1. It's now just as easy to add something to your reading list as it is to open it in a new tab. (Right click → Add to Reading List in Microsoft Edge)

  2. They are organized chronologically, normally, and allow you to clearly see the full title of the page, a preview, and the domain you're working with, making it much easier to find the item your looking for.

  3. In some implementations it's easy to filter and search through them, and it's certainly easier to browse through a reading list than a row of Tabs.

  4. If you have a browser with Reading Lists as a separate feature from Favorites, it helps to avoid mucking up your favorites with transient items that have to be managed, since your favorites list generally isn't designed to have items removed and added all the time.

  5. With dedicated appliations (such as those available on Windows 10), you can unify your reading list to contain more than just web pages.

  6. You can synchronize and share your Reading List just like your favorites across all your devices.

  7. The Reading List does not use up any active resources while your are doing your every day browsing, making your browser lighterweight.

  8. The Reading List doesn't interfere with your normal day-to-day operations, allowing you to use Tabs more effectively and have a more focused workflow and environment while doing your normal work. You only have to work with the Reading List when you actually want to do so.

Basically, Reading Lists are a feature that everyone should use in their browser. Stop using Tabs for something that they were not designed for and that they are not ideal for. It's wasting your time and effort to work with Tabs instead of using the Reading List feature. It's a feature that I don't see people using enough. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Reading List feature is even more valuable than the Favorites/Bookmarks feature. Most people don't have many 10's to 100's of sites that they need to actually have in their favorites. It's helpful to have a few of them their that they may save up for a rainy day when they will have forgotten how to navigate to that site, but with auto-complete and other features such as "Top Sites" features on most browsers today, you will always be able to get to the sites that you use most often through those features without having to go through the work of manually managing a favorites list. Just type and the thing you want will be there, or just open a new Tab and you'll get a grid of your most used sites. I now think that the Favorites list is something that shouldn't be used very often, as I don't think it has nearly the utility that it once did with these other features in place to work better than the Favorites list.