What is the objectively correct number of tabs to have open?

This is maybe too many tabs. But what's the ideal amount, truly?
This is maybe too many tabs. But what's the ideal amount, truly? Photo credit: The Spinoff

By Sam Brooks for The Spinoff.

This is yet another tab clogging up your browser, and that's fine, writes Sam Brooks.

Welcome to this article! Chances are you didn't read it immediately after it was published. It's one of however many tabs filling up whatever browser you happen to be using on whatever device you happen to be reading it on. It might be later on March 13, 2020, when this was published. It might be March 21, 2020 and you've had it open for a week but haven't gotten around to reading it – there's a lot of TikToks to watch, after all. It might be March 28, 2050, and you're hiding in a bunker from the robot uprising/viral outbreak/civilisation-destroying fires (choose applicable) and finally have some time to catch up on your reading.

Chances are also that you have a lot of other tabs open.

How many tabs you have open at any given point is one of those strange insights that's more interesting as idle conversation than genuine psychological analysis. It's akin to 'do you wipe your body down after a shower?' or 'do you eat the best thing on the plate first or save it for last?'. It affects nobody other than yourself, and actually attempting to change your tab habits is probably more bother than it's worth. Sure, you might have had that New Yorker article – or more likely, Reddit thread – open for a few weeks, but it's not like you're cutting someone off in traffic or reclining your seat on an hourlong flight. You're fine.

According to Lifehacker, the ideal number of tabs you should have open is nine. Yes, a single digit. To me, this is like playing a piano and only using a fraction of the notes. You can have as many tabs open as you like – why limit yourself to nine? I called bullshit on this take, and decided to do some further investigation.

A quick survey of The Spinoff office revealed that people had an average of 18 tabs open, though a few acknowledged that because it was a Monday morning, they had fewer open than usual. One of my co-workers said that he had over a hundred tabs open across eight windows, proof that anything can be exaggerated for effect. There was no correlation between number of tabs and gender, race, sex or job title. A wider survey of my Twitter followers, around 50 or so, revealed a slightly higher number – an average of 30 tabs with a few extremes on both ends, as low as 1 and as high as 189. Again, there seemed to be no correlation of any kind, other than a willingness to reveal information about browser tabs. The science is inconclusive.

As I write this piece, I have 27 tabs open. In one window I have these tabs open: two email inboxes (work and personal), Tweetdeck (which has three tabs inside it), Stitcher Premium (yeah, I pay for my podcasts, what of it?), Facebook Messenger, a few long reads that I opened a few days/weeks/months ago, this photo of Merritt Wever at the Golden Globes, two buying guides from The Strategist, and a bunch of research related to this very piece. In another window, I'm watching season two of Westworld in preparation for another two pieces I'm writing. This is a fairly standard day for me, tab-wise.

Most of the reading I did around the subject of tabs seemed less to be about the psychology behind why people hoard or Kondo their tabs, and more about productivity, which is a bleak insight into the way we look at ourselves. There's a multitude of browser extensions called things like Too Many Tabs (a bit on the nose, there) and The Great Suspender that exist to help manage your tab use. But again, these all seem aimed mostly at maximising productivity. They're about what you can do for your tabs, not what your tabs can do for you.

The reading I did that actually delved into the psychology of tabs was mildly terrifying. According to Dr Marc Hesker, quoted in Metro.co.uk, our computers have become an extension of our brain. They're another version of our working memory – a fairly literal visualisation of it – but seemingly without limits. "We treat our computers as if they have an unlimited capacity, just like we treat our brain. But when we overload our brain, we become tired, forgetful, irritable. When we overload tabs, the page slows down and the computer/phone may be less efficient." Sounds chill! Not terrifying at all. I'm sure this has nothing to do with the fact that I currently don't know where my keys are, but there's an app that will help me find them.

Look, we're constantly judged for what we do, from the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep, and often even beyond that. We live in a world where there are guides on how to do pretty much anything from so-called experts; the internet is full of people who will happily tell you what you're doing and how you're doing it is wrong. Some of this is warranted (cough into your elbow! Carry a Keep Cup! Don't put your feet up on a table!) and some of it is not (who cares if you put your milk in your tea before sugar, put pineapple on a pizza, or reply all to an office email?). The number of tabs you have open is one of those things that truly doesn't affect anybody except you. It's very personal, and entirely trivial. There are few things in this world that are both anymore.

So I'm here to tell you: Whatever amount of tabs you have open right now is the right amount of tabs to have open. Whatever amount of tabs you have open in an hour is the right amount as well. If you're worried you have too many tabs open, close one. If you're worried you don't have enough tabs open, wow, what is the inside of your brain like! 

If you're worried about how many tabs other people have open, keep your eyes on your own damn screen(s)! Nearly everything in the world falls somewhere on the spectrum between right and wrong. Let us have this one thing that truly doesn't matter. Now close this tab, keep it open, open it 50 more times. It truly does not matter, and that's a relief.

The Spinoff