One of the things I’ve realized, but didn’t appreciate fully until recently, was how useful browser plugins can be. Maybe I’m simply late to the game, but a lot of the extensions I used in undergrad were the standard ones – ad blockers, HTTPS Everywhere, and so on. It wasn’t really until grad school that I started using extensions designed to improve how I work, how I spend my time.
In this post, I talk about the extensions I’ve found to be the most useful, as well as issues, bugs, and loopholes I’ve discovered. Four of the five extensions are great additions for working professionals to know about, as they help create a great working environment in general, and then the last one is an academic-specific extension.
Let’s just jump right in.
When I get into research-mode, the number of chrome tabs I have open begins to grow nearly exponentially. More times than not, I get to the point where I have 15-50 tabs open between various windows. And of course, at some point, I need to stop and work on something else for a bit. Rather than closing those tabs outright and having to find them again or leaving them open to bog down my computer, I use OneTab. OneTab is an extension that allows you to tuck away tabs for safekeeping.
When you activate the OneTab extension (by clicking its icon), OneTab collects all the tabs in that open window and stores them in the OneTab page. Each collection is a group of tabs that were open in an individual window. You can rename the collections to be more specific, this helps in finding whatever particular project you want to resume.
You can reopen individual pages just by clicking on the page in the collection. You can ‘Restore All’, which will open all the pages right back up and you can start from where you left off, and you can move page links from one collection to another.
And you can delete page links from collections, as well. If you have a collection of 30 tabs, but half of them are different Google Scholar search pages, you can delete those individually to leave only the results you want to keep. There are a bunch of other tips and settings you can play with, as well.
One drawback I have noticed, however, is that OneTab keeps a separate list between machines. My personal laptop and my work computer have their own OneTab ‘accounts’, per se. I can’t save a project in OneTab on my work computer, and then open it again from OneTab on my personal laptop when I get home, even though I’m logged into the same Chrome account on both machines. That is sometimes annoying, but it could also be a benefit, depending on what you prefer.
Despite that, OneTab has been a super handy extension. During the semester, my tally at the top of the OneTab page is usually closer to 300 or so. I’ll have a bunch of projects and research expeditions that I began, found what I was looking for, and didn’t want to close the pages in case I needed them again. Clearing out all the collections is incredibly simple, as there is a ‘Delete All’ button with every collection. I’ve simply added OneTab to the list of things I clean out/organize at the end of each semester, and dealing with that virtual clutter is worth OneTab’s usefulness.
The Great Suspender
You might have noticed that in the second OneTab image above (with the German and Lungfish collections), that the pages don’t have any icons, compared to the random list above it. This is because when I added those pages to OneTab, those pages were suspended.
The Great Suspender is an extension that will snooze pages that have been inactive for a pre-set amount of time. The time options range from 30 seconds to 3 days. All you have to do to un-suspend a page is click anywhere on the blue part of the screen, or reload the page. (If you send a suspended page to OneTab, then OneTab will reopen to the suspended page, rather than the active page, and you’ll need to click to reactivate it.)
This extension mainly helps with computer memory, not allowing a bunch of pages that you keep open to check every once in a while (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) from bogging down your computer – even though you might not be active on those tabs, they are still constantly refreshing and updating. Suspending those tabs means they are still there in the window, but they aren’t using up system resources.
And lastly, when tabs are suspended, they appeared dimmed in the window. It’s subtle, but just obvious enough that I can pick out the tabs that I’m actively using at the moment, rather the ones I haven’t touched in a few hours.
Ultimately, this extension doesn’t necessarily help with tab clutter, but it helps with things behind the scenes.
The Pomodoro Technique is a timed method of working. Generally, a Pomodoro cycle consists of four “Pomodoros,” or 25-minute intervals, of focused working. The first three Pomodoros are following by short five-minute breaks, and the last Pomodoro is followed by a longer break (15-30 minutes). After the long break, the cycle resets.
Marinara is simply an extension that keeps track of these intervals. When not using the timer, the icon in the bar is greyed-out. You can activate a new cycle by clicking the icon, which will then display a count-down of time remaining in the interval/break. After the interval has reached 25 minutes, a tab will open to say “Start Break” and by clicking that button, you start the break. So, it doesn’t continue in the cycle without your say-so. This is helpful if during the Pomodoro, you had a flash of genius and simply can’t risk taking the break right then. When you reach a point where I feel comfortable stopping, you can resume the cycle right where it left off.
There are a bunch of ways to customize the Marinara timer. Want to set it up for a five-hour cycle (Pomodoros of 1 hour and breaks of 15 minutes)? Totally possible.
I also had one of these timers on my phone for quals studying. I’d sit at a desk with no computer so I couldn’t be distracted by interweb things, and I’d get through papers so quickly. In a way, this part is advocating not specifically the Marinara extension itself, but rather any app or extension that would allow you to utilize the Pomodoro Technique.
StayFocusd is my most recent addition to my browser extensions. It essentially sets timers for how long you can be on any specific site for a day.
I have a bad habit of opening the Facebook tab, checking for notifications, and then scrolling to see the most recent posts. I normally only spend a few minutes at a time doing this, so I’m not surfing the site for huge chunks of my day. However, I do these “few minute check-ins” often enough during the day that those few minutes probably add up.
StayFocusd has a default setting of 10 allowed (and active) minutes on a group of sites. It’s not 10 minutes per site, but 10 minutes per all “Block Listed” sites (e.g. Facebook + YouTube + Reddit + Amazon + whatever you want to add). If the tab is open and unsuspended, but you’re not actually looking at it, the timer won’t count down. After 10 active minutes, on the site, however, it will redirect you to this page:
And if you try to open one of your blocked sites in a new tab after the timer has run out, you will also see this page. You can increase the allotment time from 10 minutes to whatever you want, but you can’t do it after you’ve already used all your time for the day. You have to know ahead of time that you’ll have more free time today to goof off, etc. Seems like a good mechanism to have.
It also has something called the Nuclear Option, which will block all your blocked sites, or all sites ad infinitum, if you want, for whatever time frame you give it.
When I get back from lunch, I have (another) bad habit of getting lost in internet rabbit holes or social media traps while I enjoy a ‘post lunch coffee.’ (I have a lot of bad habits, I know. Working on it.) I’ve set this Nuclear Option to go into effect between 1 and 2 pm, and I’m hoping to rescue that….indeterminate chunk of time that I lose after lunch from my procrastinating self.
Overall, StayFocusd gives you quite a few ways to customize the extension to best suite your needs. You can choose the days that it works, the time frame (e.g. all day, just between working hours), and the total amount of time allowed on sites.
It also has a “challenge” option, which you can enable to help prevent yourself from “cheating” and altering the time allotments, etc. The challenge is to type whatever block of text it gives you without making any typos. If you make an error, it resets. If you keep trying, at some point it’ll ask you if your time is better spent doing other things (it’s a snarky little extension).
However, I’ve found a loophole, sorta. I added YouTube to my Blocked Sites list because I use it to listen to music quite often, but the time surfing, looking for music, and getting stuck watching awesome music videos (yeah, I know) really adds up. However, if you have two screens, you can set up YouTube on one screen and then use the other screen to work, and because the youtube tab is open but not active (since your mouse is in the tab on the other screen), the timer won’t countdown on youtube. You’ll lose whatever time it takes to switch between videos, but once you click on the other screen, the timer won’t continue. You can watch as many videos as you want, until you use up the 10 minutes of “looking for a video” time, as long as you move away from the tab once the video starts to play. Same with just having one screen but having youtube audio streaming from a background tab.
And a second loop-hole: it doesn’t work in incognito mode. I guess the same is true with all of these extensions, but this is definitely a fundamental flaw that undermines the entire purpose of this extension. And I know myself well enough to know that I’ll take advantage of when I’m dead-set on procrastinating (as opposed to the more subconscious procrastinating).
So….loopholes! Yay! Sorta.
Like I said, it’s a recent addition, but it’s already been useful in getting me to cut back on all my bad, subconscious time-wasting habits. If I’m dead-set on procrastinating, or need to watch a video lecture or something, I can always switch over to incognito. And in exploring all the settings for this extension, I found myself laughing quite a bit. It’s just a snarky extension with a few easter eggs here and there, and so I’ve actually enjoyed setting it up. I think it’s a manipulative trick to make it less painful while you put on your own handcuffs. But, you know, it works.
LazyScholar is one academic-focused extension that I’ve found to be very handy, especially when I am writing anything with citations, but I’ve had a few problems with it. Namely, it tends to interfere with other websites’ functionality. I noticed it mostly in Facebook, YouTube, and Asana – they would start having issues with videos not loading, pages acting wonky, etc.. After troubleshooting everything I could think of, the problems went away when I deactivated the LazyScholar extension. Those bugs exist, but I also found ways around them without deleting the extension.
LazyScholar gives you the option of preventing it from loading in specific sites. It also loads automatically by default and will go to work finding pdfs and citations in every open tab. However, you can set it to be active only once you click the icon, rather than automatically loading on each page.
Making it click-activated is definitely the way to go, in my opinion. Unless I’m looking specifically to cite something, LazyScholar takes a few seconds to actually start up and can bog down the page loading, and then the extension is not only not needed, but annoying. So, definitely take the time to fix these settings first, and then you shouldn’t have any issues.
LazyScholar truly is quite useful. It auto-generates citations in a bunch of different styles for easy copy and paste, it finds available pdf links and puts them at the top of the page, so you don’t have to hunt for that hidden “Download PDF” button, and it gives you some basic stats about the paper (citation count, etc.).
And LazyScholar has an option to auto-generate a pdf name with the ‘author_year_journal.pdf’ format, rather than whatever default name the journal gave the pdf. However, the auto-generated pdf name only includes the first author, and the journal name is unabbreviated. For example: “Wen 2014 Journal_of Experimental Biology.pdf” To me, auto-naming has a weird underscore use and then I have no idea what the topic of the paper is. I prefer a ‘Author_Year_keywords/phrase.pdf’ format, with the first two authors, and a ‘etal’ if necessary, and so I don’t use the auto-naming feature.
In general, LazyScholar has definitely been a god-send in certain, writing-focused situations, but be sure to fix the settings so it’s not getting in the way when you don’t need it, or interfering with other apps.
There are a bunch of other extensions one can use (Dropbox, google drive/docs, bibliography software-specific extensions, coupon cutters, etc) but the five I’ve talked about here have definitely been the most useful in terms of streamlining my working life and helping to get rid of bad procrastinating habits.
I do have one caveat, which you may have noticed: I use a Windows machine and Chrome is my main browser. These extensions are readily available in the Chrome Store, but I don’t know if they are exclusive to Chrome/android, or if they are available as Mozilla or Apple extensions/apps as well. And conversely, there a few extensions that I’ve used in Chromium, the linux version of Chrome, that don’t seem to work all that well in the windows’ Chrome, like Vimium. Vimium allows you to navigate across Chromium without ever needing to lift your fingers from the keyboard. Everything is ‘clickable’ via typed shortcuts. However, I could never really get it to work correctly in Chrome, unfortunately.
What extensions do you use and why? Are there any other ones that people should definitely know about? Let me know what you think.