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Wouldn’t it be great if you could manage all your digital work from a single dashboard without having to jump from one app to another?
Managing your email program, messenger, browser, Twitter client, to-do list, writing app, etc. can get annoying when you have to keep switching from one to another constantly. Standalone applications are great and come with plenty of handy features. But if you don’t have extensive uses for them, they can end up interfering with your work rather than making it simpler.
Thankfully, by optimizing one of your favorite platforms, the Web browser, and bundling all your apps into it, you can turn it into a centralized workspace from where you can get most, if not all, of your regular tasks done with reduced effort.
While this can be accomplished with any browser, it’s much easier to do so with leading ones like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, because these can be customized down to the tiniest detail. For the purpose of this post, we’ll stick to Firefox (on Windows), with a few Chrome alternatives thrown in.
Install the right add-ons
You’re probably no stranger to Firefox extensions. They come with such nifty features that you’re often tempted to install several of them. Here we list some common tasks you normally perform on your computers and hand-held devices, and the extensions that can help you take care of them directly from your browser.
Getting Email Updates
X-Notifier (or WebMail Notifier) is a popular add-on that helps keep tabs on your webmail accounts. It appears as a tiny icon in the toolbar and discreetly shows the number of unread emails in your inbox. You can use it to configure various accounts including Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, etc. Clicking on the mail icon takes you directly to your inbox.
If you’re a Gmail user, you’ll love the Gmail Panel [No Longer Available] extension. It presents a replica of your Gmail inbox in a panel that overlays the browser window, without covering it completely. You can open or close it with a single click and perform all the operations you perform in the tabbed version of Gmail.
For Chrome users:, Gmail Offline
Writing & Editing
MarkDown Editor [No Longer Available] presents a clean and easy-to-use plain-text writing environment with Markdown support. You can display the Markdown content and the corresponding HTML output in adjacent vertical or horizontal panes. The plugin also has features to hide the HTML panel, apply external CSS, and export content to HTML.
For Chrome users: Write Space [No Longer Available], Writer
If you need something more substantial for your writing, you might find something useful in Aaron’s post on web-based tools for writers.
Code Editing & Debugging
Get the Cryptocat [No Longer Available] Firefox extension for encrypted chat sessions. If you want to use Google+ hangouts, you can do so from the Gmail Panel extension mentioned above. is a popular extension to replace the native Facebook messenger. Chatzilla [No Longer Available] and Freenode IRC Client [No Longer Available] are excellent choices if you use IRC for communication.
Social Media Sharing
With Shareaholic [No Longer Available], you can post updates to various social networks and websites. Choose from several options including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Hacker News. The extension icon appears in the address bar itself, which makes it easy to share any Web page at the click of a button.
For Chrome users: Buffer, Cortex
Bamboo Feed Reader [No Longer Available] and NewsFox [No Longer Available] are a couple of good extensions for reading and subscribing to RSS feeds. If you’re a Feedly user, you can install Feedly’s Firefox extension [No Longer Available] instead. There is also a Chrome extension for Feedly.
Did you know you could create a feed reader right within Google Spreadsheet?
For Chrome users: Read Saikat’s post on excellent RSS extensions for Chrome
Use FireFTP [No Longer Available] to upload files easily to your FTP/SFTP server. Learn more about its features.
For Chrome users: Unfortunately, there aren’t any FTP client extensions worth mentioning. But you can still upload files to your server from within Chrome by using net2ftp, a web-based FTP client.
Tasks & Reminders
With ReminderFox [No Longer Available], you can set reminders and create to-do lists quickly. Just pick a date in the calendar placed in the sidebar of the main window of the plugin, click on Add Event, type in a description for your list item, and hit OK. Switch between the reminder list and the to-do list using the drop-down menu placed at the top.
Some web apps like Todoist come with browser extensions of their own, so you can install them if you use those particular apps.
The FlickrBlogger extension scours Flickr to bring you free images for commercial use with the condition of attribution. If you want Creative Commons images or other media from sources other than Flickr, the CC Search plugin can help you find them.
For Chrome users: CC Search
Add a few other tweaks
For Chrome users: The Best Chrome Extensions
In case you don’t find suitable extensions for certain tasks, use web-based apps instead. If you use Gmail, our power user guide to Gmail can help you get the most out of Gmail’s built-in features to make your work easier.
Be cautious while installing add-ons. As far as possible, choose only the ones that are absolutely necessary, because having too many of them can end up slowing down Firefox. Disabling those extensions that you don’t use frequently is also a good way to stop them from consuming too many resources and introducing a lag. Do experiment with a few other techniques to keep Firefox from getting unbearably slow.
Combine your new dashboard with the power of IFTTT and you might just have landed yourself a new virtual assistant.
Create more screen space
Once you have installed the right extensions, it is time to clean up the browser window by hiding unnecessary elements. Right-click the blank area beside the last tab and select the Customize option from the toolbar menu that appears.
In the dialog box that pops up, select the icon of each add-on that you know you’ll use frequently and drag it to the navigation toolbar i.e. the toolbar that holds the address bar. Then click the Add New Toolbar button, type in a name for the new toolbar, and drag the icons of the add-ons that you’re planning to use occasionally (feed reader, FTP, etc.) to this toolbar.
You can also add icons of native features like bookmarks, history, etc. to either of these toolbars. Once you’re happy with the arrangement of icons, click the Done button to exit the dialog box.
Now go back to the toolbar menu and hide all toolbars except the navigation toolbar, by unchecking the corresponding option. What you have now is the address bar, search bar, and a set of shortcuts to your favorite apps all neatly arranged in a single row. If you want to access features from the other toolbars, you can always display them temporarily.
Take advantage of the Pinned Tabs feature to keep your regular web apps such as the text editor or image editor pinned to the browser and out of the way, ready to be accessed with a single click.
Learn keyboard shortcuts
Using keyboards shortcuts can speed up your workflow and reduce those repetitive mouse clicks, which are certainly bad for you ergonomically. Bookmark MakeUseOf’s cheatsheets for Firefox shortcuts on Windows and Firefox shortcuts on Mac. You can pair them up with ShortcutFoo, a web-based service that lets you create customized drills to learn shortcuts.
If you don’t want to, you don’t have to learn them all. Even knowing the following few can come in very handy:
- Cycle through tabs (Ctrl + Tab)
- Create a bookmark (Ctrl + D)
- Cut (Ctrl + X), Copy (Ctrl + C), Paste (Ctrl + V)
- Zoom in (Ctrl + +), Zoom out (Ctrl + -)
- Refresh the page (F5)
- Go into full screen mode (F11)
- Close tab (Ctrl + W)
- Add .com to the address bar (Ctrl + Enter)
- Enter private browsing mode (Ctrl +Shift + P)
For Chrome users: Google Chrome Shortcuts
Whether you want to switch to Firefox or just want to explore its features further, the user’s guide to Firefox can tell you what you need to know.
For Chrome users: The Easy Guide To Google Chrome
After you have tweaked your browser to your satisfaction, take a few days to embed it well into your workflow. There’s a good chance that pretty soon you’ll be ready to uninstall those native apps that you thought you couldn’t live without.
Which tricks and web apps make your workflow simpler? Let us know in the comments.