What Firefox’s Memory Leak Feature Taught Me About Life


I’ve been using Firefox since the first public beta, and the one thing always on my wish list was fixing the sluggishness and unbelievable memory consumption (2 GB of RAM?) that results from keeping Firefox open for too long. This is still on my wish list today (almost 2010), and I know it’s unlikely to be fixed. In fact, I’ve realized that – Zen Moment – the ‘patch’ must come from within.

The Mozilla team claim it is a feature and not a bug. Firefox stores pages you’ve been to so that you can go back to them instantly upon hitting the “Back” button. This means that FF’s memory needs grow as you browse the net, and leaving a page doesn’t necessarily mean the page’s memory has been deallocated. It makes sense, but in practice it results in Firefox becoming unresponsive. You can go into about:config and edit hundreds of settings, but I’ve never had any success with any of them in any version of Firefox on any OS. Ever.

I probably don’t use Firefox like the majority of users, and certainly not like the developers intended. For one, I don’t close it. In fact, I’ve never voluntarily closed Firefox in my life (I don’t shut down). I purposely crash it and then re-open it so that it asks me to load up all my previously open tabs. This clears out some memory and restores responsiveness making Firefox useable again.

Why don’t I just close it? Because I usually have a minimum of 50 tabs open across several FF instances, and some of those tabs are actually those “Oops, this is embarrassing…” windows that let you choose what tabs to re-open when you re-run a crashed Firefox. That means some of the tabs hold the potential to open up dozens or even hundreds of more tabs.

I feel relieved when Firefox is unable to restore my tabs. Life starts anew.

I keep tabs open that I intend to go through (never!), and I keep different sets of windows/tabs open depending on what I’m doing. i.e., cooking tabs in one window, work tabs in another, research tabs in another, etc. But this isn’t restricted to Firefox. On my Linux desktop I have 2 displays and 8 virtual desktops, making that 16 workspaces, and they’re usually always full. Since I have the RAM/power to run this setup, it’s smooth… except for Firefox and most other browsers (not Chrome).

On this desktop I worked around the Firefox memory problem by creating multiple profiles and using different profiles for different tasks (one for work, one for multimedia, etc). This also allowed me to crash one without affecting the others. It’s a temporary and crude solution until Firefox natively supports multiple processes like Chrome (see Electrolysis.)

But while there are some workarounds, fixing the technical issue isn’t going to increase productivity much. Having more sites open will probably make things worse. The habit of putting things off for later is inherently the problem. Having many sites/apps open is normal only amongst abnormal people. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it, but I don’t feel it’s very efficient, even if it may seem so at the time.

I’m generally disorganized and severely ADD-ed, and so this issue doesn’t only exist digitally. My desk is just as messy as Firefox. I have pieces of paper, napkins and anything else I jotted down notes on. I have unopened snail mail, opened but unchecked mail, and mail that has been checked and separated into 2 piles, those that require a reply and those that are to be trashed. There’s books I’m reading (multiple), and always unsorted pages of ideas/diagrams/blueprints of things I’ll probably never get to.

I’m obviously spreading my attention span thin. Going back to Firefox, if there’s an important piece of news on a page buried beneath other sites, I subconsciously still have “must read that article” somewhere deep in my head. It probably doesn’t result in any noticeable effect on its own, but when multiplied by 100x, the decline in calmness becomes significant enough to kill productivity. It produces a weak feeling of anxiety or overwhelmingness.

3 thoughts on “What Firefox’s Memory Leak Feature Taught Me About Life”

  1. Yikes!!

    U desperately need a human assistant to help u get organized, and there are extensions on Firefox’s addons page that group tabs (Beer Tab) into categories, freeze, lock, and load/reload tabs progressively for example. Not only that, but how do/can you update your FF browser version, or any extensions that are installed, if you never shut it down or restart?? U can also install an extension that will partially reduce/clear out memory leaks and RAM consumption by minimizing FF, then maximizing again, Vacuum Places, Click and Clean, and are yet other FF extensions that will clear out accumulated junk storedin your profiles.

    What old(er) version of FF are u still using?


    or even Phoenix??


  2. I know this is an old post, but have you tried using Bookmarks? They are great to store pages you want to check later…

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