(AKA Keeping less up-to-date)
People complain a lot about email overload. (I’m intrigued by the concept of email bankruptcy, and like Fred Wilson’s depiction of it.) But recently I decided my web reading was broke. I needed to reset my reading routine – perform a “reading reset”, as it were.
I suspect many of you are familiar with my problems, whether you use RSS, Twitter, Facebook, Instapaper, a bunch of browser tabs, or de.funct.alicious. The general feelings of dissatisfaction have been nagging me for years. But I found synthesizing and articulating them helped in my search for solutions. Here’s how I summarized the main issues:
1. An extreme short-term bias.
It’s the nature of the web. But RSS and Twitter in particular exacerbate this problem with their chronological listing of posts. The feed becomes a rat wheel, and you become worried about “missing something” and struggle to stay “caught up”. For me, what ends up happening is constantly trying to keep up with new items at the expense of actually reading. I open up all of the things I really want to read in tabs, but never get to them. They pile up until I end up close to crashing Firefox and have to save all tabs as bookmarks, wiping the slate clean and starting over. Kind of like declaring email bankruptcy. Some people wax Zen-like about “dipping into the stream” and letting the rest float by… but that implies all of it is just a diversion and not important. But part of it should be important, as far as I’m concerned, or I’d be trying to cut it out entirely; if you buy this, how do you ensure you capture this part of the equation?
2. Infinite stories, but not enough summary.
This one reached a breaking point for me when I came back from a vacation. Despite all the tech blogs I follow, I couldn’t answer one simple question: What were the five most important tech news items from when I was gone? I had thousands of potential articles to read, but no idea where to go for synthesis and a more zoomed out view. I think this lack of summary is also what causes people to worry about keeping up – if they fall behind, there’s no shortcut way to catch up.
3. No hierarchy of information.
In most RSS, blogs, and Twitter, there’s little in the way of clustering information. Without these visual design and layout cues, every item seems the same – there’s no indicator of importance. Which makes it much harder to determine what I should spend my 1/2 hour of reading time reading.
4. An echo chamber, with no clustering across sources.
The Verizon iPhone is announced, and everybody’s talking about it. Myriad outlets are reporting similar things. Everybody has their own take. But there are no summaries across sources, no way to trim the redundancy. And no good way to say, “Show me what people are saying about this topic” – or perhaps better yet, “Exclude such articles, I’ve had enough!”
In sum: Urgent is trumping Important.
Mark Suster wrote a fabulous post about distinguishing between urgency and importance. Always focusing on the short-term makes it hard to step back and look at the bigger picture. There’s no perspective – only the current story. It’s also self-perpetuating – writers, bloggers, and tweeters are encouraged to respond as fast as possible, before the next meem sweeps the current discussion under the rug. This unrelenting urgency encourages myopia, and it’s something we need to combat. In the longer-term, I’d love to see more curation in our “reading distributors.” But in the meantime, I’m going to prototype a few hacks to make my own reading more effective.
Prototype solution: Separate by type, not source.
The premise is to separate out my “non-essential” reading by type, regardless of how I come across it. Here are my four types of reading, and my plan for consuming each type.
- Daily industry news, and relevant events: Consume as a digest, 1x/day, whether by scrolling through feeds or scanning homepage(s). Don’t check it like email. In some sense, stay less up-to-date.
- Analysis/ Skills building: Keep up, and catch up. Focus on people I respect. Despite coming from the same “feed,” separate out the analysis from the news. Read one or two articles when I need a break, instead of mindlessly scrolling through the infinite stream. Don’t read it when I’m trying not to think about work.
- Broader news: Read weekly reports, during downtime.
- Feed my head/ Escapist reading: As a leisure activity. Read shorter articles when I need a more definitive break from work. Give myself bigger blocks of time to dig into longer pieces. Understand that there’s a spectrum here, from somewhat work-related to entirely escapist.
I’d love to hear what people think, and what tips or techniques others have!