This is the sixth post in a series called Making it Count about getting things done and using our precious hours wisely1 .
Recently I wrote about unsubscribing from a friend’s weekly email and how he challenged my reason (or excuse) of “being too busy.”2. I’ve been thinking for some time about the next post in my Making it Count series and an article on how I consume the internet has been at the top of the list. Responding to my friend’s email was a great way to kickstart the writing process.
A Vast Ocean of Information
Intentionally consuming content on the Internet can be an overwhelming task. The speed at which content is created and travels, along with the sheer immensity of information available is simultaneously wonderful and engulfing.
For many of us, though, the Internet can feel small at times. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, we use tools that bring content to us: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, news feeds of any variety. Secondly, we often use the web to find very specific types of information and search engines allow us to start our journey and arrive at the correct destination in short order. Third, we develop go-to content sources over time. If the information isn’t coming to us, we often go to ‘familiar’ places to consume content from proven sources, just like a favorite restaurant. (There are many more reasons, of course, but these will suffice for our purposes here.)
Engaging a network that is both immeasurably large but can also feel small and familiar creates somewhat of a paradox in how to actually use it, in part because the possibilities are, almost literally, endless. You can find anything you can imagine or only what you’re looking for—and we find value in both.
Distraction (Wasted Time) is the Enemy
There’s a struggle on both sides of the coin and for me it doesn’t have to do with familiar or exploratory, it simply has to do with wasting time. The mechanics are similar: it’s just as easy to scroll mindlessly through Facebook as it is to follow a rabbit trail from article to link to website, wandering the great wide web. I want to note that I’m not saying either of these activities is bad (I’ve said before they can be good3), just that for me (and many other people), if not stewarded well, they can be an unbelievable waste of time that costs me more than I actually realize4.
Boundaries and Process
To battle wasting time, I’ve set up boundaries for my self (much like I’ve done with my iPhone5. Here are a few rules I follow for consuming content on the web:
- Don’t believe the lie that you have to “keep up” with everything (or particular things) to be successful or add value (you’re not a day-trader).
- Consume content during intentionally designated times (i.e., don’t let finding a great pieces of content become distractions by reading things as soon as you come across them).
- Carefully evaluate the value of each piece of content you’re considering before deciding to consume it. Discard if it’s not worth your time.
- Be careful about using content as a “mental escape.”
These guidelines serve as a framework for how I should think about content. There are a few interesting practical implications that I’ve noticed over the last year:
- As you might expect, I’m often not up on the latest news, stories, or articles that people discuss. That might bother some, but I’ve found giving myself time for deep consideration (as opposed to a brief read) is always worth whatever that social cost is.
- I often go days without reading any new content (aside from work-related content or physical books I’m reading personally). Having a produce-only focus for days on end is quite freeing.
- I find that I actually appreciate good content more because I’m affording it more mindshare when I do consume it.
How I Consume the Web
So, what does my content consumption actually look like tactically? I treat reading much like I treat email: I process content in batches during designated times when that’s the only activity I’m engaged in. Quite simply, I work hard to evaluate the value of a piece of content. If it seems worth my time, I’ll save it to read later. Then I read through the batch in a sitting (or a few sittings).
Here’s how I capture the content I consume:
My Bread and Butter: Instapaper
When I come across something I think would be valuable to read (or someone recommends something to read), I save it via Instapaper (using a bookmarklet6 in my bookmark bar). I rarely ever read anything the moment I find it (or that it comes my way). When I reach a critical mass of articles saved via Instapaper, say, 20 or so, I’ll actually sit down and read for a few hours. I find my mind consumes information better that way—it’s in reading-and-processing mode for an extended period of time as opposed to switching back and forth multiple times a day. Also, I find that I afford myself more time to just think about what I’m reading, which is healthier than forming a quick opinion and moving on.
I subscribe to a few blogs. The exact number is 16. Here’s the breakdown:
- 3 of those are focused on product updates (feature releases for software I use)
- 1 is a music blog (which I’m considering unsubscribing from because it’s not that valuable)
- 3 are photo blogs
- 5 blogs by friends or employees
- Julie’s blog (my wife)
- 2 by entrepreneur-esque people (which I’m considering unsubscribing from because it’s not that valuable)
- 1 by an author who studies technology’s affect on society
This is a constantly-rotating list and stays at right around 15 subscriptions (that’s a good number for me right now). The 5 blogs by friends or employees has changed (both in the source and quantity of feeds) a handful of times even in the last few months. The only writing-based blog that has kept a consistent slot in my lineup is The Frailest Thing7. Interestingly, it’s the most dense of them all.
I often go weeks without reading my RSS feeds and mark everything as read to start with a blank slate.
I use social media very sparingly. For me, it’s a huge time suck and rarely adds net value to my days. Here’s a breakdown of how I use some common social tools:
- Facebook: I never use Facebook.
- Instagram: I never use Instagram.
- Twitter: I log into Twitter 1-2 times per day, almost exclusively through the web. I also go days on end without checking it. I only follow ~50 people, so when I do check my feed, I can move through updates really quickly.
- LinkedIn: I log-in about once per week to respond to messages and accept connection requests.
Tool of the Trade: ReadKit
I pipe both my Instapaper and blog feeds through a tool called ReadKit8. That way, all of my reading is in one place on my computer and doesn’t require an internet connection. When I sit down for a reading session, it happens in a single venue. (There are also organizational benefits, but I won’t go into my archival process…)
A note about Email
I use email almost 100% for communication, not content consumption. That’s an intentional decision. Email can be a huge time-suck for me. That’s partly because of the nature of the medium and partly because of my own tendencies/lack of discipline.
Because of those things, I’m a serial-unsubscriber—I unsubscribe from everything. For me, email isn’t the format for long-form reading or updates. In fact, I only subscribe to one single email, and that’s the Quartz Daily Brief9. It’s a list of news headlines. I read it every day so that I’m thinking about the world, not just what’s going on in my life. I click through to actual articles about once or twice per week and those articles are instantly saved to Instapaper for later consumption.
I’ve been following this pattern for some time now and I’ve really grown to love it—I’ve noticed a significant decrease in social pressure to read whatever the latest and greatest headline is. There’s a lot of utility to letting the world ‘pass by’ as you go happily about your work.
Beyond my enjoyment, though, these boundaries have been instrumental in me just getting a whole lot of work done. I think Chris Wake describes this phenomenon really well in a Quora post called “Hidden Habits of Ineffective People”10:
Consuming more than you create
Effective people tend to create a lot of content. Content can mean a lot of things – but the rule is always the same, create more than you consume. Ineffective people, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time consuming the fruits of others’ labor. They are consummate lurkers.
I’ve seen this to be true as I’ve decrease consumption and focused on the important work in front of me.
1. You can read more about the series and view links to additional posts here.2. You can read my post about being to busy here.3. You can read my post about distraction being a good thing here.4. You can read my post about distraction here.5. You can read my post about the apps on my iPhone here.6. You can read about Instapaper and the Instapaper bookmarklet on their website.7. You can check out the blog, The Frailest Thing, here.8. You can checkout the ReadKit app here.9. You can check out the Quartz Daily Brief here.10. You can read Chris Wake’s entire post about innefective people on Quora.