How to Effectively Read 12,853 Articles, Forum Topics & Blog Posts a Week

That’s right, 12,853 Articles, Forum Topics & Blog Posts.  At least approximately – that’s what I processed last week.  And I do it all in less than 1 hour a day (mostly =) ).  Rather than just blindly reading everything I come across though, I follow a process to make my time reading online as efficient as possible.

Before we get to the solution, let’s talk a little about what the problem itself is.

The Problem – Too Much Information, Not Enough Time

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
-Herbert Simon

One of the most pervasive problems I’ve found with people like myself who enjoy self improvement is we love information.  We cannot get enough of it.  With RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and in my case Google Reader, there is never a shortage of things to read.  I read a fascinating article about this in the Wall Street Journal, Why We’re Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data, that states the following:

“For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other.

Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives.”

No matter how fast you read, there’s always going to be more content out there than you can possibly digest.

So, how can we most efficiently use our time so we can get as much (hopefully useful!) information into our heads as quickly as possibly every day?

The Solution – A Simple, Efficient Flow to Make Processing New Articles Quick and Painless

Since I read so many websites, I rarely actually visit any of them – instead, I subscribe via RSS  in Google Reader. (Sidebar:  What is RSS?). To set up my process, I used the following techniques:

  1. Time Constraints
  2. Multitasking
  3. Batch Processing
  4. Task Prioritization
  5. Process Optimization

Time Constraints

The first step was to set up some arbitrary time constraints.  With the infinite amount of information available online, I could use up all day reading.  Rather than letting my days dictate for me how long I would spend reading, I decided I would place an arbitrary time limit on how long I would allot myself.

I decided on 1 hour a day.

Having decided how long I would spend, I then optimized my schedule by seeing where I could multitask.


Just saying an hour a day wasn’t enough though – now I had to find an hour a day to use.  After looking at my schedule, the most efficient way to do this was to set aside two half hour blocks a day for reading online.

First lets separate multitasking from time slicing.

  • Multitasking is literally constantly doing two things at the same time. Walking and chewing gum at the same time is multitasking.
  • Time slicing is doing multiple tasks, in parallel, but only focusing on one at a time.  A good example of time slicing is if I’m writing email and blog posts at the same time. Sure, I’m doing both at once – but at any single moment in time, I’m only doing one of those activities.

Very broadly speaking, there are three primary types of activities:

  • Mentally intensive, physically easy
  • Mentally easy, physically intensive
  • Mentally intensive, and physically intensive

For me, multitasking is most effective when I combine tasks in the first two categories – and if an activity falls into the third category, typically it is not a good candidate for me to multitask.

Examples of effective multitasking:

  • Driving (physically intensive) while listening to podcasts (mentally intensive)
  • Showering (physically intensive) while planning my day or mentally debriefing the day (mentally intensive)

Some activities are purely mental, and require no physical location – but most have at least some physical constraints.   Reading online (RSS feeds) is very mentally intensive, and has the physical constraint that I be near a computer.  So I decided to pair it with a couple of physically intensive things I need to do every day, with some regularity and that I can accomplish while at my laptop:

  • In the morning, I read while I shave, eat breakfast and brush my teeth.
  • In the evening, I read while I  eat dinner (if by myself), cool off after working out , brush my teeth.  The evening multitasking is more spotty, based on my social commitments – since I often am with people while I eat dinner and work out.

If I can take care of my online reading while multitasking and doing other tasks, I effectively spend no time on it. Or, looked at another way, I spend an hour on my online reading, ant effectively no time on my other tasks.

Batch Processing

Another trick I use is batch processing.  Batch processing is basically letting many similar tasks pile up, and then executing on all of them at once. It takes a certain amount of time to get in the zone and efficient at doing a certain task.  To improve how efficient we are at doing individual tasks, it’s much better to focus on homogeneous tasks and repetitively execute those, than to do a variety of small, unrelated tasks.  Each new type of task requires a level of mental reset.

Since I’m only reading online a couple times a day, rather than in small chunks throughout the day, this already allows me to batch process to some degree – but I can still improve on that process!

Rather than just specifying the whole task as reading, I break it down into multiple tasks that I can batch process further:

  • Deciding which articles to read
  • Reading, and deciding which forum posts to respond to and articles to comment on
  • Responding to forum posts or commenting on articles

Which leads us to …

Task Prioritization

Reading most blog posts and articles of a good length often requires a commitment of at least a minute – sometimes (perhaps, in the case of this article) as much as fifteen minutes! So, the next step is to prioritize and decide which ones to read and which ones to toss.

When I skim my RSS items, I follow a multiple step process.

  1. First, I process the RSS items and discard noise.  Often I will prioritize here, and only process certain folders and I’ll skip or delay folders that have a poor signal to noise ratio, or that are just for fun.  This is very fast, as I’m not actually reading anything just yet, basically just article titles or in some cases short summaries –
    • If the article or headline looks completely uninteresting, I mark it as read and move on.  In Google Reader, this is a matter of just using the j and k shortcut keys.
    • If the article looks somewhat interesting, and I think I might want to read it, I press s to star it (a very mild version of saving for later).
  2. I review the items I have starred, and decide if and when to read them. To process items in this stage, I reread the headline and/or skim the article and decide on one of the following courses of action –
    • If I don’t really want to read it anymore, I press s to unstar it and move on.
    • If I am still interested in the article, but it’s too long to read right now, but I really really want to read it, I bookmark it to read soon.  I unstar these as well.
    • If I am still interested in the article, but it’s too long to read right now, and it can wait, I bookmark it separately to read at my leisure.  I unstar these as well.
    • If I feel like reading it in this sitting, I push next to go to the next item in my queue to process. I will read this article after I process the remaining.
  3. I read the articles that remain in order:
    1. Items I starred to read this sitting
    2. Items I bookmarked to read later ASAP
    3. Items I bookmarked to read at my leisure
    4. If appropriate, I bookmark the link permanently for reference.  Often, I won’t even read the article – for example, I’ll skim the bullet points, and it might look like an article I want to keep for reference, but that does not benefit me immediately.
    5. During this stage, if I get a couple paragraphs in or skim the sub headings and decide I’m no longer interested and/or there is no benefit to reading it, I just skip it and move on.  This is particularly true of news – CNN, TechCrunch, etc.  It’s interesting, but does the future of YouNoodle have any bearing on my life right now?  Probably not.  I am ruthless, and cull many articles from my reading list even at this stage.
  4. Finally, while reading, I decided if and when to get involved in the conversation. At this stage I consider replying to forum posts or posting a comment on a blog.  Sometimes, I won’t have anything to add, and that’s fine – on to the next piece.  If it’s a short reply I post it, otherwise if I don’t have time to right now, I bookmark it to come back and reply when time allows.  Oftentimes, I end up just not replying when I bookmark it for later, but sometimes the conversation will explode and I feel like jumping in.
  5. Reading for leisure during  downtime – Outside of the 1 hour a day I allocate, I sometimes find leisure time while I am waiting for people, or perhaps have a few minutes on the weekend on my schedule, etc.  This usually adds another couple hours a week, and this is often when I go back to read the “bookmarked to read at leisure” items.

Combining this with batch processing means I don’t check my feeds every day for new items.  Some days will be purely processing items in Stage 1, some days is just processing items in Stage 2.  By batch processing, this flowchart allows me process my RSS feeds very quickly – and now that we have a final process, it’s time to optimize it.

Process Optimization

For each task, we can optimize it by using and customizing the appropriate tools.  In my case, I tried a variety of feed readers, and settled on Google Reader.  The main reasons this tool is optimized for my purposes are:

  1. Shortcut keys – if a feed reader doesn’t have shortcut keys, it’s no good for me.  Previous, next and star allow me to process everything in Stage 1 of my flow with one finger.
  2. Syncing across multiple computers – This isn’t very important for processing since I typically process on my laptop – but it’s critical for finding new sites to keep track of. I could always email myself a link and then subscribe when I get home, but being able to instantly subscribe and file a feed into the appropriate folder is a big help.  Any web based reader would have fit this criteria.

Those two by themselves are not enough, but by extending Google Reader I was able to optimize my process even more.  I used Google Gears and Greasemonkey (in Firefox) to accomplish the following:

  1. Downloading of Items – You can only read as fast as you can download. For a long time, I was very partial to desktop based readers because of this.  I initially tried and dismissed Google Reader because waiting for it to refresh was too slow. No longer! I installed Google Gears which downloads all my items locally.  I set Google Reader to “Offline Mode” (even though I’m online) and I can fly through items in Stage 1 of my process.
  2. Inline Reading and Commenting – One irritating thing about some feeds I subscribe to is that the authors choose not to publish the whole articles – just teasers or summaries, forcing me to click through.  Using some desktop readers this would open a new tab in my web browser, or sometimes it would open the page in the reader itself. Both these situation have disadvantages. Opening in my browser causes context switching, while opening in my RSS reader may not allow me to bookmark it.  Using a Grease Monkey extension (Google Reader Preview Enhanced), I can preview items within Google Reader itself.  This allows me to still bookmark the item from that embedded frame (since most blog posts have a permalink attached in the post itself) .  This also allows me to comment and then immediately go to the next item to read. If I’m lucky, and the site uses DISQUS comments (like this does) I should be able to comment directly using the gReader Comments Greasemonkey Script.

Finally, I use Delicious to store all my bookmarks.  This allows me to store my bookmarks online, and I believe is the best tool for organizing a large number of bookmarks, since I can tag them to various categories.

I especially like that delicious will suggest tags to me if other people have bookmarked the site already – this saves me some time and mental cycles, since I can just click on the tags people have suggested and use those.

An added bonus is – delicious stores my bookmarks online, which allows me to also read items on my Blackberry if I have some down time – though I am sure there is a way to sync bookmarks with my computer as well.

A full discussion on delicious is probably best saved for another post =)

What do you think? Do you have a process for reading RSS feeds as well?