Perfect Tools Part 1: Selection and Consumption of Posts

If you are like me, then you are always searching for ways to improve on the efficiency of your daily work flow. I feel like I’m already closing in on – at least – local optima in some areas, and since it took me some time to find and combine the right tools to do the job, I might as well share it here.

I am an avid reader of many specific different blogs and news sites, but like most people, I only read a tiny fraction of all articles that are posted per day. So the first task I have to do every day is filtering: deciding which posts are of interest to me. For me, the process of filtering is completely separate from reading the actual articles.

Since I don’t want to browse 20 different websites each day to find new posts, I use an aggregator that pulls in all articles and presents the new ones to me in a uniform fashion that makes it easy to go over the different posts. There are essentially two types of aggregators: intelligent and dumb ones.

Intelligent aggregators try to guess which sources and which posts are of interest to you and only present you with that selection. Dumb aggregators in turn show you the sources that you have selected and within those sources all the posts. While most people probably decide to use intelligent aggregators, I decided to use dumb aggregators. For one, I don’t want to see a semi-random selection of sources, since I have hand-picked my own sources, and I always have the feeling that I might be missing out on interesting articles if a machine-learning algorithm is selecting articles for me. I am particularly in doubt whether serendipitous discovery wouldn’t be prohibited by an intelligent aggregator. (If you are looking for intelligent aggregators, I’d recommend to check out Prismatic and Flipboard.)

So which tool am I using for dumb aggregation? It’s called Feedly and allows you to select the sources you’re interested in and presents all new articles as lists. Perfect for filtering. You can also use it for reading, but that’s not what I’m doing.

My workflow starts by going to my Feedly subscriptions and scanning over them. If I’m interested in an item, I open it in a new tab and continue to scan. I will not start to read any of the posts until I’m finished scanning posts. (Hint: the short cut for opening a link in a new tab without automatically changing to the tab on the Mac is Cmd + Click) I call this first pass the scanning phase.

After scanning all new articles, I close Feedly and go through the tabs. I decide which articles to read now, to read later and which ones to discard. When I decide to discard an article, I immediately close the tab. When I decide to read an article now, I immediately read it. These are particularly posts that have a short timely relevance and need to be read on that day. The articles that are of interest to me but of no immediate timely relevance are marked to be read later (which I will describe next). More than 50% fall in that category. I call this overall second pass the triage phase.

How do I save articles for reading them later? I was using Instapaper for a long time but now switched to Pocket. Pocket installs a browser extension that allows you to mark posts with one click to read them later. That’s exactly what I do with interesting articles that are of no immediate timely relevance.

I read most of the pocket articles on the go using the smartphone or tablet app that allows you to read all your saved articles even when being offline. So whenever I’m in the sub, a cab, a train, a plane, in the gym etc., I read the articles from there. I call this third pass the reading phase.

When I find that one article is so interesting that I need to take action based on the content later (i.e. send it to a friend, check out links etc.), I “heart” the article. I’ll check that “heart category” from time to time when using my computer to go through that list. I call this fourth pass the action phase.

But there is still room for improvement. What do you do when you are literally on the go? Reading while walking slows down your walking, and since walking is your primary task, there is no point in this trade-off. Wouldn’t it be great if you could listen to the articles you’ve saved? You can, and the text-to-speech is actually quite nice and auto-detects the right language for each article (in my case, that’s English and German). The app that I’m using for that is called Lisgo, and synchronises with all your saved Pocket articles. And that’s also the primary reason I’ve switched from Instapaper to Pocket since there was no text-to-speech extension for it.

I am pretty happy with the combination of Feedly, Pocket and Lisgo right now, and don’t see much room for improvement. How do you consume your daily news from the web? For me, it’s broken up into scanning, triage, reading and action phase. Which is, to some extent, pretty similar to how I treat my email inbox.

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