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Afraid to click? How to efficiently process your RSS feeds

I recently came across Tim Ferriss's [1] entry How Scoble Reads 622 RSS Feeds Each Morning, which motivated me to post an "aha" I recently had about processing RSS feeds. (What I took away from the Scoble video was how selective he his in deciding to read a post, how he makes that choice, and that he uses feeds for "relationship work" - networking - so he can be smart when talking with someone. However, I didn't get much on how to handle so many feeds.)

I read about 200 feeds [2] right now, and when I'm feeling overloaded I noticed I avoided keeping up with them. I had an "afraid to click" dynamic because I knew there would be consequences (having to decide the meaning of each post - and there are lots of them) with that click. After some thought, I realized there are only two kinds of posts: Those I want to read, and those I don't (deep, I know). Since all of the feeds I subscribe to are potentially valuable (otherwise I unsubscribe), the work (and it is work) is to go through them as quickly as possible to "harvest" the action involved.

In other words, it's simply the processing and organizing [3] phases of Getting Things Done.

Here's how I do it: I click the feed (or folder, if they're grouped), take the hit (lots will load up), and zip through them one at a time. I've set my reader to show only headlines (best for most feeds except newsletters), so I scan each title and decide mercilessly whether it deserves a deeper look. If so, I use Firefox's middle-click to open in new tab feature [4] to temporarily bookmark it, then move on. Once I've gone through all the new feeds I use keyboard shortcuts to go through each tab to decide "Is it actionable?," closing each tab when I've handled it. With feed reading this usually boils down to:
  • Does it still look valuable?
  • If so, is it short enough to read in two minutes? If yes, read it.
  • If not, I put it into my to read stream. For blogs, the stream is to buffer up articles-to-read in a text file, print them once a week, and carry them in my Read/Review folder.
Note that this gets me rapidly through lots of posts, essentially moving them from "IN" to my actions list. However, it does require you to have a good "to read" system in place. Otherwise you'll feel compelled to read them all, which takes you from processing and organizing to doing, and that, my friend, will drag you down.

When I finally end up reading the post (either in two minutes or later) I typically have a limited set of resulting actions:
  • Try a new behavior/install a new habit (example: keeping a decision log),
  • Save it for reference [5] - either for me or clients (examples: saying no and FileHamster),
  • Send it to someone who will hopefully find it valuable (a great little networking gift, along with this one),
  • Save it as a Someday/Maybe item (I choose to print and file them in a paper folder),
  • Respond (either via a blog post, an email to the author, or a forum comment), or
  • Save it as a writing topic (I love stimulating reading that gets me thinking - fun!)
Clearly there are others, but the key point is to have an efficient system to turn the reading into action, and to whiz through them. I like my tagged text file (see Pickle jars, text files, and creative idea capture), but use whatever works.

How about you - Have any good tips for handling RSS feeds? I'd love to hear them.


Reader Comments (15)

Wow! Two hundred feeds? Even with the processing/organizing system you describe, that sounds like information overload. I am impressed.

My system is simple and barbaric. I only allow myself 25 main feeds. That's it. No more. If I find a new feed I like, someone must be voted off the island. :)

I must add that those are 25 "active" blogs. I do subscribe to 3 other blogs that are simply notification services that inform me when new versions of softare become available. Posts on those blogs are rare.

May 29, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdon

I only allow myself 25 main feeds. This is what Mark Forster calls a closed list in his book [ Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0340909129?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0340909129 ]. Good idea - thanks for sharing!

May 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Instead of using Firefox's middle-click to open in new tab feature, I simply press 'v' to open the item (I tweaked Firefox to open new windows in tabs). Much faster!

May 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeroen Sangers

Hi Jeroen - interesting! But I couldn't get 'v' to work. Here's where I looked for keyboard shortcuts, BTW: [ Firefox Help: Keyboard Shortcuts | http://www.mozilla.org/support/firefox/keyboard ] & [ Bloglines gets hotkeys! | http://blog.andrewbeacock.com/2005/10/bloglines-gets-hotkeys.html ]

May 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I think Jeroen's comment refers to Google Reader. When you're viewing a post, typing 'v' opens the original post in a tab.

May 30, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrownstudy

Hi Matt,

Interesting post. I actually [ posted | http://jack-of-all-tradez.blogspot.com/2007/05/ok-scoble-but-what-about-search-feeds.html ] about the same subject, although I had inquired about the fact that Scoble didn't mention the use of search feeds. I use them to find new information and new sources of information on topics I'm currently interested in. It's a quick way to get relatively unheard info on all kinds of topics.

I also only keep a couple of high-volume feeds now. Engadget and BoingBoing were gone from my list a long time ago. Simply no time to keep up with them. Digg may soon follow too.

Personally, I have about 170 feeds in Google Reader. I use the n/p keyboard shortcuts to scan down the subject lines (in all items/list view) and use the s key to toggle a star on the ones that sound like they're of interest to me. I then go back and read these ones right after, or when I've got some time to do it.

Of course that's what I do when I've got a bunch of unread posts piling up. When the numbers aren't so big, I usually review them by source, so I might scan all the digg posts in one fell swoop and then go onto some other feed.

I also learned to get over the fact that I might miss one or two along the way. I now have little hesitation in wiping out 100+ unread digg posts just to catch up. Of course I usually do that only with the big feeds. I tend to shy away from mass deletion of unread posts from smaller sources and friend bloggers who I feel are owed the dignity and respect of a read or at least a scan, from me. :)

May 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRichardQuerin

brownstudy: Thanks for the clarification.

Richard: Great points, all - search feeds (mine are via Google, and included "personal productivity," etc), the high cost of high-volume feeds (I've also unsubscribed to feeds that are too much - in fact, I think one a week is a *fine* rate!), Google Reader (doesn't have the critical feature of feeds for email subscriptions), and that it's OK to miss (some) posts. Thanks for reading!

May 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Next time I will read your post better before commenting... Yes, I thought that you were using Google Reader (don't ask me how I got that idea)

May 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeroen Sangers

Hey Jeroen - no problem! Thanks for reading.

May 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Nice, I'll have to try this out. Currently I open the RSS and if it's more than a quick read (longer than 2 minutes perhaps) I hit Ctrl-A, then using my Google Notebook (conveniently located in my Firefox status bar) I "clip" it. This put a copy of it into my notebook and is therefore an action item.

After I've read it and am done with it, I either delete the copy or move it to an appropriate Reference folder within the notebook.

If it was a quick read and I want to keep it, I simply clip it after the read and move it straight to the references.

I may have to look at the closed list idea though as my list still gets a bit large sometimes which a few days of being afraid to click, leads to an action item of "clean up blog list".

May 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

Thanks for the summary, Doug. I tried using Google Notebook for these kinds of things, but found it too unwieldy. Maybe it's been improved...

May 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

They have released a newer version which I like much more than the original. There's still some aspects that I don't love which is where I think running with a closed list will help me cut down on time. I'm going to try your suggestions as well for awhile and see how it compares for me. One thing I like about the notebook is that I've set it up for a lot of my someday/maybe items (such as amazon links to books to read) since a lot of those ideas come from the web. It may be a case of me trying to make it do more than it should though!

June 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

Doug: I'll check out the new version - thanks for the tip. Using it for S/M makes sense, but for me I like one place to put them, and many of mine are notes to myself or things I've printed, so for now I keep a paper S/M...

I also use Amazon's wishlist for my "like to buy" books. However, it's not made for that use. For example, I up the priority of a book each time it's recommended to me, and after a few times I take the hint and buy it. However, doing that involves many steps...

June 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Bloglines has open article in background hotkey (O) ... but it doesn't work for me. After trying several combinations, I found that Ctrl+Enter does the job.

July 12, 2007 | Unregistered Commentervittori

vittori: Thanks for the tip. I couldn't get it to work. I wonder if the Ctrl+Enter is a brower feature. In Firefox I can tab to each link (e.g., each Bloglines post) then hit Ctrl+Enter to open the post in another tab (at least the way I've configured it).

July 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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