In my last post, I talked about how I gave up reading blogs for a while by dumping all of my feeds from Google Reader. Initially I still found myself opening GReader, but since it was devoid of content, the habit died much more quickly than if I would have just tried to restrain myself from opening GReader.
A couple of months later, when I felt that I had the habit under control, I started adding a feed or two — or six or eight — to the reader, until I realized that I was back where I started. Whenever I was bored or anxious, feed reading was my crutch activity. So I dumped the feeds again and recovered.
But then I started thinking about the root of the problem. What is it about RSS that makes it so addictive? Why do I find books so much more satisfying to read than blogs? Books obviously treat their subject matter in more depth, but perhaps there’s a better reason. Books provide closure. They have a beginning, middle and end. Using an RSS reader, that experience can be approximated with blogs.
The Case Against Serial Content
Blogs manage our expectations in ways that can be counterproductive. Content that’s automatically delivered to an inbox on a daily or hourly basis conditions readers to live in a state of constant anticipation, contributing to what’s usually referred to as Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). As long as something is waiting for us in one of our inboxes, we feel compelled to keep up with the flow of information.
The alternative is to catch up rather than keep up. Catching up is the default mode of consuming information in books. All the information is sitting out there in a bundle that you can read from start to finish in one or more sittings, providing a sense of closure. If you feel the need to read more of a book after finishing it, it’s usually to fill in gaps in understanding; it’s not just a ritual behavior of checking for more information.
Keeping up is the default mode of consuming information in blogs. There’s always something new to read, so there’s never a sense of closure. While blogs are almost never structured to have a beginning-middle-end lifecycle, it’s pretty easy to set them up so they can be read in one or a few sittings without the need to “follow” them indefinitely.
Setting up Your Blog in Google Reader
You can probably use any RSS reader for this, but Google Reader is familiar enough. Since we want to move from keeping up with blogs to catching up (with the exception of WorkAwesome, of course), the first step is to dump all of your RSS feeds. There’s no need to freak out about permanently losing the dozens of feeds you’ve curated for yourself over time. Just export them as an OMPL file that you can re-import if necessary. Go to Settings | Reader Settings | Import and Export, click on “Export your subscriptions as an OMPL file”, and save to your desired location.
You’ll notice above that I mentioned setting up your “blog” rather than “blogs”. There’s nothing to stop you from performing the following operation on multiple blogs at once, but I highly recommend reading one blog at a time from beginning to end, removing that blog from the reader, then moving on to the next one rather than scrambling your brains with a bunch of disparate content.
Add the first blog to your GReader as you would any other blog: either by clicking on the site’s RSS chicklet or by hitting the a key for “Add a subscription” and adding the feed’s URL. The reader will populate with all of the feed’s new items. If you’re not already in List View, switch to it now by hitting the 2 key. Now we want to delete the current feed’s contents by hitting Shift-a for “Mark all as read”.
Now click the “View all items” link in the view pane, which will show you a complete list of all the blog’s posts. You can move the focus up and down through the list using the n key for Next and the p key for Previous. You can open the current header in focus with the o key, and close it by hitting the o key again. If you happen to be stuck with partial feeds that require you to click through to the site, you can use the v key without the need to open the header with the o key first; this will open the post in a new tab or window, depending on your browser settings. For more efficient reading, check to see whether the site offers a full feed. To skip the a post, mark it as read with the m key.
What’s nice about processing the full feed in list view is that you can glance at the headers without getting lured into the post contents unless you deliberately open them. Now you can run through an entire blog from beginning to end (or end to beginning, as is the default) by highlighting the next header with the n key, opening and closing the article with the o key, or marking it read with the m key. When you’ve completed the entire feed, refresh the view with the r key. The feed with now either be empty or have any posts that have arrived since you began reader. Process these the way to do with the initial batch, refresh, and repeat until you’re at inbox zero.
Then remove the feed from your reader. You’ve caught up, you don’t need to keep up. Rinse and repeat with your other feeds. This doesn’t have to be done in one sitting. It takes as long as it takes. I’ve found that the easiest way to complete all of feeds is to abandon as many as possible. I noticed that many of the blogs I was reading were simply regurgitating information from a much smaller set of authority blogs, so there wasn’t much point to rereading the same content with a slightly different spin.
Don’t Keep the Feeds
But what if you want to keep up with new posts? I recommend two approaches. Either go to the blogs manually occasionally (not daily) and quickly scan for new updates, or add them back into GReader long enough to process any new posts, then dump the feed again. The principle is to prevent automating the delivery of new content, so that you can maintain more conscious control of what you consume. You’ll find that it’s psychologically healthier to expose yourself to new content on an as-needed basis than to keep yourself running on the information treadmill.
Editor’s Note: Oops! I published these posts out of sequence, and you can expect the precursor to this piece, titled Don’t Increase Your Willpower — Reduce Your Options, shortly.
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