Really Simple Discipline

Happy Labor Day!

This weekend, there was a bit of an uproar over RSS and its ability to overload the user with information. The discussion was catalyzed by Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica, who wrote about why RSS is poisonous to productivity and sanity. (Via Forkbombr)

The headline is melodramatic, of course, but the concern is valid. She writes:

The Internet echo chamber is most apparent in RSS—mildly amusing items multiply across friends’ Tumblrs like rabbits on crack, and controversial items seem to invite commentary from every single person (and possibly some cats) who has access to a keyboard. This is, of course, one of the great benefits to the Internet—everyone has a voice—but it is not a great benefit to your productivity or sanity.

What makes it worse is that a huge number sitting in a little red badge over your RSS reader icon carries an obligation. “How many of those 342 items can I just mark as read, and how many of them do I actually have to pretend to read?” becomes a question that you ponder often. Even a ruthlessly curated RSS list can make you feel like you have to read the entire backlog—maybe even moreso, since you’ve now put time into making sure you’re following quality sources—and that’s just not a feeling that contributes either to getting things done or to relaxing.

I use RSS to keep up with websites and writers whose commentary I value. Currently, I have 89 subscriptions in my Google Reader. Like the number of people I follow on Twitter, I try to keep it under 100. This constraint ensures my feed is always curated with only the highest quality posts, and that I’m never overwhelmed with too much information.

At the very least, I do scan every RSS entry’s headline. I read short and/or pertinent posts on the spot, or mark them as unread for later reading. Long-form articles, or things that interest me, but aren’t pertinent, get sent to Instapaper.

I use Reeder on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro. I do not use unread badges on any of them. I check Reeder on my own terms, usually multiple times a day. That is, I read RSS when I want to read RSS. It doesn’t try to force its way into my day and steal my attention. I agree with Cheng that multitasking can be detrimental, which is why I don’t leave Reeder open on my Mac while I’m working on something. If I open those apps, it’s because I’ve consciously decided it’s time to look at them. Since I have to actively open Reeder to look at my feeds, it’s easy to forget about it completely when I’m writing or working on something else. Same goes for Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

Marco Arment, in his response to Cheng’s article:

RSS is best for following a large number of infrequently updated sites: sites that you’d never remember to check every day because they only post occasionally, and that your social-network friends won’t reliably find or link to.

This is exactly how I choose which sites to follow. I subscribe to very few big news sites. Lifehacker is the biggest one that comes to mind, and I could probably stand to unsubscribe and just follow their Twitter feed. All of my other subscriptions are independent writers. I don’t follow all of TechCrunch; I just follow MG Siegler. I don’t follow CNN, the New York Times, or any traditional news sites via RSS. I follow a couple on Twitter because it’s easier to scan a tweet than mark every news item of the day as read.

Ben Brooks, in his own response:

To claim that RSS is bad for you if you subscribe to too many feeds is absurd.

What’s bad for you is letting a tool like RSS overwhelm you, take over your life if you will. I have gone away for 3 days, as Marco suggests, and come back to thousands of RSS items, I read them all in time and it never bothered me.

If it bothers you, then blaming the tool is not the solution to this problem.

I agree wholeheartedly. The solution to dealing with information overload — be it via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — is self-discipline, not blaming the tool itself.

I love RSS. It’s a great tool, and Reeder makes it a joy to use, but I keep all of my feeds carefully curated. If someone starts tweeting way too much, they get unfollowed, or put on a list where I can check in less frequently. I have over 400 friends on Facebook (ugh), but a huge majority of them are hidden from my News Feed, so I only see the people I care about. This disciplined approach always presents me with a feed of high quality information, and it prevents me from getting bogged down and having to sift through meaningless posts.

Cheng asserts that it’s possible to get behind even with a highly curated feed, and that’s true. If I do somehow manage to miss a couple days on my RSS feed, I might have around 200 unread items. But like Ben says, I just get to them over time. I’ll set aside half an hour to clean up my feed. Reeder makes this an easy task. I don’t feel guilty about having unread items. The fact that I’m going to miss things is inevitable, but it’s also not going to kill me. Plus, by keeping my feed populated only with high quality sources, it’s much more likely that I’m going to want to work through the backlog, and doing so won’t be a source of stress.

Obviously, Jacqui Cheng is a tech reporter, and her job dictates that she stay on top of every news story coming down the pipeline. I can’t say what’s best for her. As for me, I’m thankful for having a tool that makes it so easy to read my favorite writers. I use the tool; it doesn’t use me.

I try to post something worthwhile here every weekday, whether it’s original, a link worth reading, or some combination of the two. Subscribing via RSS is one of the best ways to support QLE and keep a steady, but hopefully not too overwhelming, stream of posts coming.