From Chaos to Order

With my writing workflow pretty much taken care of with Byword, Dropbox, and a little bit of TextExpander wizardry, a recent Twitter conversation with Zac Szewczyk encouraged me to reconsider my content consumption and organization habits. After a few days of exploration, I think I have a nice system in place.

If you find my use of the word “system” annoyingly serious in the context of reading or web browsing, then I shall warn you that it’s only going to get worse. If you only read sparingly or for entertainment, or if you happen to have superhuman memory capabilities, you’ll find it hard to justify such pedantry. I’m sure though that those who are also content creators (or curators) understand the need.

One thing I learned about optimization (only) a while ago is that at one point, the time and effort you spend on them start to outweigh the benefits. So, this time I resisted the urge to rummage through the magical workflows of scripting geniuses, and instead elected to search for something that works for me.


Content is all over the web: Twitter, blogs, news sites, big syndicates, magazines, and apps. We discover on our desktops, laptops, phones, and tablets. Sometimes you’re at home, sometimes at work, and sometimes somewhere in-between.

The problem was that somewhere along the way, I got everything tangled up: I’d sometimes read in a browser, and sometimes in Pocket. Sometimes I’d keep articles I want to link to in Pocket, and other times, I’d send them — tagged or untagged — to Evernote. Starred items in my RSS clients would wait for days or weeks to be sent somewhere. Anywhere. I’d favorite tweets with links of interest. When browsing from work, I’d use our corporate email address to send links to my personal one, because the log-in-log-out ritual was too much of a hassle (especially with 2-step verifications).

In short, Too much friction and too little efficiency.

The first step towards a working system was to identify the three stages of content consumption: I discover, I read, and if I like what I read, I organize. It’s only when I enforced a dichotomy between these stages that I realized how big of a productivity hinderance my previous system (or lack thereof) was. I needed a new one, and needed it to be agnostic: Minimal dependency on device, operating system, or location.

Discover

Taking care of the discovery stage was straightforward because I already knew what was wrong: I had forced myself to use RSS as a complete replacement for bookmarks instead of a supplement to them. I did so, because everyone around me said it’s more efficient.

And maybe it is, but not for me.

The way I see it, RSS is an insurance policy: Subscriptions should only be to sites that I absolutely don’t want to miss an update from. If I didn’t open the site from the bookmarks bar in my browser, the feed subscription is there to make sure I read what got published during that timeframe.

But what about sites that I don’t follow religiously? Yes, I want them visible somewhere, but not together with my must-reads. The “task” of marking hundreds of items as read (even when done in bulk) was tedious.

I deleted all my subscriptions and started from scratch. Blogs that I read immediately went back in, and were filed under two categories: Daily and Regular. If a feed is in my Daily folder, it’s a blog I don’t want to miss a beat from. Blogs in the Regular tab are newly discovered ones, and will eventually get moved to Daily, the bookmarks bar, or the trash.

After this was done, I moved all of the other feeds to my Safari bar as static bookmarks and filed them under several categories. There too I have the “Daily” and “Regular” folders, but also News, Tech, Magazines, Economics and Science. If I have enough time on my hands, I’ll launch some or all of the folders to see if something catches my eyes, but I neither need nor want to see every update from CNN, TechCrunch, or Salon.

So every RSS subscription is a bookmark, but not every bookmark is an RSS subscription. I admit this creates redundancy, but I mind it very little as I try to keep my RSS subscriptions to a minimum.

Read

Whereas in the past I’d only Pocket articles that I found particularly interesting — using the app as a treasure chest of sorts — today every article even remotely interesting is sent to Pocket either before, or after I read it.

Why would I send articles to Pocket after I’ve read them? Isn’t it a “read later” service?

Well, during my research I’ve found that Pocket is not only great for content consumption, it also integrates really well with other apps. Specifically, it supported something that was actually pretty hard to find elsewhere: The ability to not only send articles to Evernote, but also tag them in Evernote from within Pocket’s interface.

But that’s not the only reason I went with it. Pocket makes my system truly independent: If I’m reading something on my Mac, I can send it to Pocket via the Safari extension. If I see an interesting link in Tweetbot on my iPhone, I have the option to send it to Pocket with two taps.

The X factor, though, was the ability to add articles via email: I send any URL to add@getpocket.com and it’s instantly added to my queue. I can choose as many email addresses as I like, giving them permission to populate my reading list. If I’m browsing from Safari on iOS (which doesn’t support extensions), or worse, the Windows XP machine in my office, I can email a URL to Pocket from my or my workplace’s email address, and it will be there when I open the app. It doesn’t have to be my own email address, so I no longer have to login everytime I want to keep an article I’m reading at work.

In any situation when adding an article to Pocket isn’t supported natively, I can use good ol’ email. Turns out primitiveness has its virtues: Speed, apathy, and simplicity.

So Pocket is not only my consumption device, it’s also an efficient middleman between its designated purpose of reading, and organization.

Organize

If Pocket is so great, why not use it for consumption and organization?

While Pocket does have a tagging system of its own, it doesn’t support filtering by multiple tags. Evernote does. I chose it over Pinboard — the hottest bookmarking service on the block — for the ability to see content without having to open the URL, and because of my familiarity with the service; what it is and isn’t capable of.

With little agony I deleted the hundreds of notes I had previously accumulated in Evernote. I say with little, because my filing practices were horrible, and even if I wanted to find something in my tags or notebooks, they were either too specific or too broad.

I now have only three notebooks, with the one carrying the label “Bookmarks” set as the default, because that’s what I’ll utilize Evernote for most of the time1. The fact I only have to worry about tags makes filing less of a hassle.

In a recent Mac OS X article, I wrote that Evernote becomes more useful as you add and file more items, and with this relativelty frictionless workflow, I think I’ll be enjoying the fruits of this in the future.


  1. I use CamScanner for document scanning, and Simplenote for notes. ↩︎
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