Reclaiming Your Mind: Creating an Information Diet

I track the time I spend on the internet, and it's way higher than I would like. I've felt more addicted to the whole-world-information-firehouse as time has gone on and I want to change that.

"We struggle to read any serious books, and even a long blog post feels too much." That (paraphrased) quote rang very true when I heard it at a conference recently. I used to be able to sit down for hours and read a book, and I can't anymore. I'd like that part of my brain back, please.

In the spirit of open-sourcing my thinking, here's how I thought through revamping how I consume information. I've been using this new system for a couple of months and it's been working really well.

This post got too long (sorry!), but I want to remind my future self what I was thinking when I decide to iterate on this system.

Categories

It's worth thinking about what categories of information are worth spending time on. It's so easy to get sucked into whatever system provides a feedback loop that you enjoy, but if what if you could design what categories of information you wanted to consume? What types of information would you consume and why?

Here's my list:

  1. Stories. I've been almost exclusively consuming non-fiction for the last decade and rarely read any non-fiction. At the suggestion of my ever-wise wife and the promptings of a podcast on story I've reprioritized non-fiction as something worth spending time on. Great stories can change our perspective on life and increase creative thinking.
  2. Curiosity & Exploration. Investing in discovering new and interesting ideas has always paid off for me. For me, this generally looks like browsing community sites like Hacker News, reading a random newsletter, or following interesting people on Twitter. Learning about random, interesting topics has always been really enjoyable for me—it sparks creativity and is useful later when I'm building something.
  3. Work. Books, blog posts, videos, etc to help me solve a work-related problem.
  4. Entertainment & Social. Twitter, Facebook, news, etc. When you look back at your time spent here you always feel like it was a waste. I've been convinced that keeping up with news is largely a waste of time (you'll hear anything worth knowing about through friends), and time spent communicating with friends over social is better spent with friends in person. This doesn't mean that there isn't a place for this category, but for me, it means I need to bias towards eliminating any time spent on this category.
  5. Infrequent Personal-ish Updates. There's a group of organizations or people I follow that I want to keep tabs on, but don't send emails often. A friend running a non-profit, bands announcing a new album, etc.
  6. Local Business Updates. There's a handful of local businesses that send out email-only coupons. I don't want to see these in my inbox, but I do want to search them every once in a while.
  7. Transaction/Service Emails. Messages from financial companies about transaction confirmations, amazon order confirmations, etc. I generally don't want to see these in my inbox, but I want them to be labeled and searchable.

Mediums

Here are the places I consume information:

  • Podcasts.
  • Books.
  • Blogs.
  • Community News. Hacker News, Lobsters, Reddit, Product Hunt.
  • News Sites. Google News, Bloomberg, TechCrunch, etc.
  • Social. Twitter, FaceBook.
  • Video. NetFlix, Amazon Prime, YouTube.
  • Email.
  • Personal communication. Texts, voicemails, etc.

Changing Consumption Habits

Now that I've clarified what categories I care about, and where I get information, how can I reorganize my consumption system?

Here's what I want to change:

  • Continually improve. Set aside time every so often to quickly audit what I'm consuming, how much I'm consuming, and what tools I'm using.
  • Make consumption a choice rather than a reaction. Right now, I randomly visit Hacker News or see an article come through my email and boom I just lost 15m of my day. Instead, I want to centralize information from a specific category into a single place that I can go when I intentionally want to consume that type of information.
  • Optimize for pull vs push consumption. A great example here is email newsletters. They are sent to you (push), not pull (like a feed), and are often messy to read and pile up in my inbox. Especially in my email, I want to separate "conversations with people" over "updates from companies/interesting news".
  • Categorizing information is critical. Email newsletters can't be categorized easily. I want to put information into separate buckets that I can prioritize and triage separately.
  • I should use RSS again. Way back when, I read everything via NetNewsWire. Email newsletters took over seemingly overnight and I forgot that RSS existed. Most sites I care about still support RSS (even if it's not advertised explicitly). Even if a site doesn't support RSS, there are readers which convert emails into a feed-like experience.
  • Use an RSS Reader. Specifically, one supported by paid subscriptions. Free is great, but most free things (without a huge market) die (this is super common in the recipe-management space for some reason) or slowly become spammy. I don't want to have to mess with this part of my toolkit much and deal with a killed product. Paid subscriptions mean it's a real business that will continue to improve over time.
  • Limit consumption. I want to enforce a limit on the number of things I'm consuming. I wonder if there is a way to automatically reset the read count of various feeds so it doesn't look like there are too many articles to read when I use a reader.
  • Prefer books over articles. For most business/technology problems, blogs and Q&A sites are the main source of data but work aside, books are generally higher-quality information compared to blogs. The time it took someone to create the content is a good indicator of the quality. Books > Blogs > Twitter (this gets a bit tricky with low-cost kindle books, treat most of those like blog posts).
  • Optimize for the highest impact & quality information at the beginning of the day. This means reading books and long-form articles at the beginning of the day while my mind is clear, instead of consuming blogs, tweets, texts, etc.
  • Treat books like a blog archive. I really like this concept (I didn't come up with it). Reading books from cover to cover doesn't make a ton of sense, although it's definitely how I'm trained to read books. Skimming through a chapter (or skipping it entirely) if you find it boring or too verbose shouldn't feel 'wrong'. If the writer can't keep your attention, that's their fault. Additionally, books are generally longer than they need to be in order to hit page quotas. Don't feel bad about paging through a chapter if you got the joke.
  • Don't switch contexts. If you are reading a book, don't stop and read a blog article. Cultivating sustained laser-focus attention on a single thing is critically important. I've found this to be more challenging as the years go by, and it's something I need to be even more intentional about.
  • Focus on managing written internet media. I don't over-consume podcasts or books. I struggle most with interesting, distracting news sources like Hacker News or Twitter.

Making Changes

Here are the changes I implemented:

  • Start using an RSS reader instead of email or checking sites directly. After a bunch of investigation (detailed below), I settled on using FeedBin. I've been using it for a couple months and it's great. There are some rough edges to the product, but the developer is responsive and seems to be consistently improving the application.
  • Limit the number of feeds to 30. I suspect this number will change as I continue to slowly improve how I'm processing information, but this is a good start.
  • Define discrete categories for RSS. People, eng-people, engineering, tech, finance
  • Convert email newsletters to RSS. Most newsletters (like Ruby Weekly) have an RSS feed. For those that don't, FeedBin has a service to convert email newsletters into a feed-like experience. I imagine there are standalone services that will do this for you automatically.
  • Mass-unsubscribe from email newsletters. I've been using unroll.me for years (I don't love the lack of privacy, but it's a great tool). It looks like their unsubscribe option will actually click through the unsubscribe links for me. I should go through my daily Unroll.me summary and remove newsletters I'm not interested in, and convert the others into a feed.
  • Setup two aliases email+updates@gmail.com and email+promotions@gmail.com. Forward all updates to FeedBin, tag, and auto-archive. Auto-archive & tag all promotions.
  • Subscribe to weekly summaries on community news sites. Ban these sites from my iPhone and computer to avoid yet another distraction on my computer.
  • Reset Twitter. Mass unfollow everyone on Twitter, and limit the people I follow to 50. I really enjoy Twitter: depending on the group of folks you follow, there's a neverending stream of interesting ideas.
  • Block all news, social, and other distracting sites.
  • Limit the number of Podcasts to 15. In writing down this rule, I felt a bit of information FOMO ("What I miss out on an important concept!"). Just write down the podcasts you are interested in, but don't fit in your prioritized list, in a separate doc and come back to them in your quarterly information review.
  • Stop using Apple Podcasts. I find it hard to keep things organized and Apple seems to randomly reverse the listing of certain podcasts and randomly download old episodes. I should trim which Podcasts I subscribe to and find another Podcast application. I landed on Breaker.
  • Stop using YouTube. I removed all of my YouTube subscriptions. The recommendation engine was just too good at finding interesting content.

Recurring Tasks

To keep things tidy, here are a couple of things I need to do. I set these tasks up in Todoist so I won't forget.

  • Every week, enable website blockers. There are times when I need to disable blockers to access something, and then I forget to re-enable them.
  • Every 2 weeks, mark all podcasts & RSS as played/read.
    • In Breaker, go to Subscription settings and choose "Delete All"
    • In ReadKit, go to "RSS News" and mark all as read.
  • Review transactional emails. Most companies allow you to edit out the email notifications you don't care about; actively remove yourself from emails you don't care about (like automatic account payments). Some emails you can't opt-out of (i.e. Amazon transaction emails); create a gmail filter for these (tag and auto-archive).
  • Review Unroll.me digests. Unsubscribe from everything that doesn't fall into the "Infrequent Personal-ish Updates" category.
  • Every quarter, set aside some time to review the 'information consumption system'. What's working/what's not/what needs to change?

RSS Reader Research

I enjoyed researching the RSS readers out there! I found it interesting that many of the popular ones (outside Feedly) were micro bootstrapped businesses.

  • https://reederapp.com/mac/#faq doesn't look like it is updated often.
  • https://github.com/mausba/rssheap went open source and hasn't been touched in over a year.
  • https://github.com/getstream/winds podcast and RSS reader, open-source, commercially supported and recently updated.
  • https://www.inoreader.com. Standalone paid product, has an API, doesn't look too complex. 64 feeds for free.
  • Feedly.com is the most popular, but looks overdone.
  • http://newsblur.com. Standalone paid product. Not updated frequently. Doesn't look like a great design. Free and paid tiers. I found this reader most commonly referenced by Hacker News and Lobsters.
  • https://readkitapp.com nice looking client that ties into various services (including FeedBin) to create a great reading experience on MacOS. Seems to be updated frequently.
  • https://www.goldenhillsoftware.com/unread/ another macos reader.
  • https://yoleoreader.com web-based reader with a low-cost paid subscription.
  • https://feedbin.com well-designed feed reader. Supports podcasts and receiving email newsletters via a special email address. Also has a Twitter reader as well. Bootstrapped business. Also open source, very cool. https://github.com/feedbin/feedbin
  • https://github.com/ViennaRSS/vienna-rss Pete Cooper is involved in this one. Open source. Looks like a zombie product.
  • https://www.nooshub.com new reader from HN with some fancy "AI" grouping.
  • https://ranchero.com/netnewswire/ It looks like this client is coming back to life after years in hibernation.
  • https://apps.apple.com/app/leaf/id576338668 Leaf. Looks dead. Hasn't been updated in two years.

Other interesting finds:

  • https://superfeedr.com RSS feed API platform.
  • https://throttlehq.com dynamically created unique email addresses
  • Interesting discussion threads on RSS readers: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20167143 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19909102