To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

Showing up and making rituals

Over the last few months I have been suffering from some bouts of senioritis. Nothing fatal, but it’s set me back by a few weeks, especially for my long-term projects like my thesis. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that every semester I start off with some grand plans but I just get too busy at the end of it to accomplish. Part of it is just being an engineering and computer science double major, but a large portion is also a flawed personal work ethic.

Though I make jokes about my laziness all the time, I do try my best to get stuff done. Unfortunately I’ve never managed to set up and stick to a formal plan of action. Most of the time I’ll implement a system or just put in more hours when I hit a heavy workload, but then I’ll stop once the busy period ends. That serves to get me through the hard times without affecting my grades (or making me pull regular all-nighters) but it also means that I end up wasting a lot of time and not working to my full potential during regular workloads.

I’ve been wanting to fix this situation for a while, but never figured out how. I use a to-do manager regularly and that helps to keep track of tasks that must be done on time. But it doesn’t help me make good use of the time that isn’t directly scheduled. Also I don’t want to block schedule all my time and live tied to my calendar and to-do list. I want my schedule to have some flexibility and variety, but not enough to cause choice paralysis.

I found the beginnings of a solution about a week ago, but I only formulated it on Monday. I read an article about forming rituals — things you do every day without thinking because doing it will help you reach a goal. The author uses the example of exercise — it’s something you just need to do every day without thinking. If you stop to think you’ll start coming up with reasons not to go to the gym. So what were my rituals? I realized that I didn’t really have any. I was working on a reactionary basis, reacting to homework and assignments and exams instead of getting work done every day — work that I enjoyed and really wanted to do.

I’ve decided to implement some rituals, but in a looser sense. I know that I can get classwork done on time because somehow I manage to make the time, but my other activities fall by the side. There are 3 main activities I enjoy but don’t do as much as I would like to — reading, writing and programming. So my rituals are that every day I will:

  1. Spend 30 minutes reading fiction. For now it’s classics on my Kindle right before bed time and then books from the library once I’ve exhausted that list.
  2. Spend 30 minutes reading non-fiction. This list gets fed by RSS feeds and links coming in via tweets. The actual reading will be either in Google Reader or in Instapaper.
  3. Write one complete piece. This will be a blog post (for The ByteBaker or the Lafayette Voices), a subsection for my thesis, or homework for screenwriting class.
  4. Write some code. Either something for my thesis or my computational art project. I’m hesitant to quantify this as I don’t know how. Definitely something to think about and come back to in a week or two.

All this does add to the amount of stuff I need to get done each day, but that’s the point. Till now, I’d be lucky to get two of the above done each day. I need to do all four in order to be the person I wanted to become (a well-read hacker with great communication skills).

To get the time to do everything I’ll be cutting down on the time I spend on email and randomly browsing the web. Anything interesting I want to read gets buffered in Instapaper for reading as part of the 30-minute non-fiction block. Hopefully I’ll completely eliminate the time wasted sitting around and wondering what to do (and the frustration that entails). But at the same time the rituals are flexible enough that I’m not strait-jacketed. The point is to show up and take away the randomness that might prevent me from getting things done. Will it work? I’ll find out soon enough.