My name is Dave and I am a hoarder. Not the “piles-of-garbage-in-the-living-room” kind of hoarder but a virtual one. I have an invisible mountain of magazine articles, blog posts, and other random bits of information in a stack that stretches on and on for what feels like miles, with little to no organization or purpose other than at some point I thought I needed to read it or otherwise act on it. And even though these are not physical piles that I am walking past and ignoring, they have grown large enough that I can feel them there, waiting for me to do something about them.
The primary enablers for this bad habit have been my favorite “save for later” web clipper apps, Pocket and Instapaper. I’ve been using them for many years without any cleanup, and between just those two apps I have enough unread articles saved that I could read for 8 days straight and still not be finished. Many of those articles I no longer even remember why I saved them. And yet I still haven’t done anything about it because it’s “virtual” clutter.
But tomorrow is the start of a brand new year, and I’m determined that I am going to start 2015 with as much of a clean slate as possible, so it’s time for drastic actions.
First let me be clear – I love these apps. I find them invaluable for keeping me focused during a day of work when I come across something I’d like to read but can’t in the moment. That’s exactly what they were designed for – one click on a bookmarklet or a quick email to my list and I’m back to focusing on the task at hand. And I often enjoy and consume content better when reading it through an app like Instapaper on my iPhone or Kindle where extra layouts and design are stripped away and I can focus on reading. (Seriously, Instapaper’s tilt to scroll feature alone makes reading about as effortless as it may ever be until we can get browsers implanted directly into our brains.)
I know I wouldn’t have saved so much to “read later” before I had these easy tools to help me. At most, I would use a bookmark organizer in my browser or a tool like Delicious to mark something noteable and hope the URL didn’t change, or I would print something off as a PDF and store it in a “read later” file on my computer.
But now I can access and add to these “read later” lists anytime, from any device, and as a result I built a backlog of 2,497 unread articles across just two apps over the past five years. Even at a generous average of 5 minutes per article, that equals 12,485 minutes / 208 hours / 8.6 days of continuous reading. So basically, never.
In order to know how much of a real change I was making, I pulled some reports from both apps to measure how much of a dent I could make in these virtual piles. Pocket allows you to export an HTML file of your saved items divided into groupings of Unread and Archived. Instapaper has a similar feature in their account settings but will export as either HTML or CSV formats. (I pay for Instapaper Premium which may offer more features than the free version. Pocket also offers a paid version which may include additional export options I didn’t see in my free account.)
Here’s how I dealt with these piles by the numbers:
My starting point:
- 593 unread articles.
After about two hours of culling that list, it reduced to:
- 7 unread
- 370 archived
- 200+ deleted (yay!)
This wasn’t easy – it took more than half an hour into sorting this from my laptop before I discovered that I could hold the command key to select multiple items on the list (or shift to select a range) and perform actions like tagging, archiving, or deleting.
I’ve had this account the longest, so my saved article history goes back to items I saved as far back as January 2010. My starting point:
- 2166 unread articles.
There was no way I could even begin to try culling this, so I took the “scorched earth” approach and used Instapaper’s “archive all” button to send it all out of my queue, confident that I’ll be able to find anything I may think of later with the search feature. I just saved a handful of the most-recent items I wanted to read in my pile, leaving me with:
- 4 unread
- 1957 Archived
- 301 in folders
Ahh…. that’s better…
These are just two tools I use like this, and they are a valuable addition to the arsenal of anyone who spends a lot of time on the web. But like any good tool that saves time and make tasks easier, removing steps or friction to getting things done also has a downside: the easier something is to do, the more I’ll do it without thinking, just because I can, thereby turning a useful tool into a habit without a purpose.
We have to remember to be mindful about how we use these tools, and know that if we’ve decided to “read something later” than it means also having some sense of exactly when that later is going to be – otherwise we’re just building a pile with no purpose.
Going forward, I’m going to try starting two new habits to help me keep these piles from going out of control again:
- Stop putting so much crap in my “read it later” queues to begin with. I still feel myself giving in too much to the power of FOMO and that’s a habit I’d like to replace with more mindful curation of how I’m filling my inboxes and using my time.
- Schedule weekly “later reading” times to catch up on my Pocket and Instapaper feeds. If something is in my feed by the end of the week and I still want to read it, it’s probably still going to be worth reading.
It may take some time to build these new habit into my existing routines, but I’m confident I can make it work. And if it does, maybe I’ll even find time to start reviewing and clearing out other virtual piles in my way.
(I’m looking at you, Evernote…)