Should You Maintain an (Almost) Empty Reading Queue?

Years ago, I made a realization that changed how I write. That realization was that I’m weird and almost nobody reads the way I do.

Previously, I thought my blog reading habits were pretty typical. Subscribe to a dozen or so blogs, and read most of the articles they write. If I find myself skimming most of the articles from a particular blogger, I’d unsubscribe from them. What’s more was that my reading queue was almost always empty.

Then one day I was visiting a friend and saw their Google Reader account. They had so many unread articles in it, that the app had stopped counting, and just gave a large number with a ‘+’ sign next to it.

An informal survey of some of my readers and friends revealed that it was, I, not my friend, who was weird. Most people didn’t read their RSS feed, and the idea of maintaining it at a nearly empty status was practically unheard of.

The result of this changed my writing habits. I switched from writing 5 times per week to twice, and then only once. I stopped trying to get RSS subscribers and pushed for email subscriptions, which have an order of magnitude higher response rate. This insight was probably one of the ones that saved my business.

I may have been weird with my reading habits, but I’m also willing to go out and say I was right. Maintaining a nearly empty reading queue is probably better than the sip-from-the-firehose strategy most people typically employ.

How to Maintain a Near-Zero Reading Queue

The solution is simple: subscribe to fewer blogs. When you find yourself skimming most of the articles of a particular blog, unsubscribe. When you no longer have a near-zero reading queue, start unsubscribing until you do again.

Maintaining a zero-inbox for email is hard. Most email is involuntary and needs our attention.

Maintaining a near-zero reading queue is easy—just read less stuff. No blog reading is mandatory, so if you have a bloated queue the solution is quick and painless. Just keep unsubscribing until you hit zero.

Why Maintain a Near-Zero Queue?

Since keeping your RSS queue tidy on a habitual basis is easy and painless, why do so many people allow their feeds to bloat? I have two theories:

  1. Overly optimistic reading habits. People judge their reading habits by their peak reading diet, not their average. As a result, they subscribe to more than they can read but always feel that this latest bloat is the exception, not the norm.
  2. They believe the sip-from-the-firehose approach to information management is ideal. They think that the best way to manage information is to get a ton of it and then skim for the most interesting and useful.

The first reason has an easy solution: keep an A-list and a B-list for your subscriptions. Feedly allows sorting for RSS. If you use email to subscribe to blogs, then filter them into two folders: a highly curated box you plan to keep nearly empty, and a bulk box which has extra reading when your curated box is empty.

The second, however, is a trickier problem. For that, I need to explain why I believe the firehose-sip is not the best way to manage your reading diet.

Don’t Sip the Firehose of Information

When people get overloaded with information, the assumption is that scanning and skimming will result in selecting the best information to consume. If I subscribe to too many reading sources, then when I’m pressed for time I’ll just read the best.

I don’t believe this is the case. Instead, I think when you’re pressed for time, you consume the easiest information, not the best. It’s like grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Pressured by physical urges, you buy more junk food than when you can contemplate your grocery list rationally.

I think Reddit is a perfect example of this effect in action. Reddit provides an infinite stream of new and interesting content. But what content is most popular? Images. Images can be consumed quickly and effortlessly, so they overpower other content.

The bias in Reddit (and, to a lesser extent, each individual subreddit) is to quick, easily consumable content. That can be great, but it means that anything that requires longer thought or time will be neglected.

Your reading queue is the same. Pressed for time, you won’t read the things you value the most. You’ll read the things that are flashiest and easiest. The best written headlines, even when you know the content is probably garbage. The shortest analyses, even when you crave a little more insight.

If you don’t filter deliberately, you’ll filter automatically. It’s just that the automatic filter might not have the settings you’d choose if you were doing so deliberately.

Curate Your Reading Diet

Keeping a near-zero queue has the opposite of the reddit effect. You check your inbox to see if any new articles have arrived, and enjoy the ones when they do. You aren’t skimming through them as a nuisance, but savoring them. That also helps you enjoy longer, deeper content then you might otherwise.

It also builds the habit of reading instead of skimming. I find when I start skimming a particular blog, it’s hard to switch back to reading it later. Reading takes mental effort, so if you condition yourself to take the easy route whenever that author pops up in your queue, you start to avoid it.

Curating your reading queue means that you will miss a lot of information. A lot of news and flashier stuff will be out of your zone of awareness. But that’s okay, because you’ll spend more time thinking deeply about the few writers and topics you truly care about.

  • Ryan Muller

    I do this too! Glad you’re promoting the cause. I’d give up my firstborn to avoid losing my list of feeds.

  • invunche

    usually i skim thorugh my feeds titles and save the ones that stand out to my attention for later (with pocket). then i mark everything as read, so the queue is empty but now i have a selected list out of only-interesting stuff.
    i get back to read my selected articles very slowly, but on the other hand this allows me to create clusters of information about one single topic which i can read in a row, not diluted on a span of weeks or months… makes it easier to build connections, appreciate contrasts, etc.

  • Paul

    I’ve been using an app called Pocket to curate my reading and empty out my email inbox. Here’s my flow:

    I subscribe to blogs using email.

    I click on anything that’s relevant or interesting. As a result, I’ll have 5-10 tabs open on my browser.

    I click on the Pocket icon, and that article immediately syncs anywhere I have Pocket installed, in this case, directly to my iPad.

    When I get some time later, I’ll open up Pocket on the iPad and read or browse articles. If I don’t find anything useful in my skimming or reading, I’ll click the checkmark, and the article goes away into an archive.

    I agree. If nothing useful is coming from a specific author or feed, it’s time to close it down. I’ve done that a lot as the year comes to an end, and am getting better at knowing what I’m looking for.

  • Andrew

    Well, after finishing this article, I’m down to a single-digit number of articles in my feedly 🙂

  • Todd

    I’ve always done that with my RSS feed too. On youtube, for the longest time I had 120+ videos in my Watch Later playlist. Finally I did a brief pass through of what I REALLY wanted to watch (3 videos) and deleted the rest. I agree with you that it’s better to just eliminate stuff that you only skim or save for later all the time.

  • Duncan Smith

    This post touches on one of the central dilemmas for people who want to participate in modern digital conversations. I also prefer a small list of subscriptions that I can keep up with rather than a large list that I just dip into here and there, but as you mentioned, RSS is one of the few places where we have this type of control. Tools like email, Twitter, blog comments, and online message boards generally don’t lend themselves to that approach. Consequently, we still need to develop skimming techniques to decide what is worth reading.

  • Ola

    I’ve thought about it just a couple of days ago, which made me drastically reduce my reading list and gave me much more calmness. I’ve also found Google Inbox extremely helpful when reducing mail inbox – it allows you to set a reminder about any mail (or reminder about whatever you want, which makes your inbox really a todo list) which will show when you have time to take care about it. It really feels great when you know you don’t need to worry about more than one thing at once and that you won’t forget about all the other things.

  • Katie

    I found myself reducing the subscriptions that I have in my RSS feed, and only keeping ones that I actively read, and then realized that there’s still a heck of a lot of content that I like, and I end up “starring” at least 2/3 for later…only to get frustrated with the lack of readers where search functionality is basic, rather than premium. (Google Reader I often actually saw as the “perfect Google search” because I knew the results would be of a high quality.)

    “Feedly zero” (or RSS zero) isn’t that crazy of a concept – even if somehow the number of articles published each day tend to be higher than 500.

    (Though to be fair, the news section (the biggest one for unread articles) tends to get a New York Times headline skimmed then I go find the BBC one because they don’t hate basic news articles about the same story, which is counterintuitive to what you’ve suggested about trimming the fat for the feeds you only skim – if only the BBC would publish everything the Times did!)

  • Bruce Harpham

    Scott, when I started reading this post, I thought you were going to discuss a queue of books!

    On the theme of cutting back on information, I decided to end my subscription to the Globe & Mail newspaper last year. This year, I’m ending a subscription to print magazine. I find that I get more out of reading books than periodicals (though there are exceptions from time to time). You’re absolutely right about keeping up the curation habit.

  • Logan Smith

    I didn’t really read the article, mainly skimmed, but I feel like I got the gist of it!

  • Rodrigo

    I try to keep my feeds queue empty, but I have a problem with my “read later” queue.

    On my feeds, what i do is categorize them by priority/quality. I have basically 3 levels (meaning something like: must read, interesting, superfluous), and when I notice I’m not keeping up with it, I downgrade some feeds. The ones from the bottom category are unsubscribed instead of downgraded.

    It has worked pretty well for me, although the “read later” problem indicates there are still too many entry points.

  • Yining

    Agree. 2 years ago I used google reader, always pretending I could read all of my subscriptions. In fact, just very few of my subscriptions were read. So when I use feedly, I only subscribe 3 blogs, this amazingly work well, at least I read all of them.

  • Andrea

    I also expected this to be about books rather than blogs – my Instapaper is full of Maybe/Someday intentions, especially if I come across something while at work to avoid switching tasks. I use Goodreads to store my 100+ list of books To Read.
    Bryan Harris of Videofruit recently posted about How Not To Buy Crappy Books… – I use a similar wishlist preview method when deciding what to read next.

  • Duff

    I subscribe by email to maybe 5 blogs (this is one of them) for exactly this reason. I especially appreciate the emphasis you put here on skimming vs. deep reading. A few months ago I was addicted to Facebook and read many shallow articles and a few deep ones that appeared in my news feed, but I became disturbed when I found it too difficult to read a paper book.

    Since then I have quit all social media entirely and make it a point to read at least 2 pages of a challenging book a day (usually once I read 2 pages I continue and end up reading 20-50+ pages, but if I commit to 50 pages I usually read 0).