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.