Curing RSS addiction and continuous partial attention

I came across this article by David Goodman in my Technorati search feed for Instapaper, where he discusses his feed addiction, the “continuous partial attention” it fosters, and his transition to consuming longer content:

Regularly following the feeds of over 60 websites was leaving me in a twitchy state of continuous partial attention.

Thanks for the great article, David. I faced many of the same issues as you with obsessive RSS unread-clearing, and I realized I was spending more time skimming short content and headlines than truly reading anything.

The disconnect

The nature of the feed reader, especially when loaded with many high-volume feeds such as Engadget or Digg, encourages you to keep going and skimming and clicking endlessly to “keep up”. When I’d come across a long article in this state, I’d skim over it, not really reading it or getting any value out of it.

I’d also have a lot of time, since I commute on a train for 90 minutes each day, to read long content — I’d just never have any at that moment, because I would have already skimmed through everything at my home and work computers.

The fundamental problem is the disconnect between when we find good content and when we actually want to read it: these occur at completely different times in our day and in completely different contexts.

I made Instapaper as a tool for myself to bridge the disconnect: I mark long articles with the Read Later bookmarklet and continue through my RSS skimming. Then, when I’m on the train every day or waiting somewhere, I read the long articles.

I had much more elaborate plans for what I wanted Instapaper to be, so I didn’t release it. I used it myself every day for about 3 months before showing it to a few friends who finally convinced me to release it. (And after optimizing it for its current functions, it became far better and more successful than the original idea would have ever been.)

Feed overload

I then made a few changes to my RSS habit that made it much more manageable:

  • No more high-volume feeds. (I haven’t missed a thing.)
  • No more feeds for which I read and enjoy less than half of the content.
  • No more blogs about blogging.
  • No more list posts (“top 8”, “17 reasons”, etc.).
  • No more sites whose content is mostly aggregated from elsewhere instead of original.

And most importantly:

  • I no longer attempt to read long articles on my computer.

That’s an important one because I realized I was never really concentrating at the computer. There are too many distractions. Non-geeks, especially those over age 40, figured this out a while ago: they’ll print articles to read them. On paper. You know, that flat white stuff that comes out of those big machines in your office that everyone always seems frustrated with. Ah, forget it. Just trust me that reading long content on a computer sucks.

Now, I’ll go to the couch and read articles in the Instapaper iPhone app even when I’m home and could just as well use my computer. The iPhone’s single-tasking interface helps a lot here: there’s nothing else to do except read. There’s no new-feed-items notification. There’s no new-email alert. Nobody calls me, so that problem solved itself. (If people love calling you constantly, try Airplane Mode. Tell them you were underground or in the shower. Or tell them you just switched to T-Mobile.)

It’s a big shift for a feed addict like us, but it’s a huge improvement. I have far more time in the day to be constructive instead of skimming hundreds of fluff headlines. And when I do read articles, I actually read them without skimming. Their content sinks in. I’ve never read as much meaningful content as I do now.

My favorite App Store review of Instapaper is by Alex Bain:

This app actually makes me a better person ★★★★★

All day long I get emailed interesting-looking but lengthy articles from friends, and I never chip away at them,b/c I’m at my desk working. Later on, these same articles (typically from The New Yorker, The Slate, or maybe just a fascinating but wordy blog post) would be great fodder for a plane or subway ride, but they’re unavailable b/c I’m offline.

This solves this problem, and it does so gracefully. It strips away the cluttering ads, flash, and comments and leaves you with what you were interested in to begin with: the content. It also compacts the images for faster loading over EDGE.

Give this a try. What do you have to lose?

That’s the best possible endorsement I could get.