Productivity with Pocket

I first came across the concept of “neomania” while reading Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile. It refers to a constant obsession with the new. Although I only read the book last December, I’ve been working in technology since 2010, and instantly recognized my own tendencies toward neomania. At various points, I’ve spent entirely too much time on Hacker News, Medium, Quora, Twitter, or Product Hunt.

It’s like this Portlandia clip, only both characters live inside my head:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JLWQEuz2gA

About a year ago, I decided to get my news neomania under control, and I chose Pocket as my primary tool. Here’s how I did it:

Step 1 — Separate collection from consumption

First I realized that my Twitter binges were composed of two distinct phases: collecting and consuming. And combining these phases is what was causing most of the trouble. It’s like going to the grocery store when you’re hungry, grabbing the first thing you see, and eating it right in the aisle. Not going to produce the healthiest results.

When I began using Pocket to separate these two stages, I was able to calmly review my timeline and Pocket everything that looks interesting without having to read it all at once. And it only takes about 10 minutes, which is enough of a break to satisfy the urge to procrastinate without completely throwing me off my train of thought.

Step 2 — Groom the queue

I’ll set aside some time in the late afternoon to take a real break, launch Pocket, and review the queue from the bottom up. Sounds simple, right?

Here’s why this step is so important: If I don’t recognize an article or remember why I saved it, I just delete it. Poof! Gone. This happens about 20% of the time.

That article that seemed so interesting when it was just a headline in my Twitter feed doesn’t ring a bell just a few hours later. Into the trash can it goes! This easy step cuts down my article reading time down by 20%.

Step 3 — Timebox consumption

Ah, the most basic guideline of all, and often the hardest. When I want to read some articles, I set a 25 minute timer (Pomodoro technique) and make it through as many as I can without rushing. The timer serves as more of a soft guideline than a hard stop.

Putting time limits around any one reading session isn’t just to respect my time — it’s also to respect the articles. After reading a handful, I have to admit my eyes begin to glaze over and I’m just scanning lines on a page. If the links have made it in my queue, and weren’t deleted during step 2, I try to give them my full attention.

Step 4 — Recognizing limits

I finally came to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to read every interesting article I desire. There’s too many thinkpieces, cover stories, new product announcements, and industry analysis for one person to consume.

During the week, I have a good rhythm of collecting and consuming, and my queue expands and shrinks in size. But when the weekend comes, the only reason an article is still in my queue is because I feel an obligation to read it. The articles that remain on Saturday are the long slogs that feel like homework. That’s why every Saturday, after lunch, I archive my entire queue and start fresh, at “Pocket Zero.”

Nobody knows you didn’t read the latest Atlantic cover story, or the umpteenth profile of Jack Dorsey in Bloomberg. I give you permission to move on.

Step 5 — Be mindful of your reason for reading

The final, most important step took me a while to incorporate, and it requires constant practice. I had to give some thought to the reasons why I read any articles in the first place.

My reasons for reading are to learn about 1) people doing interesting and novel things, 2) promising new technologies that affect my industry, 3) political topics that affect all our lives, and 4) cultures and countries outside of my normal day-to-day life.

I am NOT reading articles in order to confirm my existing beliefs and make me feel smart.

This means I don’t save any more articles about the following topics:

1. Solar energy revolution — it’s great, it’s coming, I’m excited. Like, really excited! But I live in an apartment, so no solar panels for me yet.
2. Basic income — it’s intriguing, but there’s nothing more to see until real-world experiments take place.
3. Millennials — I’m one of them, stop generalizing us, move on. Also, I haven’t eaten cereal since middle school.

This list changes occasionally, but the point is, I’ve reached a place where more articles about these issues don’t affect me in any positive way.

Now, get back to work!

As with most things, I’ve given this entirely too much thought. But defending one’s time is a critical skill to master in 2016. It’s never been easier to discover and learn about any topic in the world, but it’s also never been easier to get sucked into the black hole of the comments section, recommended articles, and an algorithmically-powered echo-chamber.

Pocket is the secret weapon that has helped me regain control over my internet browsing and article consuming. You should give it a try. Since I’ve incorporated Pocket into my workflow, I’ve spent more time coding, writing, and creating, and less time on Hacker News. Imagine what you could do!

@lookatpete