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Stop drowning in your Inbox

Increasing numbers of people are quitting social media, and feeling better as a result. But it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. Curating the Firehose of content you’re drowning in is a better option.

I launched 2016 with a plea for myself and anyone listening to spend more time this year away from their screens, to get a life and spend more of it with the people we actually care about:

I failed, I realised last week, as my wife asked me - yet again — to not bring my phone to bed. As she has asked most nights this year.

But last week, at that very moment, I just happened to be reading this:

I can’t emphasise enough how life-changing Sullivan’s article is. Go read it. I won’t mind if you don’t return, because I will have helped you anyway. You might also like Does quitting social media make you happier? and How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds.

But do come back here, because you’re probably not (yet) as addicted as Andrew Sullivan, and probably don’t need to take such drastic measures. What you do need is a process. I’m improving mine. This is a status update.

Taming the Firehose: short version

For the past few years I’ve been using a GTD-driven personal productivity regime called Taming the Firehose. But it had an important flaw. Me.

My full explanation is a 11 minute read featuring an 18-slide slideshare, so here’s a quick summary of one part of it, called Scan-Queue-Store-Share.

a content strategy for handling the Firehose

Scan-Queue-Store-Share is a content strategy for handling the Firehose of content coming at you every day. Emails from your boss, interesting reports you should read, posts you should comment on, articles you should share... Scan-Queue-Store-Shar efficiently transforms it into actionable stuff:

  • ToDos in your Getting Things Done (GTD) system 
    (read 24 resources I recommend on GTD)
  • a Personal Library of useful stuff, Stored for later use
  • some of which you Share with colleagues and/or the world at large
  • and most of which you hopefully Internalise — i.e., actually learn from the stuff you’re reading and sharing (hot tip: most people don’t)

Here are the principal steps:

I’ll walk through this as quickly as possible. More details in the full post, which shows how to integrate this with GTD and a well managed calendar.

Scan your Inboxes

Inboxes are anything from email to Twitter to your phone’s voice recorder, sent to you from Sources.

Scanning is classic GTD singletasking — deal with it in under 2 minutes if you can. Otherwise, either ignore it or …

Queue it

Add it to your ToRead or ToDo Queues for later processing (next). I Store ToReads in Pocket and ToDos in DoIt.im, so they’re available everywhere.

Process your Queues: Read, don’t just Scan!

This is managed using GTD , as are (obviously) the ToDos. Read the full post for help here, as my focus today is the ToReads, which are processed by (Duh!) reading them.

But read, don’t just scan! You need to be able to answer: is this resource worth Storing? Will I need it later? If so …

Store it with CIFIL (Confidence I’ll Find It Later)

I put useful resources in my personal Library of useful stuff by selecting some text and clicking the Diigo button in my browser toolbar. This allows me to:

  • tag it so I can find it later with Diigo’s faceted search, creating CIFIL (Confidence I’ll Find It Later) to counter FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
  • annotate it (select key phrases, add notes, etc.) to ensure I absorb the content, at least partially. Tip: Diigo copies whatever text you select before clicking the bookmarklet and puts it into the (editable) Description:
Select some text, click bookmarklet and edit the Description, adding & editing excerpts as necessary. Then add tags. You haven’t just Stored it, you’ve absorbed it.

The above Diigo popup is where I begin adding value (at least for myself) to the content I’m processing. Tagging adds curation-value, while annotating it engages my brain, ensuring I learn something from the resource.

Share it, manually or automatically

I share the best articles manually, but I also have an IFTTT recipe that automatically posts the record to my Tumblr.

The above Stored NiemanLab article appeared on my Hub a few minutes later

This TumblrHub is my public Library. 90+% of its almost 2500 posts is Stuff I Like, which gets there simply because I tagged it ‘like’ in Diigo. This IFTTT recipe does the rest.

Another recipe (tag: ‘DoIt’) adds a Diigo record to my ToDo queue. I dropped my recipes to autoshare to Twitter and LinkedIn as the results felt too impersonal.

Reflect, Stage 1: enewsletter

A year ago, I realised that annotating interesting resources was not enough — to really onboard the most interesting facts and ideas, I have to write about them. Thus Top3ics, my personal enewsletter, was born. Each edition reflects on the top 3 topics since the previous one. It’s published on my Hub so you can judge for yourself and subscribe if you wish, but:

I’m not actually doing it for [my subscribers], or my profile, or my Klout score, or whatever. The aim is to internalise the excellent content I feed myself every morning.
- To truly understand, write — even just for yourself

Reflect, Stage 2: longform blog posts

enewsletters are nice, but the best possible way to develop your thinking on a subject remains writing a meaty longform blog post about it.

Each Top3ics edition is therefore an intermediate step, forcing me to explore a few topics, some of which are then developed further via my blogs.

It’s worked: I have ended up writing full blog posts about things I’d initially explored in Top3ics (this led to that, for example, and this led to that). And I can feel that I’ve developed my thinking more deeply in areas I’ve covered in my newsletter. But, as we’ll see later, this step in the process has been choked.

Personal Content Strategy in Summary

So my personal content strategy (not including shortform social media) is:

The volume of content processed falls from left to right, while my value-add grows from centre (Diigo) to right (longform blog post).

There is only one problem. My enewsletter was to be weekly. Then fortnightly. Then monthly. And then not at all.

Choking the middle

If Managing the Firehose works, how come I was still reading my phone in bed, obsessively opening, Scanning and Queuing the next link, and the next one, and the next one? What happened to getting a life In Real Life, and spending it with the people I love?

What happened to getting a life In Real Life?

Instead of balancing Scanning the Firehose (left) against Reflecting on what I’d Stored (right), I ended up just Scanning and Storing more and more content.

And as I shoved more and more content down the mouth of my funnel, less and less came out the other end. My last enewsletter was published on May 23. While it did lead to this post in early August, I haven’t written anything substantial since.

I choked my process in the middle

Over the past few months, in other words, I’ve choked my process in the middle. There are two reasons:

  • It’s easier to Read and Tag, than to Think and Write
  • I’d forgotten the fundamental Firehose fact: there’s always more of it.
There’s always more stuff … to Scan for content to Read, and then Store.

There’s always more stuff — another tweet, another platform, another enewsletter — to Scan for content to Read, and then Store. I had become addicted to the left half of my process, and forgotten the end goal.

How did this happen?

When I first set up my process, I simply started with the Sources I was following at the time. And then I gradually added to the list, increasing the content to be Scanned, without taking any Sources away, slowly creating a Sisyphean task for myself.

As of last week, my Inbox Sources included (in no particular order) enewsletters from the Economist, Medium (dailies from two accounts, plus Letters from several Publications), American Press Institute, Quartz, Brainpickings, NextDraft, NiemanLab, Nuzzle, BlogActiv, EurAtiv, McKinsey, Digital Single Market News, Breaking Smart, DigiDay, PoliticoEU Playbook, SeenThis, Quora, various LinkedIn Groups, Sidewire, Vox Sentences, NYTimes, Reveal, The Conversation (Australia, France), AlphaGalileo, MediaShift, CB Insights, Future & Emerging Technologies, UK Authority, Michael Hyatt, IABC, GapingVoid, NewsWhip, Fizzle, Ello, Le Monde diplomatique, The Muse, Buffer, Wantoo, etc.

Added to that are my main Twitter, Quora and Facebook feeds and their incessant emailed interruptions about ‘what’s popular in my network’, my ‘overnighters’ Twitter list, Yammer Groups, MeetUps, Tumblr, newsletters from all the services I’ve ever signed up for (Pocket, About.me, Storify, Coursera and literally dozens more) and God Knows What Else.

I added them blindly, and now I can’t see anything

Moreover, several of those newsletters are in fact either curations themselves (Medium, NextDraft, API, etc.) or are fed by those platforms (Nuzzle, LinkedIn), which means I often see the same content in 2–3 different places.

All in all, Unroll.me found 211 subscriptions. It’s madness. There’s too much, it’s not structured and it’s not balanced. It didn’t choose these deliberately — I added them blindly, and now I can’t see anything.

Choose your Sources, don’t let them choose you

From now on, I’m choosing my Sources with deliberation.

I started by creating Gmail Inbox rules to ‘downgrade’ some Sources (auto-archive its emails & labelling them ‘Subscriptions/Low’) while Highlighting others (adding a star and the ‘Subscriptions/High’ label). About half my Sources I’ve left unRuled.

This gives me three ToRead Queues, with three grades of importance. I may add a fourth grade later, with dedicated IFTTT recipes auto-creating individual ToDos for each edition of ‘superHighlighted’ Sources.

While Quicklinks make both Low and Highlighted Queues easily accessible, I also created a recurring ToDo to check the Highlighted one.

Last weekend, for example, downgraded 16 subscriptions and highlighted Nautilus and Brainpickings to get more science and philosophy into my reading, at the expense of media innovation, which has dominated my Inboxes for years.

I also unFollowed some Medium Publications to reduce my daily Medium enewsletter length, unsubscribed from most LinkedIn Groups, created a new ‘Highlighted’ Twitter list into which I will not put more than 20 accounts at any time, and pushed the too-big ‘overnighters’ List off my Hootsuite main screen, so I see it less.

I applied the Rules retroactively to see how many emails I was dealing with — those Rules moved some 7000 emails into ‘Low’, and Highlighted over 1700 others, of which over 1100 remain unread.

Note that I didn’t unsubscribe to any Source, as I’ll be switching Sources up or down in the future, because:

I’m not stuck with these changes

I’m also adding a recurring ToDo to drop at least one Source and Highlight another every month.

These I’ll select from a textfile (a never-to-be-completed ToDo, actually) to which I’ll add new candidate Sources as I spot them.

consciously widen my horizons in new directions every month

So maybe next month I’ll drop BrainPickings and add something about psychology. We’ll see.

In summary, this tiny GTD tweak will ensure:

  • I better balance reading and writing
  • I better absorb the content I read
  • I consciously widen my horizons in new directions every month.

Which is not to say that this is the only change I’m making. I’m also currently working on another way of extracting value from my Hub, so stay tuned.

If you enjoyed this, please hit Recommend so others will discover it, and follow me for more.

You can also subscribe to my newsletter (left) for the best of the stuff I curate every day, seasoned with comments and the occasional post. Or try out the bot-version on Messenger.

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