Using feed readers effectively

The now shuttered Google Reader and many alternative feed readers (e.g. Feedly, Digg Reader, Feedbin) still have a lot of fans in the tech community: they make web browsing more efficient by aggregating content from a bunch of web sites under a single interface. But many argue feed readers are dated, that Twitter and other social media forms have “killed” the need for a dedicated feed reader.

I disagree. While the tech isn’t for everyone, I think much of the dismissiveness comes from those that setup a feed reader poorly. They add a bunch of high traffic, big name sites (e.g. The New York Times, The Verge, The Awl), get overwhelmed and quit in frustration.

Some can handle, even prefer this very high velocity setup, but I think it’s rare. There’s a better way to set up your feed reader. Start small, start wide, move through articles rapidly, and have an effective way to save the articles that are of interest.

Start small

When you set up a feed reader for the first time, keep the velocity – the rate of which new articles get aggregated to your reader – low. I like to start with a “10 by 10” rule: pick up to ten feeds that each post no more than ten times a day. Remember this is only a starting point; as you get use to your feed reader of choice you can always increase the velocity later.

Start wide

One of the strengths of a feed reader is its ability to pull content from sites you don’t pass through during your daily web browsing. To put it another way, effective feed readers widen the net. Keep that in mind when you’re picking your first set of feeds. A good rule I like to use is actively include content that’s different than what you normally are exposed to in your day job. Alternatively, focus on sources that give a unique spin on content you normally read elsewhere. For example, if you like politics, instead of adding feeds from big sites like Politico and Wonkette, subscribe to individual columnists you enjoy from smaller markets.

Move through articles rapidly

You can move slowly through articles one at a time in a feed reader, but I think this can be a flawed approach for several reasons. First, remember many sites truncate their feed content, which prevents a full article display within the reader. Second, feed readers are rarely optimized for reading; you often get a big list of unread items taking up significant screen real estate. Also, the article itself is cramped and there’s often a bunch of feed reader UI on screen that distracts from the content. Third, a slow approach means there’s a much better chance you’ll leave your feed reader with a lot of items unread.

I’d recommend configuring your feed reader into a “summary only” view where the focus is on scanning headlines, not full articles. Move quickly, and if any article sparks your interest, open it up in a new background tab or otherwise save for reading later (keyboard shortcuts can come in handy here.)

Have an effective way to save for later

After you process unread items in your feed reader, you’ll want a way to go back and read the titles that caught your attention. Generally there’s three ways to do this: flag the article with the feed reader’s built-in system (e.g. stars, flags, highlights, etc.), keep the article open in an external tab or save it in a dedicated “read it later” service like Pocket. I highly recommend relying on the latter two options only: new external tabs for quick items you’ll read immediately and a dedicated “read it later” service for everything else.

Overall, don’t shy away from feed readers due to their “power user” reputation. By following a few simple rules, almost anyone can benefit from adding a feed reader to their workflow.