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Productivity. We spend more time reading about it, talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it than actually making it happen. We complicate it with a disjointed system of hacks that don’t really work well together, then we decide to simplify it; every year, every month, it’s a vicious cycle for those of us addicted to the cool-aid of productivity and lifehacking that streams forth from the feed reader.

But both processes are important, the process of growing, advancing, experiment, complicating your system, and the process of cutting it back, simplifying it, minimalizing it. Experimentation and exploration is when you discover which systems, hacks, tips and tricks work for you. Then, the process of elimination retains what did work and clears out the clutter you picked up along the way.

One way we can continue to experiment with this ‘productivity’ thing while minimizing the amount of decluttering that needs to occur later on. We do this by simplifying our information intake.

I focus on email and my feed reader, since these are my main sources of information. Chances are, if you’re the type of person who regularly reads Lifehack, that you get your information the same way.

Email

The Empty Inbox: the obvious one. The one you’re probably already doing. Keep your inbox empty by processing emails as follows:

  1. Responding and archiving,
  2. Reading and archiving,
  3. Reading and deleting,
  4. Ignoring and deleting,
  5. Creating actions and deleting

The delete and archive buttons are your friends, as is a judicious use of labelling to organize those emails you’ll need later.

There really is no sense archiving everything. Some people are archive purists. I know at least two people who archive junk mail. Don’t do that.

If you can create an action (using a to-do list or task manager), take any notes from the email you might need and put them in your task manager or to-do list. Delete the email. You shouldn’t need it, unless it’s mixed with information that’ll be relevant for the future (and only then).

Here’s another one where people get caught up: responding to every message. If you have nothing to say but “Thanks, I received it,” don’t bother. If there isn’t any really important reason to reply there isn’t any reason to reply at all.

“Just in case” is a terrible phrase. Eliminate it from your speech, when it comes to email at least. If you think you might need it “just in case” you don’t need it.

Learning to process email is one way to cut down your time at the computer immensely.

Feed Readers

I use NetNewsWire as my feed reader, and it’s perfect for what I want. It allows me to get through feeds quite quickly.

I wouldn’t use a web-based feed reader—I don’t know how well they perform on internet connections in other countries, but in Australia, and in my experience, you can expect at a minimum about two to four seconds waiting time between each item. If you take that as an average of three seconds and multiply by the number of unread posts you get in the morning, there’s how many seconds you’ve wasted. For me it would apparently be 7,500 seconds, or 125 minutes – two hours just waiting for feeds to show up.

I doubt Americans will have this problem, and with ADSL2+ rolling out here it’s probably less of a problem. In any case, it’s a personal preference thing.

Posting Frequency

I love Boing Boing, but seriously, read it from your browser.

Keep a careful eye on the posting frequency of your feeds and automatically unsubscribe after a certain threshold. Sure, you might find the information useful, but if you’re serious about simplifying your information intake this is the only way to go.

Subscribe to feeds that have no more than ten posts in a day, but preferably two or three, as a rule of thumb.

10 Day Trials

Have a folder in your feed reader called Trials and subscribe new feeds to that folder. Review the feed for ten days, and if you feel you could live without the feed after ten days, unsubscribe.

The point is not whether the feed is useful, or the content is great. The point is whether you must have that feed as a feed, rather than a site you visit when you want to.

This is different if you’re a writer, journalist, blogger or some kind of new media professional. Depending on how much you need to write and for how many varying areas, you may not have a choice but to keep saturated in information from those areas and a feed reader is a fantastic way to keep informed about breaking news in your field(s). This is why I have so many feeds.

Use the Space Bar

In many feed readers, the space bar marks a post as read and skips to the next unread post. Let headlines do the talking, and skip those that don’t appeal. That’s what the purpose of a headline is: to inform you of the nature and content of a post.

Note to bloggers: don’t use clever or cute headlines. Don’t try to be a smart-ass with them. Use keywords and clarity, and if you can tie in a pun, a joke, or some sarcasm without losing that clarity, go ahead. But keyword-based clear headlines are not only going to do well for you in the search engines, but will help you stay in feed readers longer.

Flags

My final feed reader tip is the judicious use of flags. Use it sparingly, use it carefully. Reserve it for only the best content that needs to be absorbed later when you have more time, and for content that is going to inform your next actions throughout the day—such as writing a news article.

Don’t overdo it, try to keep it well below ten flagged items. That said, writers, journalists, bloggers and new media professionals may need to flag more than ten to get all their content research ready.

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