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Get More Out of Google Reader

Get More Out of Google Reader
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    If you’ve already gotten started with Google Reader, you’re probably ready for some advanced tips and tricks to make better use of this rather full-featured RSS client. Here’s what you need to do to become a real Google Reader power user.

    Get Organized

    Google Reader offers two effective ways to wrangle your feeds into order: folders and tags. (Google is inconsistent in its use of “folders” and “tags”, often treating them as the same thing, but since foldering and tagging appeal to distinct mindsets, it’s effective to talk about them as two separate things.)

    Foldering

    To create a folder, click on any feed and select “New folder” from the “Feed settings…” drop-down at the top right. A pop-up will prompt you to enter a name for your new folder; once you click ok, the new folder will be created and the feed will be moved into it.

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    To add more feeds into a folder, simply select the folder’s name from the “Feed settings…” drop-down while reading the feed; again, it will be moved into the folder. (A neat little fading alert at the top tells you it’s working.)

    Tagging

    You might have already noticed that Google Reader calls the folders you’ve created “tags” when you look at them in the “Settings”. But there’s another, distinct tagging interface in Reader that works more like we’ve come to expect tagging to work.

    At the bottom of each post in a feed, there’s an “Add feed” link (it will say “Edit feed” if you’ve already tagged a post). Clicking this will open a text field to enter tags into. You can enter as many as you like, separated by commas.

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    Once you hit “Save”, scroll down to the bottom in the left-hand sidebar and you’ll see all your tags with little “sale tag” icons next to them. Clicking one opens all the posts you’ve tagged with that tag.

    Share and Star

    On the same toolbar as the “Add tags” link is a link marked “Share”. Google Reader creates a public page for each account, and everything you mark to share gets posted there. For example, my shared items are here. It will also create an RSS feed that your friends or clients or whoever can load into their own RSS reader. In theory, you could load your own shared items RSS, which must be useful for something, but that use escapes me at the moment…

    Right next to “Share” is “Add star”, Google Reader’s version of bookmarking. Anything with a star on it is accessible through the “Starred items” feed at the top left of the page (unlike shared items, starred items do not appear publicly). So you can skim through your feeds, starring anything that merits closer attention, and come back to your “Starred items” view when you have time — just don’t forget to “unstar” them as you read.

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    Take Shortcuts

    Google Reader is fairly intuitive, but there are a few basic keyboard shortcuts you should get to know, to make using it even easier:

    • Go to next item: j
    • Go to previous item: k
    • Down one page: space (will go to next post if current post is less than one page)
    • Star: s
    • Share: shift-s
    • Mark as read/unread: m
    • Mark all in feed as read: shift-a
    • Add tags to an item: t
    • View all items for a tag: gt
    • Go to “all items” view: ga
    • Go to “starred items” view: gs

    Go Further

    The spread of RSS to virtually everything in these mashable times means more and more information can be channeled to Google Reader and available virtually the moment it appears on the web. Here’s a few interesting tricks and hacks I’ve come across to do more with Google Reader:

    • Add your shared items to your own website. Click “put a clip of your shared items” at the top of the “Shared items” view to get the code to add your most recent shared items in a box on your own site. You can choose what to title your feed box, how many items to include (up to 10), the color scheme, and whether or not to show the items’ original sources. (See the “What I’m Reading Lately” box at the bottom right of my site’s home page).
    • Read your feeds on your phone or web-enabled PDA. Google Reader has a beautiful small-screen interface at www.google.com/reader/m. I use Opera Mini on my Treo 680 to view Reader, and although it sometimes takes a little while to load the first page, after that it’s pretty snappy, and Google does a good job of formatting content for the small screen.
    • See what’s playing at a theater near you. Use the Favorite Theater RSS Generator to create a separate RSS feed for each theater you frequent; you will get up-to-date times for each movie currently playing, with one movie title and times per post.
    • Create Google search feeds. If it’s important to you to keep up with new search results for particular search terms, you can use GoogleAlert to create feeds based on selected keywords. The free account allows you to maintain three separate searches; for more, you have to upgrade to a paid account. Make sure you turn off the email alerts under “user settings” or you’ll get duplicate results by email.
    • Create feeds from sites that don’t have them. More patient folk than me can use Dapper to RSS-ify websites that don’t have feeds. You have to identify the content areas to show Dapper how to do it; frankly, the process will need a separate tutorial to explain properly, but if you can figure it out, have at it.
    • Track packages. If you ship a lot of packages, set up a “Package Tracking” folder in Reader and use one of the following services to create RSS feeds for each package. Each is slightly different, so try them all and decide which best meets our needs.
      1. SimpleTracking is, well, simple — enter your tracking number, select what shipping service you’re using, and click “Generate RSS URL”. Cut and paste the URL thus generated into Google Reader. Track your package.
      2. TrackThePack autodetects what service you’re using, and adds the ability to add a note to your feed, which might be useful to distinguish the shipment of toner cartridges from the collection of vintage manga toys you bought on eBay.
      3. Package Tracking With Google Maps and RSS maps your package’s progress on a Google Map, so you can watch your package fly past wherever you live to the central sorting facility and then slowly crawl back to you.
    • Go offline. The latest thing out of Google Labs is Google Gears, an open source browser extension that enables web applications to provide offline functionality using javascript APIs to yadda-yadda-yadda. Here’s the deal with that: Google Gears gives Google Reader mojo, with which you can save your current feeds for off-line reading. If you fly a lot or frequently use your laptop in places where no wi-fi is available, just click “Read offline” at the top right (you’ll be prompted to install Google Gears if you haven’t already; you may be surprised to hear that Google Gears is still in beta, so the usual disclaimers apply). When you come back online, Google Gears will synchronize your offline reading so that anything you’ve read, starred, or shared will show up as such.

    Get All Zen and Stuff

    One last thing: there is no search function in Google Reader. Yes, even though Google is a company built on search technology, the powers that be decided, “no search”. There’s a hack-around involving rolling your own search engine using the OPML export of your Reader subscriptions and a Greasemonkey script and a ball of string and the skull of a righteous man with three silver nails hammered into it, but as soon as you add a new feed you have to start over, and that sounds like a pain in the… neck.

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    So using Google Reader gives you a special opportunity to practice acceptance of those things you cannot change, to learn patience with the way the world is, and rise above your petty yearnings. Which is quite a bit to get from an RSS reader!

    And, like I said, you can track packages.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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