When I used multiple computers throughout the day it made sense to use web apps to read RSS feeds and email. I’ve been working exclusively on my MacBook Pro for some time now and I never considered I was still using tools more appropriate for a bygone situaion. No longer!
It all started when I decided to do some Spring cleaning and organization of my RSS subscriptions. My feeds were organized by topic and, like many of you I’m sure, a few times every day I’d skim though all of the new content and then “Shift-A” to mark them all as read. I became unsatisfied doing this over and over. Not only could I devote a seemingly endless amount of time processing all of the new info arriving but I was paying less attention to feeds that happened to appear at the bottom of the new items. Would I miss something? Gasp! This routine became less interesting overall. It became more of a chore or compulsion than anything else.
Organizing my feeds by priority and then topic seemed like a nice solution my RSS doldrums. I’d be assured to keep up with important feeds by reading stuff in the “First” folder, and if I wanted to devote more time I could go on to the “Next” folder or even the one labeled “Last.”
Google Reader Fails
I tried to use Google Reader to do this, but reorganizing my large collection of feeds was painfully slow. I also discovered that the program doesn’t support folders within folders so my organizational scheme wasn’t a possibility. I use the Better Gmail 2 extension to make a small hierarchy of folders for my mail and there might be something like it for Reader but I didn’t bother looking.
I just exported my subscriptions, downloaded NetNewsWire and haven’t looked back. Its nice features include an ecto compatible “Blog This” tool that I’ve been using for work, not to mention standard desktop app features like offline reading. (I’m aware of Google Gears and Reader, yes, but it seemed to take forever and be buggy). There’s also a nice NNW iPhone application that lets me read some or all of my feeds and automatically syncs over the air to the desktop.
In the midst of this move I realized that while I’m good at keeping my email inbox empty I hadn’t really been doing so in the spirit of Inbox Zero. Having multiple instances of Firefox running, each with a Gmail tab somewhere amongst the many was an incredible distraction since I’d see email right as they arrived. Note: I’m not blaming the Interwebs for distracting me. It wasn’t Gmail’s fault that I felt compelled to immediately process incoming mail, it just gave me the option. I was reading email as they arrived to always be on top of things but sacrificing more time, effort and attention than it was worth.
So not only am I using a desktop RSS reader for the first time, I’m also using a desktop mail program for the first time in ages. Mail.app is collecting my Gmail but set to only look for mail when I tell it to. Same with mail on my phone. I’ve also set NetNewsWire to update only manually. In the end I’m getting the same amount of information, but I’m getting it on my terms and when it is convenient for me. OS X has a feature called Spaces which provides multiple desktops. I’ve been using it increasingly to partition the different parts of my life on the web. A Firefox window with a bunch of tabs in a few Spaces is easier to handle than one instance with 40 tabs. (Browser tabs are another dragon to slay evidently.) I’ve sequestered Mail and NetNewsWire to their own Spaces and am left with a few distraction free zones for projects and hobbies.
What’s most interesting about all of this is the fact that my information habits were just that. Habits. My way of doing things had evolved over time and I hadn’t given that development much thought, mostly because I’ve never had trouble accomplishing what I need to accomplish. (Mostly!) But in the past few weeks I noticed that things were taking a little longer to accomplish. Working from home allows for many, many potential hours of screen time and left unchecked, distractions can turn those potential hours into actual hours. I like my work and my computer but spending more time on either isn’t a priority. If it isn’t a priority for you either, consider taking some time to make sure your tools are working for you and you’re not working for your them.