Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Managing the Deferral Engine

(Or “ The Confessions of a Digital Pack Rat”.)

I have engaged with too many services that allow me to squirrel away digital media for consumption (and no doubt a lot of productive, insightful and deep reflection) at some notional future date. Here are some strategies that I have derived for managing a large inflow of content.

The days when I had a physical in-box full of photocopied articles and white papers nagging me to read them is long past. Now I have to deal with an effectively infinite in-box of material to read instead.

My iPhone is optimally efficient at filling my interstitial time with short reading bursts. The incessant rain of emails, blog posts, status updates and other quick-hits means that, in practice my longer-scale reading activities are too often getting pushed down my to-read list.

It is pretty trivial at this point to observe that Instapaper is the optimal solution for consuming and managing all of the long-form articles I want to read. But given that it is so easy to scan through multiple sources online, and even filtering those sources so that I only push less than 20% of posts into Instapaper, I still end up with an unrealistic queue of archived material awaiting my attention.

Before I started using Instapaper I had a folder in Evernote called “Articles To Read” and another equivalent folder in Gmail. I was using both in parallel, along with a tagged list of bookmarks on Pinboard. I also had a related “Videos To View” folder in Gmail. The majority of the contents of these folders being neither read nor reviewed.

To take control of this I have reorganised and rationalised my approach to managing all classes of media inputs. I think this process might be useful for anyone with a similar mindset, so I am sharing it here.

Filtering Strategies

My primary principle in this reorganisation is to have only one location for each class of content. If I am totally clear about what I put where, then I will know where to find things far better in future (GTD 101).

Initial decisions

  • What goes into Evernote?
  • What goes into Instapaper?
  • What gets bookmarked on Pinboard?
  • What gets stored in Google Drive?
  • What kind of writing lives in Simplenote rather than in Google Docs?
  • What does not belong in any of the above?
  • When are things deleted?
  • When are things archived, and to where?

Initial clear-out actions

  • Rationalise all links in my various “To Read” folders in Gmail, Evernote and Pinboard.
  • Then migrate all of the remaining links into Instapaper.
  • Delete the “To View” folders in Gmail, Evernote and Pinboard
  • Then migrate remaining video links into YouTube’s “Watch Later” playlist feature.

Ongoing maintenance

  • Clear out Instapaper’s master “Read Later” list every month.
  • Clear out Simplenote drafts every month.
  • — Then archive all completed draft texts into Evernote.
  • Clear out iPhone Notepad app every month.
  • — Move all Running Lists into Simplenote.
  • — Archive all completed notes into Evernote.

Iterate and improve

Review this whole process annually and update it to reflect my actual usage patterns.
  • What services have fallen out of use and what new services have I adopted?
  • Which of these activities actually do streamline things for me and which are just busy-work?

I think that I buried the lede in this workflow by not emphasising the rationalisation aspect. In practice much of your to-read material has a shorter shelf life than you think. So to get best value out of this consolidation exercise you should be as aggressive as you can in filtering and deleting files when you are aggregating everything into one location.