Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Instapaper, Pocket, and the Problem with Reading It Later

No, I’m not attacking or denigrating either Instapaper or Pocket. I like both of them, and I use Instapaper quite extensively. They’re both very useful services.

If you’ve never heard of Instapaper or Pocket, they’re services that let you save interesting articles or blog posts that you run into on the web and read them later. You can read what you save on your computer or on a device like a smartphone or a tablet. One nifty feature that Instapaper and Pocket have is that they get rid of the cruft on a web page — things like navigation, ads, and comments. Both services turn what you’ve saved into something resembling the printed page.

One idea behind both Instapaper and Pocket seems to be helping you cope with information overload. You can’t read everything at once, so why not save what you can’t read for later and in a form that’s more comfortable and convenient to read?

That’s a laudable goal. The problem is that services like Instapaper and Pocket don’t really solve problem of stemming that flow of information so many people seem to feel they need to absorb. In fact, services like that can quickly wind up exacerbating the problem.

It’s easy to keep shunting articles and blog posts to Instapaper or Pocket. All it takes is a click. But I know far too many people who keep doing that and who wind up with pile of unread material that hope to get to one day. More than likely, that one day will never come. They just wind up with backlog of information that they’ll never absorb (or even skim), or which is out of date if they ever do get around to it.

In a post in this space, I mentioned someone I know who subscribes to several dozen RSS feeds and who, at any one time, has over 1,000 unread items in his RSS reader. The same thing can easily happen with services like Instapaper and Pocket. It’s happened to me, believe it or not.

One of the web-based tools I use is Evernote. I have a notebook in Evernote named To Read which, as you can guess, contains articles and blog posts. I recently noticed that I hadn’t read everything in that notebook. Not even close. The same could be said for my Instapaper backlog.

It was time for a cull. But how?

Well, first I looked at what was in both accounts and deleted the articles that were out of date or in which I no longer had any interest. That was about 40% of what I’d collected. Your mileage may vary.

Then, I got to reading. I blocked out an hour each weeknight and a couple of hours on the weekend to reading through the articles and posts that I’d saved. In the end, I managed to clear out the backlog. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing or able to do something like that.

Instapaper, Pocket, and tools like them are great. They’re useful, and they can give you a chance to read something at your leisure. The problems start when you save too much and that leisure never or rarely comes. You’ll never be able to catch up or keep up.

As I’ve said before, the key to avoiding information overload is to stop trying to take in so much information. Be selective about what you plan to read later. And force yourself to take the time to actually read what you’re saving for later.

You’ll wind up taking in less information, but you’ll be replacing quantity with quality. And you’ll be better off for it.

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