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How read it later apps help you consume better content

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Even if you’re a fairly organised person, I’m sure you’ve had plenty of times – as have I – where you find yourself with 50 browser tabs open with loads of things you want to read, or do something with. You rarely have the time to deal with them right there and then.

There are plenty of apps that can help you with tab overwhelm, but my personal favourite method is saving things in a ‘read it later’ app. The most popular read it later apps are Pocket and Instapaper. If you haven’t used one before, they work as a browser plugin that lets you click to save a whole webpage – articles, videos and more – to an app, so you can come back to it on your own schedule.

Read it later apps save you from having tonnes of browser tabs open, bookmarks saved, or email newsletters sat in your inbox. In other words, they consolidate different areas you might save things to consume. This saves you from being distracted and overwhelmed by the number of ‘open loops’ in your mind.

There are other benefits too, like highlighting and notes, removing ads, converting text to speech, and being able to read stuff offline. Both Pocket and Instapaper also publish newsletters, with a list of the most popular articles that have been saved.

But the most important benefit of these apps is in improving the quality of content you consume. Here’s how.

It’s important to age what you consume

As with food, it’s not always best to binge-consume all the content you come across, as you find it. I don’t necessarily mean consuming stuff ages after it was published (although that can be a good thing), but putting some distance between the time you come across it, and the time you come to read, watch, or listen to it. This is important for three reasons.

Firstly, it removes you from the state you were in when you opened it. I usually save stuff to read later when I’m trying to sort through loads of inviting possibilities. In that state, it’s easy to click on things that seem interesting because they’re dressed up with a clickbaity title or a nice graphic. Often we’re so overwhelmed with decision fatigue that it’s easier to say ‘yes’ than turn down the possibility of missing out on something.

But when compared with everything else in your read it later app – which you’ve already selected as being interesting – the new content won’t seem as seductive. Plus, read it later apps often strip out the ads that distract you in the web versions. When you come to review it later, you make a more dispassionate, rational decision about whether it’s worth reading or not.

The second benefit is that it saves you from things with a short shelf-life. This is most useful for avoiding getting too sucked into current affairs. If you come to a news story three days after it broke, there’s every chance it will have been overtaken by events. You’re thus less likely to waste time getting sucked into old news. In effect, you’re avoiding things that are urgent but not important.

The third benefit is that it saves you from things that aren’t actually important. Even with content that seems less time-bound, like explanations of things you’re learning, or in-depth articles on culture, having a time gap is helpful. Our knowledge compounds over time, and so something that seemed important to you a few months ago may no longer be so. You can thus save time by not having read it.

For example, you might have saved an article about how to set up your first blog, but have since learnt everything you need and already made a start. Or you could have thought it was important to understand the taxonomies of nu metal, but have grown out of that phase.

Given we’re constantly growing, there’s every chance that things you thought were important a few months ago are no longer worth spending your time on. What’s the chance that the last link you clicked on is actually the most important thing for you to consume right now?

How to make this work

This works best if you apply a low bar to things you save, and then review them in batches, when the time suits. This can be when you’ve got time between tasks, or when you have ‘dead’ time, like while you’re waiting in a queue.

To maintain a steady flow of quality incoming content, I set aside a time each week to read items in Pocket. I don’t read the most recent things I’ve saved, but apply a dose of randomness and pick out older things that take my fancy. I try to delete an (unread) article for every two I read.

But I don’t try to get to ‘inbox zero’, because I don’t view the items in there as obligations. Instead of them being ‘to dos’ or ‘to reads’, they’re options I get to choose from.

By reading on my own schedule, I make sure I have enough time to digest what I’m consuming, and make notes in my Second Brain*. And reading becomes an activity I look forward to, rather than a stressful way of getting rid of distracting browser tabs.

Next time you’re overwhelmed with stuff to read, take a minute to download your own read it later app, and save items for when you’re best able to manage them.

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