Eight years ago, I lamented to a friend that I was spending too much time keeping up with my RSS feeds. RSS feeds are generated by websites and they tell you when they’ve published new content; the feeds, and feed-readers like NetNewsWire and FeedDemon, and eventually Google Reader, became popular partly as a way to follow the posts from the then-nascent world of blogs. So, a little like a proto-Twitter, except with no limit on the amount of characters a post might contain.
I had subscribed to around 150 websites. This was not a large number by the standards of the time; many bloggers followed hundreds of feeds. But I wanted to read every posts from every website I subscribed to, which was the equivalent of half a book every day. Like a lot of people, I have a compulsive desire to ‘finish’ things and get numbers down to zero (emails, to-do lists, washing up, etc.), even if it’s not really that useful or interesting.
My friend told me that he followed precisely zero RSS feeds and what’s more, didn’t read the news that much either. “Most of it isn’t important,” he said, invoking his decades-longer experience of the internet. Inspired, I cut out two thirds of my feeds and got on with my life. RSS feeds no longer ruled my reading.
But now I have a different problem. Today, it’s easier than ever to find and read (for free) world-class long-form articles about all sorts of interesting subjects, and if you’re willing to pay a small amount for magazines like The New Yorker, you’ll have more piling up in your inbox every week. I love reading these long-form articles; they’re much easier to get through than books, and so you can learn about a much wider variety of topics in a more timely manner. Indeed, many long-form articles are better than the books that they occasional beget due to lean, unpadded nature (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell).
Unlike my blog RSS feeds, it’s not as easy to cull my long-form article sources. After all, surely as a responsible citizen, I’m practically obliged to read a 9,000 word article about drone warfare, or a 5,000 word article investigating how a future King Charles III might reign, or another 9,000 word article on the tests one must pass to become London cab driver — along with the threats from Uber? It takes up almost all of my reading time.
And when I’m not reading, I’m listening to 17 podcasts. I was actually shocked by the number when I just counted them now – 17! To keep the ‘unlistened’ count to zero, I find myself listening on my walk to work, while I’m running, on the tube, doing cleaning, any spare moment. At first I saw this as a wonderfully productive use of empty time, but I’ve belatedly realised that some amount of empty time is valuable in and of itself.
Articles, blogs, podcasts – these things are a great source for ideas and inspiration, and for learning about the world. Yet there’s such a thing as too much inspiration and too much knowledge if you don’t have enough time to process them. Cutting out some publications and podcasts will help, but as with my RSS feeds before, it’s not a long-term solution.
A while back, I became interested in the idea of a ’secular sabbath’ where you unplug from the internet for a day a week. I don’t know if that model is perfect because, ideally, it relies on you having lots of friends who live nearby to talk to, whereas a lot of my friends are now scattered around the world, but there’s something to imposing a structure on your time in a way that quietens the world’s ceaseless demands for your attention. A very interesting problem to explore.