September 28, 2020

How to Avoid Instapaper/Pocket Queue Bankruptcy

Make sure you're using the right tool for the job

There’s been a lot of conversation in my circles recently about how to effectively save links and deal with articles you want to read later.

The trouble these folks run into is that their queue quickly grows to impractical proportions, forcing them to give up, empty it, and start again.

I don’t pretend to have the one true solution, but since this isn’t a problem I run into, I thought it might be worth outlining my approach in case it helps.

Read it Later Services Are Not Bookmarking Services

This might seem like an arbitrary distinction, but I think it’s the root of the issue. Many people treat Pocket or Instapaper as a catch-all bucket for anything they want to save. This has two cascading consequences:

  1. It causes the clutter. If your queue suddenly has videos, links, documents, and all manner of other digital clutter, then it’s no wonder things feel overwhelming and unfocused when you open the app.
  2. The clutter makes it harder to read what you’ve saved. When you open your queue, it’s likely because you’re in a reading mindset. The fact that you’re immediately forced to sift through non-reading material to find something is disorientating and can switch your brain into a different mindset. Then you suddenly don’t want to read anything, and your queue keeps growing.

Instead, I draw a line in the sand between read-it-later and bookmarking, and use different tools for each. The distinction is clear and easy to follow: if it’s an article I want to read, it goes into Pocket/Instapaper.

Nothing else is allowed in.

This ensures that when I feel like reading and I look at that queue, I’m only presented with reading material and can stay in the flow. I don’t have to filter out other media, I only have to decide what to read. I can sort by length, pick based on topic, and delete things that have been sitting there unread for a while—interest decays.

Anything else that I want to watch, look at, remember, refer to, or save goes elsewhere. Videos go into YouTube’s Watch Later playlist, services or websites go into Raindrop as bookmarks, and miscellaneous other things I have to interact with later tend to be added to my task management system.

Keep the Queue Out Of Your Notes System

Both Pocket and Instapaper emerged shortly after the era when Evernote was popularizing the idea of a second brain”—a place to effortlessly save things you might need to come back to later. I spent years doing this in Evernote, but the accumulation of digital stuff did almost nothing to benefit me. It turned me into a digital hoarder and I’m happy to have left that behind.

Nowadays, it’s all the rage to do the same thing in tools like Roam and Obsidian, software that purports to draw new connections for you and thus reveal the threads that turn information into knowledge. The concept is lovely and is resonating with many people, but I am not one of them. Maybe it’s because of my lean note-taking approach, or maybe it’s the terrible interfaces, but for whatever reason I keep bouncing off these apps whenever I try to use them.

Either way, those tools live in the note-taking and knowledge management space. I understand the value of putting articles you’ve read and want to reference later into those second brains, but trying to use them as your queue as well sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

In the same way that Pocket & Instapaper initially had a more focused offering—reading things later—they quickly expanded to support video and other formats, so it’s no wonder people began to throw everything in. Doing this immediately dilutes the purpose, though, which I suspect is part of why they now feel like another messy feed that we can barely bear to skim.

The other part of the problem is more obvious:

You Actually Have to Read The Stuff

It’s amazing how many times I talk to people about this and hear that they’re frustrated with how quickly their read-it-later queue gets out of hand.

I find myself asking them the obvious question: how often do you make time for reading? Invariably, the answer is something like you know, whenever I can.”

Those articles aren’t going to read themselves! It’s all well and good to have a system for saving things, but if you don’t have a method for doing something about those things then of course you’re going to find yourself frustrated.

I have two main article reading times: morning and evening. I always hit at least one of the two, and on normal days I do some reading during both time windows. The morning reads happen on my iPad as I’m drinking my morning coffee. It provides me with a terrific way to avoid doomscrolling and tends to be my time to blast through a number of shorter articles in my queue.

Evening is the realm of long-form reading. Since I don’t bring phones or tablets into the bedroom, I rely on my Kindle or Kobo devices to read before bed. I go back and forth between using Pocket or Instapaper, but both give me the ability to send or sync articles to my e-reader. Reading on more focused devices puts me in a different mindset. A more patient one that helps me absorb what I’m reading.

Something about reading on our firehose devices—the smart ones that offer every feed, app, and capability—robs me of focus. I find myself rushing and skimming even for articles I’m keenly interested in, simply because my brain is trying to artificially accelerate me to the next shiny thing.

This isn’t the worst thing in the world for the shorter, lighter articles I save—hence me being okay reading them on the iPad in the morning. Those pieces generally have a single great thought that they present, and the value is quicker and easier to absorb.

The long-form articles I save tend to be richer and more valuable, their points more plentiful and nuanced. In many cases, they’re even written in a more sophisticated manner that I want to take the time to properly appreciate. Beautiful, evocative language in web writing is increasingly rare these days.

I struggle to put myself in that calm, appreciative, open mindset when I’m on my phone or tablet. It’s not that I can’t manage it, but it’s more difficult, and any difficulty is additional friction between me and actually reading the things I intend to read. So the e-readers serve as my refuge.

The result of all this is that my queue rarely has more than 20 articles in it. I manage to keep up with the things I want to read without much effort, and if I do fall behind I set time aside on a weekend to catch up. Once you establish the habit, it’s no longer a struggle or a chore.

Save, Read, Repeat

My process, then, is simply this:

  1. Save things to the right bucket. Pocket/Instapaper is for reading material only. Everything else should go elsewhere. Exactly where depends on your systems for task management, knowledge management, bookmarking, etc. but the core idea is to protect your reading queue.
  2. Make time to read and process. Once you have a focused queue of reading material, you have to intentionally make time to read. If you rely on the whenever I can” mentality, you’ll likely find that other things take priority and you never end up doing the reading. Make the time, do the reading.
  3. Don’t be afraid to prune. Each time you’re in your queue, you’ll be selecting things to read. If you find yourself skipping something you saved multiple times, let it go. Delete it and move on.

This may not work for everyone, but I can vouch for this simple approach because it’s what has kept me actively saving, reading, and enjoying material on the web for years.

digital lifestyle productivity

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