Processing Email and RSS Similarly

One of the problems that RSS newbies often encounter is treating RSS items like email and expecting that each item needs to be read. A recent Ars Technica article explores the notion that keeping up with RSS is a bad idea.  I’m not going to suggest exactly how much information you should take in, but I find that I process email and RSS in a similar fashion which seems loosely based on David Allen’s two-minute rule for email processing.

One-Minute Email & RSS

As I scan my inbox or incoming RSS feeds (with RSS feeds being scanned in a priority-based order), I quickly deal with any that I can take care of in a minute or two.  This includes reading short email messages or crafting quick (one paragraph) responses.  On the RSS side, it means skimming headlines and reading short articles that won’t take more than a minute of my time.  For anything that requires more than a minute (either reading or replying), I send it elsewhere and move on.

More-Than-Minute Email

My method for email that requires a longer read or response is to star the item in Gmail for later processing.  After an item is starred, it moves to its own section in Gmail’s priority inbox so it’s easy to find and work through these items.  I have a task in OmniFocus that reminds me to process these messages at least once a day.

Reading Longer RSS Items

For longer articles, I send the article to Instapaper (as noted in my recent “how I read” article).  The iPad is the perfect device for consuming longer text and I’ll read these articles as I have time on my device of choice.  I use Reeder on my iPhone and iPad; sending articles to Instapaper is a simple gesture.


How you process email and RSS isn’t important but you’ll need to find a system that works for you. I’ve found that my system (process the quick things, defer the longer things) works for me.

How I Work: Productivity Tools & Tips

This is the third article in my “How I Work” series. I previously wrote about how I read and consume textual information and how I write. Today I’m going to talk about some general productivity tools and tips.

The most important productivity tip is that there isn’t a single set of productivity tips that will work for everyone. This is what’s working (mostly) for me now. It might be right for you. I hope it can help. But it might be wrong for you. Read, evaluate, learn.

Getting Shit Done and Inbox Few

Some years back, I read the Getting Things Done (GTD) book by David Allen which has become one of the most well-known productivity systems. It made some good points. It also had some aspects that just didn’t make sense for my life. I suggest that everyone read the book and see what might work. I don’t recommend that everyone blindly adopt a productivity ideaology. I first heard the term “Getting Shit Done” (GSD) from my friends Chris and Bruce and it’s about focusing and doing work rather than being bogged down with systems and process and lists and methods. I don’t worry so much about GTD and focus instead on GSD.

One big takeaway from GTD is that one has to be able to trust their system. If your task system is in a haphazard state so that you’re not always sure if things will be there (or be findable at the right time), it’s not going to relieve you of the mental burden of keeping all of your tasks in your head. You have to be able to trust the system.

Another technique from which I’ve learned but not necessarily adopted is that of Inbox Zero. The tenet of Inbox Zero is that inboxes (email and otherwise) should be processed and emptied frequently, and that any items which require further action should be moved into a task system. I’ve found out that I tend to end up at Inbox Few, with less than ten items hanging out in my inbox. I try to reply to messages that need replies and the ones that stick around in my inbox are often those which will need replies at a future date.

Keeping Track of Stuff: OmniFocus

I use OmniFocus as my task management system. As I start to write this, I realize that I should probably write an entirely separate article (or few) about how I use OmniFocus, but I do want to hit a few of the high points and important aspects of how I manage tasks. The Omni Group makes beautiful software that is quite functional and plays well in my computing ecosystem. I have OmniFocus on my laptop, iPad, and iPhone. Yes, it’s kind of expensive, but having a task system which I can trust is important. I know that I can easily put data into OmniFocus, attach appropriate projects and contexts, access it from anywhere, and the system will make me aware of what needs to be done at the right moment.

Ubiquitous Capture

I have OmniFocus on my iPhone, iPad, and my laptop. Some version of OmniFocus is always with me. As soon as they release the OmniFocusInYourShower version, I’ll get that too because that’s where a lot of ideas start. Having it always around means that whenever something pops into my head that will require later action, I can put that item into OmniFocus. Sometimes I put in all of the details; sometimes I just put a skeleton bit of information into the system. Either way it’s been captured. One giant failure of past task management systems has been that I’ll have an idea when I’m not at my computer (or didn’t have my paper day planner handy) and the idea is lost before it makes it into my system.

Password Smarts: 1Password

With my various website, server, and other logins numbering into the triple digits, a system to manage them becomes necessary. I understand the importance of using strong passwords and not reusing the same password over and over. I use 1Password to keep track of various logins, passwords, software licenses, and other bits of information requiring security. They have versions for Mac, Windows, iPhone, and the iPad – much like OmniFocus, this is something that’s useful everywhere.

Stop Wasting Time

One might think this could go without saying, but one huge productivity tip is to take a hard look at where you’re spending your time and whether or not you’re getting anything from it. If you’re spending a ton of time on Facebook, is that detracting from something else you could or should be doing? How much TV do you watch? How much time do you spend playing games? Downtime is important, but keep it in check.

Make use of “waiting” moments. I’ll read RSS feeds while waiting in line at the store. I can scan incoming email during the couple of minutes while lunch warms up in the microwave. On a slightly longer duration, I’ll do something productive on an upcoming flight instead of take a nap.


Up Next: How I Work with Photos

I’ll be taking a break for a few days from this series of posts. Next week, you’ll find information on how I work with photos and other media.

How I Work: Writing

This is the second article in my “How I Work” series. I previously wrote about how I read and consume textual information. Today I’m going to talk about how I write and produce text.

Most of my writing is for online purposes. I write articles for this site, the blog that goes along with my job as a professional photographer in Vancouver, Washington, a site about photography commentary, and a handful of other online publications. This doesn’t include the fact that I spend a lot of time with Twitter and Google+… I’ll cover those here as well.

Plain Text is Best

I’m a fan of writing in plain text. Plain text can be created and read on any device. Whether I’m on my laptop, my iPad, my iPhone, or someone else’s device, I can create plain text.

Store and Sync with Dropbox

I keep my in-progress (and archived) plain text writings stored as text files in a folder that’s synchronized up to Dropbox. If you’re not yet using Dropbox, it’s a great solution for someone like me who often needs to access or save files from various devices. Apple’s method of sync1 using iTunes and a physical cable is a joke; Dropbox provides easy wireless synchronization of files and settings between various devices. Sign up for Dropbox now with this link and we’ll both get additional free storage space.

Format with Markdown

I generally write things using Markdown, a text markup language designed to make readable markup that can easily be converted to HTML for use on the web. Whereas HTML requires lots of extra symbols and can sometimes be hard to read, Markdown is designed to be easily read as-is. Compare this unordered list in HTML:

<ul><li>This is item one</li>
<li>This is item two</li>
<li>This is item three</li></ul>

with the same list in Markdown:

* This is item one
* This is item two
* This is item three

Writing in Markdown makes it easy to read, easy to share, and easy to convert to HTML.

Editors of Choice

I’m not a text editor snob; I don’t care what you use. Here’s what’s working well for me:

On my Mac: TextMate

No, it hasn’t been updated in forever. But it still gets the job done. TextMate is my text editor of choice for writing articles, editing HTML, trying not to strangle CSS, or other plain text editing needs. There can be a steep learning curve in getting to know the various keyboard shortcuts but once you spend the time with it the long-term time savings are amazing. Here’s one simple example: Ctrl+Shift+L creates a link using the clipboard text as the URL. Copy a URL to the clipboard, select the text you want to become a link, hit the hotkey and bam, you’ve got a link. Oh, did I mention that it hits the website and pulls in the site’s title as the title attribute as well? Neat, huh? Oh, and one more thing: that key shortcut works in all of the languages that support links. HTML is the obvious one but it also works when editing a Markdown file.

In addition to slicing and dicing, TextMate also has a nice Markdown preview window.

On my iPad & iPhone: Elements

In the past year, quite a few great text editors have emerged for iOS devices. I’ve tried a few and settled on Elements by Second Gear Software. It has an uncluttered interface, syncs with Dropbox, supports TextExpander (more on that below), and has Markdown preview built-in. It just works.

Get Elements from iTunes here.

Shortcuts Are Good: TextExpander

I’m slowly becoming a big user of TextExpander, a little software app that does what it says: it expands abbreviations or shortcuts into bigger blocks of text. Some of the uses can be obvious, such as an abbreviation ;addr which automatically expands to my full address or ;ph which expands to my phone number. I also use TextExpander for bigger things. For example, I have a template so that when I’m inspired to create a bit of App Haiku poetry, I can simply type .apphaiku and an entire blog post template expands with links already inserted and ready for my text. If you ever find yourself typing things more than a couple times, a TextExpander shortcut could help.

Blogging: WordPress

I mentioned above that I work with a variety of blogs, and my platform of choice is WordPress. That’s kind of an understatement; I’m not just a WordPress user but I also am active in the WordPress community including founding WordCamp Portland and speaking at several WordPress and related blogging conferences. I tend to write all of my blog posts in plain text and then copy/paste into the WordPress post editor screen to set them up for publishing.

Social Networking: All Manual, All the Time

My social network updates are manual. I don’t use any automation to push things to various places. I use TweetDeck as my Twitter client because I like being able to see five columns of information. On the go I use Twitterific on the iPad and Tweetbot on the iPhone.

I dislike Facebook but I interact with it solely through the website on a very limited basis. I’m becoming a big fan of Google+ and I look forward to an API that enables robust third-party experiences.

Up Next: Productivity Tools & Tips

The next in my series of “How I Work” articles will look at the tools and techniques I use for general productivity.


  1. I’m aware that iOS 5 will bring iCloud will likely improve things. That said, I can guarantee that iCloud won’t work as smoothly cross-platform as Dropbox. 

How I Work: Reading and Consumption of Text

I consume a lot of information, much of it in a textual format. News of all sorts, various industry articles, magazine-like content, personal blog posts, and heck even a book now and then.

Here’s how I consume text information.

RSS: Reeder

I’m a heavy user of RSS1 to have news, blog posts, articles, and other content delivered to me. Google Reader serves as my reading hub and main subscription management location (although it’s not how I usually read… more below on that). As of this writing I’m subscribed to 625 RSS feeds.

What’s in my feeds? These sorts of things:

  • News
  • Industry-related articles
  • Personal blogs of interesting people
  • Feeds for interesting Flickr groups
  • Feeds for interesting discussion forums
  • Funny stuff

How do I read RSS? Mainly through the Reeder app. It’s a beautifully-designed feed reader that works great for basic users as well as those who want integration with services such as Instapaper, Pinboard, Delicious, Twitter, Facebook, and more. That’s how I read… I suppose the other question is when I read. The answer is throughout the day whenever I have time. I’ll generally do a big chunk of reading from a computer early in the day, around lunchtime, and in the evening. In between I’ll check headlines on my iPhone or iPad as I have time.

One other RSS tip is to store feeds in folders or collections based on how important they are. I don’t read every feed every day. Heck, there are feeds that I rarely read (but I can if I want to). By storing feeds in a folder structure based on importance I can ensure that I keep up with news, key industry happenings, and the lives of important contacts while allowing other less important things to sometimes go unread for days.

Here are links to get it from iTunes or the Mac app store:

RSS is my method of choice for getting frequent updates, and I will read short articles in Reeder. For longer pieces that will require more reading time (either from Reeder or things that I come across on the web), see the next section, which is aptly titled…

Longer Online Articles: Instapaper

Instapaper is a lovely online service which stores text articles that one wishes to read at a later point in time. A (free) Instapaper account allows one to use the web interface to store articles (either manually or with a bookmarklet) and browse them on the Instapaper website.

While the website is nice (and the web services provide the glue/plumbing), the Instapaper iPad app is lovely and is my preferred method of reading. The app allows for reading in either portrait or landscape orientation and presents the articles in a choice of color schemes. The app also works in offline mode, allow for content to be loaded and then read when disconnected (such as on an airplane or a camping trip). There’s also an iPhone app available which is nice but doesn’t provide quite as great of a reading experience due to the small screen size.

One big feature of Instapaper (regardless of how you read the items) is that text is reformatted for better reading, with extraneous advertising and other distractions removed from the page. Save an article and that’s just what you get: the article without any sidebars or such. It’s awesome.

Download the Instapaper iPad app from iTunes.

Books: Kindle App on iPad or (gasp) Paper

I don’t read a ton of books… maybe one a month on average and they’re almost always nonfiction of some sort. Photography books (where a nice visual image is part of the experience) still get ordered on paper (thank you Amazon Prime) but for everything else I’ll purchase the Kindle version of the book and read it on my iPad.

After Reading Online: Bookmarking with Pinboard

If I read something interesting online and feel that it might be useful reference information for a later date, I’ll save it with Pinboard, my bookmarking service of choice. Pinboard alows for saved bookmarks which can be tagged, described, searched, sorted, and shared easily. I use Pinboard along with the Postalicious WordPress plugin to create the “Other People Say” posts here.

Up Next: Writing Tools

The next in my series of “How I Work” articles will look at the tools and techniques I use to write and publish.

Instapaper – Marco Arment


  1. Not sure what RSS is? View this video by the folks at Common Craft.