digital reading hygiene

I spent the weekend in Seattle, eating a delicious meal here and spending time with friends’ babies (this gift was a MASSIVE hit) and piddling around on the proposal for my next book. I published a piece on Square One, a PBS show near and dear my micro-generation of Old Millenials; I went on On the Media to talk about last week’s newsletter; I guest edited The Sunday Long Read, one of my go-to sources for the pieces that go on to fill my Pocket for the week to come. (You can read my edition here and subscribe to The Sunday Long Read here).

I’ve been asked a several times over the last few months about my “work flow” and how I organize what I want to read/have read. I find my answer pretty unsatisfying, but people have also told me that their all-time favorite newsletter was when I laid out all the small dorky ways I make my life easier when traveling for work, so maybe my “digital reading hygiene,” for lack of a better phrase, will also prove weirdly satisfying.

In short: I abuse Pocket. If you don’t have Pocket, it’s free and available as a Chrome plug-in here; if you want to live your best Pocket life, you should also download it on your phone. When something comes across your digital life (your social media feeds, your newsletters, emails or slacks from friends or colleagues) that you want to read but know will just hang out in an open browser tab haunting you, you press the little “Pocket” icon in the upper right hand corner of your browser, and it’s put away for later. If you open it on your phone, there’s always a way to click on it (as if you’re copying the link) and the Pocket icon shows up. If it comes via Facebook, which tries to keep you in-app and won’t let you pocket directly from there, just copy the link, then open Pocket, and it’ll prompt you to save the last link you copied.

Pocket has a lot of features I don’t use — you can tag a piece the way you would a blog post, so that all pieces tagged, I dunno, “Montana” would show up when you click on that tag. But I find Pocket to be great for all sorts of saving — the sort formally reserved for old-fashioned web browser bookmarks. I pocket recipes, I pocket vacation advice, I pocket hotel information and PDFs of academic articles. The beautiful thing about Pocket, after all, is that it’s not just a repository, but one that’s also available offline, so you can still look at the ingredients to your recipe even when the LTE in the grocery store is atrocious.

That’s a detour from my main use of Pocket, which, again, is a means to store all the interesting longform and shortform stuff that comes my way. I actually read very little during the work day, which is largely spent writing, editing, scrolling Twitter and shooting the shit on Slack, where I accumulate more things I want to read. The vast majority of my Pocket reading then takes place (this is embarrassing!) at the gym. People tell me that you’re not working out hard enough if you’re able to read at the same time, which might be true — there are things at the gym (like the rowing machine!) that make it impossible to read and are, indeed, harder. But you can train yourself to read while spinning and the massive stair-climber (which I believe is called a “step mill”), and reading makes exercising inside far less mindnumbing.

When I get to the gym first thing in the morning, I immediately torture myself by reading Axios. It’s great to start the day with a briefing that also demonstrates just what kind of reading and contextualization you don’t want to do for the day. Then I read the morning newsletter briefings from the New York Times Politics section and BuzzFeed News. I next go to Nuzzle, an app that shows you the articles that have been tweeted the most by the people you follow, and catch up on basic news (usually each of these takes just a few minutes to read; longer stuff I Pocket). And then I go to Pocket, and work my way through what I’ve filed away over the last day. Sometimes I’ll run out of stuff, which means scrolling down to something from the week before I didn’t get to, etc etc.

Because Pocket “scrapes” an article and then stores it, when I read in the app, I don’t have to deal with ads crashing my browser, or the fact that NewYorker.com signed me out of my subscription for the fifth time that week, or the rare chance that I run up against a paywall (it can still scrape the text). (To be clear, I believe in paying for journalism and accidentally click ads on sites all the time when I’m on my laptop; I also pay for many subscriptions, but not for every last thing in the digital universe).

If I like a piece, I generally tweet it or post it. It’s almost a compulsion, and I think it stems from how much I appreciate discovering things I might not find on my own vis-a-vis others’ recommendations. I love talking to people about what I just read, and if I can’t do that as I used to — in the classroom, with my students, with my classmates — then a (non-toxic) internet community (a good Facebook group, a Slack room, email replies to this newsletter) will do.

Pocket has seemingly unlimited storage. If I wanted to, I could scroll back to 2012 and the first things I saved. Like all internet technologies, I’m terrified that it’ll one day go away and leave me with no straightforward way to transfer all I’ve filed away. But it’s better than the alternative: cataloging nothing of my digital reading trail, or keeping browser windows open until they accumulate to the point of paralyzing my computer.

My entire reading history isn’t on Pocket — I also, uh, read books (not on Kindle, unless I’m on a vacation that makes lugging books difficult) — but the vast majority of my digital reading trail is. If I haven’t Pocketed something, I’ll remember something about an article five months later, try Googling key words, find nothing, and resort to querying Twitter to try and find what I’m looking for. If I did Pocket it, its search component is fairly robust, and searching by those same key words always brings results.

Clearly I am a Pocket evangelist, which means that the last thing I do every night before falling asleep is say a prayer that it doesn’t go the way of Google Reader, my last truly beloved internet function. But there are other small things I do to organize myself/my knowledge: I never have more than ~eight browser windows open. I use this Leuchtturm1917 Academic Weekly Planner, because it has slots throughout the day, a place for my To-Do List at the bottom, and I can’t handle Google Calendar open in my browser. I use Scrivener for long writing projects, and Google Priority Inbox for my work email. I have a beloved setting on Instagram that reminds me if I’ve been on it for 15 minutes. I follow under 1000 people on Twitter but follow thousands and thousands more through Lists (like “Mountain West”) that are always open in my Tweetdeck. I put books I want to read into my cart on Amazon and then buy as many as possible at the local bookstore. I use “Notes” on my desktop for supplemental To Do lists and to store a running list of potential future story ideas. I don’t have many apps on my phone but I swear by Sleep Cycle to guilt me into sleeping at least eight hours a night. If I actually want to follow a group/site on Facebook I click the setting that puts all new posts as “See First.” I followed these incredibly simple directions to make every screenshot go into a folder on my computer desktop. I pay Apple 99 cents a month to back up the photos on my phone so I don’t have to worry about them. I avoid Facebook messages (and refuse to install Messenger) and still forget that Instagram messages exist. And finally: I stopped being so allergic to the phone. Reporting as much as I do reminded me it’s not so horrible — and if can take care of an item on my to-do list with a phone call, I just do it first thing and feel fucking great about myself.

Hopefully you’ll either find all these tips helpful or hilarious, and if one of them proves useful, I’d love to hear about it. But for now —

Things I Read & Loved This Week:

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