Two weeks ago I looked up from my feed reader and realized I’d been checking feeds for an hour and 12 minutes, non-stop. I was at work. There was a lot to do. And I wasn’t finished.

New Watch“Enough,” I thought. “I have got to get a grip on this. But how?”

RSS feeds can make surfing the web a much more productive and less time consuming activity. But, as I’ve found, they can also control the time you spend online if you let them. At the start of this process, I subscribed to 305 feeds and would routinely see 500-800 different posts per day. I’ve spent the last two weeks wrapping my brain around how to manage my RSS feeds, my time or both to optimize my web browsing experience.

Before I go any further, some friends claim to subscribe to over 1,000 feeds. I’m not quite sure how it’s possible to even scan that many and still have time left in the day to do anything other than pee. These tips will help them, too. But they probably ought to dump them all and start over, picking only those they actually read, not skim.

Here’s how I manage my madness. This isn’t the end-all and be-all to it. If you have different tips, please share in the comments. Keep in mind, this is all meant to be done in a free reader. I use Google Reader. The same principles apply elsewhere.

1. Define Why You Reading Certain Feeds

Different feeds should be treated differently. Knowing this from the outset will help you keep your general categories of feeds separate and use them more efficiently. I read a certain group of feeds to stay informed on the world around me. My work-related feeds are different from my blog-related feeds. Then there are sites I read for personal reasons.

Once you know what category the feeds fall into, you can organize and prioritize them better. The “stay informed” group is low priority since most of it is water cooler talk anyway. Work-related is top-priority because they’re client-related and (theoretically) reading them is billable. Blog-related feeds are those I read to stay on my game as a blogger, both from a mechanics (blogs about blogging) and a content (blogs about social media, public relations and marketing) perspective. I actually separate this category further (see No. 2 below). Personal reason blogs are just ones I read for fun when I have time, like my friend Kevin’s sometimes R-Rated ramblings at www.pointlessbanter.net.

2. Organize Feeds Into Folders

Regardless of the category, all my feeds are grouped into topical folders. I have one for social media, public relations, marketing, technology and a few others. Obviously, the folders I mentioned are related to what I blog about. I also have folders topical to how I prioritize them. I have one called, “Annoying Feeds I’ll Read Later.” Until recently, this had a lot of feeds in it. However, I decided to follow tip No. 7 below, so it is now mostly feeds that post five or more items a day, most of which I don’t care much about, but occasionally I’ll find useful. Advertising Age’s feed falls into this category. They seldom scoop my other feeds on anything I’m interested in, but they have something good every now and then.

3. Prioritize Your Folders

Three very important folders I didn’t mention in No. 2 are the most important folders in my reader. The first is my “Must Read” folder. These are the 10 blogs I read every entry on, no matter what. While the 10 may change occasionally, these are the bloggers I enjoy engaging with the most and on whose blogs I like to participate with comments of my own. No matter how much time I have to jump over and check feeds, I read the new entries in this folder every time I check, no matter what. (My list? Check back tomorrow!)

The second folder is one I call “Outstanding.” These are folks who either have or will move in and out of my “Must Read” folder. They are the next group of blogs I will participate in, but not as frequently. I don’t want to miss anything they post, but if I’m really short on time, they’ll have to wait. (My list? Again … tomorrow.)

The third priority folder is called “Friends.” Nothing chaps my ass like asking a friend about something I posted yesterday only to find out they haven’t read it. So I make sure I cover my bases by reading my friends’ blogs. Many of them are useful and engaging blogs anyway, but I don’t ever want to be caught not knowing what they’re writing about.

4. Browse New By Folder, Not Together

Probably the single most daunting component of Google Reader is that big, bold number of new feeds you haven’t read in the upper left corner. I logged in while I was writing this, having not checked my reader in about four hours. It says, “All Items (171).” It may as well say, “Look how much crap you’ve got to weed through, monkey man. Good luck having time for dinner.”

Some people select the option to show just the 171 new items, then start flipping through them, one-by-one. I like to see more visible progress when I read, so I show only new items, but then browse through each folder, rather than all of them together. Seeing each folder move from bold to regular type face as I browse shows my progress. Plus, I can stop any time and save the lower-priority folder new items for later. To make it even easier, drag your folders around so they are visually prioritized top to bottom. If I don’t get to the bottom, but I’ve knocked out Must Read, Outstanding, Friends, Public Relations, Social Media and Marketing, then I’ve at least gotten through the really important stuff.

5. Just Let Go

This rule can de-stress you in seconds. I’m going to be in an all-day meeting Thursday. I may not check my feeds until 6 or 7 p.m. There will be a minimum of 500 new items waiting for me. I’ll read through Must Read, Outstanding and Friends, then just mark all the rest as read and close out. When you’re that far down in the hole, you can’t dig yourself out fast enough. If you miss something important in the other folders, you’ll probably see another blogger linking to it tomorrow. Sometimes you just gotta let go.

6. Read Expeditiously

There’s no real trick to reading your feeds fast other than this process:

  1. Read only headlines until one grabs your attention.
  2. Expand the feed and skim the first paragraph or two. If you’re still interested …
  3. Go back and read the whole thing.
  4. If it brings to mind questions or a response, click through and comment.
  5. If any steps 2-4 don’t apply, collapse the feed and move on to the next headline.

In Tim Ferris’s interview, Robert Scoble explains that he reads the headline, sees who the author is and what blog the post comes from. All of these play into his decision on whether or not to actually read the post. I keep it simpler than that since even the most random, blogger can pop up with a good post from time to time. The headline normally does it for me. (Brian Wallace is laughing at this since I’ve argued with him the content is more important than the headline. Guess I’m contradicting myself. Brian isn’t wrong very often.)

7. Get Rid Of Aggregate Feeds

My “Annoying Feeds I’ll Read Later” folder used to have a bunch of these. Aggregate feeds are those from websites which pull content together from other websites. Daily Hub, Sphinn, Digg, Mixx, etc., are such sites. I happen to love Sphinn, but more than half of the stories “Sphunn” there are from blogs I subscribe to anyway, so I’m technically duplicating the number of headlines I have to go through. Sure, Danny Sullivan et. al., would argue they pick out the best posts for me and I should subscribe to just them and not all the other blogs, but I’m more likely to miss something really good that way. As an example, I’ve only had two blog entries wind up in the Sphinn Hot Topics feed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve had way more posts than that prove valuable to readers.

8. Add New Feeds To A Watch List

One of the important folders I didn’t mention above is my “Watch List” folder. These are blogs I haven’t yet decided if I want to keep in my feed list but want to monitor to see if they provide interesting or engaging content. I usually leave all the new posts in this folder alone until I have some time to sift through them. I’ll spend an hour or so late at night going through and looking at each blog’s feed, scanning the last 25 or so headlines for interesting topics. If I see less than five, I normally unsubscribe. If I see 5-15, I keep them on the watch list. If I see more than 15, I move them to the appropriate topic folder. For me, this folder started out when I imported the OPML file of all blogs on the Advertising Age Top 150 but it’s now where I add any new feed. The number of feeds in this folder fluctuates but consistently dwindles. I try to go through it once a week if I have time. When I do, 10 or so blogs are out of my hair for good.

9. Subtract Feeds, Too

Like my Watch List folder, I take some time to go through the blog headlines for those blogs in my other folders once every couple weeks. If a blog I like hasn’t posted anything in over a month, I either move it to the watch list or unsubscribe altogether. It doesn’t really hurt anything for it to be there, since it doesn’t affect my unread items count, but if the blogger isn’t keeping up, why keep up with them? The key for both this step and step No. 8 is that you have to do them regularly. Not doing so is how your feed count gets from 100 or so to over 1,000. Consider these two steps like weeding a garden. Keep the pretty stuff. Get rid of the crap.

10. Set Limits

Just about everything is good in moderation, right? Well, feed reading is the same thing. Don’t let your feeds consume you. I spend 30 minutes or less in the morning, 15 minutes or so if I have time at lunch, then another 30 minutes or so in the evenings reading my feeds. After my wife and son go to bed, I might tack on some bonus time as well, but for the last few days I’ve spent less than an hour and a half reading my feeds daily. That seems like a lot to some folks, not much to others. This is where I learn, stay on top of my trade, the trades of my clients and maintain a connection with several friends. It’s worth a couple hours a day to me.

The bottom line is you have to set a limit for yourself. Maybe it’s an hour a day. Maybe it’s no more than 30 minutes at a time. Maybe more than 150 feeds and smoke starts coming out of your ears. So when you add one, take one away. Only you can decide what will keep everything in moderation for your schedule and your surfing habits.

 ———-

These are the steps that have made my feed reading easier, but I’m no productivity expert. I’m sure there are different feed readers, perhaps even some contextual or social ones out there that help you select the most interesting of your feeds. Maybe you have a tip or trick you’ve learned through your experience that would help further. Tell us about it in the comments. The more suggestions the better.

And you regular readers are aware I asked you to give me your “Must Reads” last week. I even asked my Twitter followers the same question leading up to that post. Tomorrow, I’ll share the feeds in my “Must Reads” and my “Outstanding” folders that you helped shape. And don’t worry … you’ll have a chance to pimp your favorite blogs and feeds (even your own) tomorrow, too.

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting

  1. RSS 101: Top 16 Links To Get You Started
  2. A Beginner’s Guide To RSS And Google Reader
  3. How Robert Scoble Reads 622 RSS Feeds Each Morning
  4. DEMO: Feedhub Looks To Organize Your “Other” Feeds
  5. Bloglines Makes Reading Feeds More Fun (Podcast)

IMAGE:New Watch” by mrwalker on Flickr.

[tags]RSS, feeds, feed reader, RSS feeds, blogs, subscriptions, productivity, time management, efficiency[/tags]

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.conversationagent.com Valeria Maltoni

    You gave me a chuckle with giving people the chance to pimp their feeds :D

    I read about 120 blogs on a regular basis and organize them by niche. All the blogs about communications and PR in one side of Google Homepage (I’m very visual and this works better). The social media ones on another; marketing in the center. Then I have the importance organized by top down with top being the ones I visit very frequently.

    In one area I have blogs in Italian.

  • http://buzznetworker.com Kevin

    Thanks for the link love!

    I really thought this was helpful because I am on an organization kick right now. I figure if I can get into good habits with my ever expanding RSS usage than I won’t feel swamped.

  • KatFrench

    Ah, just in time for New Year’s, and the requisite “get organized” resolutions. Good stuff, nicely detailed.

    I need to tweak my own system, though I don’t subscribe to nearly the number of feeds you do. I use netvibes, and rather than folders, I have separate tabs for topics. The first tab is my dashboard, which includes my GTD lists and various search engine tools and things. Then the tabs are topically organized: copywriting feeds, SEO/SEM feeds, social media feeds, etc.

    I’ve been thinking that for some of the “touch base every week or so” feeds like Ad Age, I might subscribe via feedblitz, and just receive an aggregate email every week or so.

    Oh, and I’m almost ready to drop Sphinn, personally. It’s a good community of people, but the Hot Topics page … don’t get me started.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Valeria — Great idea moving feeds to the Google homepage. I’ve got an all-in-one view there, but frankly never go to my Google homepage because I’m always on Google reader. Worth a shot. Isn’t it funny how the brilliant people always come up with the solution you probably should have thought about first? Thanks for the info!

    Kevin — Good organization can keep you from burying yourself. Good luck organizing. And you’re welcome for the love. I get a kick out of your stuff, dude.

    Kat — Netvibes is certainly a useful tool. Tabs might actually be an interesting way to display things. I may go back to them and give it a shot. Thanks for sharing (and for not thinking I’m a complete boob for almost standing you up twice for lunch).

  • http://vandelaydesign.com Steven Snell

    Folders are key. I categorize them by topic and then with the most important ones in another folder.

  • http://www.moneyandblog.com Justin Dupre

    I think the hardest one is always managing your time correctly by setting limits. Its like your mom telling you 5 more minutes and then it’s lights out. You always want 5 more minutes. I always have that problem!

    Justin

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Steven – Agreed. Without folders, I’d be lost. Thanks for chiming in.

    Justin – Also agreed. Here’s my trick, and this works for some not for all: “Just five more minutes” is normally five less minutes playing with my son. Pretty easy call when I look at it through that lens. Find your higher priority and think of it that way.

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  • Erin O

    I found this in my Bad Pitch Blog feed, and I think it will be really helpful in keeping control of my time. Thanks so much.

  • http://www.katz-media.com Tiffany Winbush

    Great post. Just this week I begin to feel overwhelmed by the amount of feeds I had to read. I will use your tip and organize my feeds into folders. Thanks!

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Erin and Tiffany — Thanks for stopping by and chiming in. Glad the pointers helped out. If you find any other tips that help, come back and let us know.

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