Reading Habits

December 28, 2018

The original of this article was published on Medium.

I have a distinct childhood memory, queuing up at the railway crossing that was always a feature of my school commute. I remember saying to my mother that I wish I could know everything. These days I’m quite happy not to know an awful lot, including how sausages are made, but it did lead to a reading habit. I still get a mixed feeling of being excited and overwhelmed when I go into a library or a big bookshop.

I’m not sure that I read any more than the average person, but I do have a kind of system. It was never really designed, but just grew. I’ve been asked about it several times, so I thought I would share it here.

RSS

I’m terribly sad to see RSS starting to die off as a format — it’s super useful. I use the Reeder or Unread apps and the RSS aggregator Feedbin to gather all the RSS feeds from a range of blogs and sources.

For regular reading, I have a “Regulars & Friends” folder that I check often. Others I look through more occasionally. Here is my subscriptions XML file if you’re interested. I don’t think there’s anything incriminating, but some algorithm might make sense of my personality from it.

Following and Automation

A key feature of this is some kind of outboard brain (there are downsides to that) for keeping track of it all. I don’t always have to remember everything, just that I saw something once and to know where to search for it again.

I follow some interesting folk on Twitter and I have IFTTT applet set up so that any tweet I favourite has its links saved to my Pinboard account, which I use as a bookmarking service a lot. I also use a browser bookmarklet and Pushpin on iOS to add to that.

LinkedIn occasionally turns up some useful articles, but I find it very noisy, so I only read it occasionally. It’s so spammy that as part of trying to have a more distraction free phone I deleted the app and only log in via a browser.

I still subscribe to mailings lists of a couple of things/people. John August’s Inneresting (the final nudge of inspiration for my Doctor’s Note newsletter), also The Ready, Austin Kleon, Dave Gray, Indi Young’s very insightful newsletter, wry insights from Wait But Why, and occasionally Brain Pickings. I’m sure there are more, but I often forget until they land in my inbox.

I have a subscription to Business Insider newsletters on various topics, but filter that into a folder I barely read. I use it as a kind of news collector that I can search if I’m after anything. An occasional skim through keeps me up to speed.

Some of my reading, especially the research for Fjord Trends leads me back to my academic past and I gather a lot of research papers and material in a folder on Dropbox. I can’t share that, but it’s about 4GB right now. If I write anything that needs references, I use Bookends as a reference manager, which is also a useful searching tool.

News

My favourite news app way above all others is Quartz and I also subscribe to most of the Quartz Editions. I love their editorial style and philosophy. Quartz, The Guardian, the BBC, Reuters, and the main German news channels/apps are my daily commute/eating-on-my-own routine.

Fjord also have some great internal channels of links and a small group are pretty active in posting. Obviously, most of you won’t have access to that, but real people I know are still the best source of material.

Listening

I also listen to podcasts and audio books quite a bit, though less now that I’m not driving or commuting as much. Here are most of the ones I listen to. I read when I take public transport and listen while driving. BBC Radio 4 is my coffee break listen.

Books

I’m a Kindle hoarder. I often download a sample almost as a bookmark. Then if I really like it, I get the whole thing. One of the only times I really get to read books is in bed and my Kindle Paperwhite is the best thing ever for that. I no longer disturb my wife with the light on. I often go back and search my highlights and notes.

Lest this sounds like an information flood, I’ve actually gone the opposite way. I’ve turned off all notifications from machines on my devices. So messaging apps and calendar come through, but no addiction nudges from Facebook, Instagram, News, etc. Actually I deleted many of those accounts and apps. That helps free brain space. The only one I allow is Headspace, since it nudges me in the other direction.

Despite the Kindle hoarding, I’m making an effort to read real books more, partly to reduce screen time, but partly, as one of my colleagues observed, because my daughter never saw me reading books. She just sees me staring at screens, even if I was actually reading a book or working. She still thinks its unfair that I get to look at TV — my laptop — all day. I try to make a point of reading books in her presence as well as the bedtime stories (which often contain their own wisdom).

Make Time

Now I sound like some life-hacking Silicon Valley bro. But actually Jake and John who wrote Make Time really had an impact on me and their tips really work. Making time to think and for ideas to stew is really important. Treat your brain like a slow cooker.

Crucial, I think, is to read widely. Everything from pop culture to academic research papers. I sometimes even check out Breitbart just to see what the other side are saying and to mess with the algorithms. Almost all my best ideas have come from serendipitously reading two disparate things within a close timeframe (the corporate culture and AI piece was a classic example).

So, there you go. Possibly entirely boring, possibly useful to you. I don’t do all of that all the time, but that’s the set up. And with that, I hope you find some time to either switch off completely or some quiet time to read.


This post was originally written for Doctor’s Note my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. You can sign up for it here.