• How I effectively read online content

    Back a hundred years ago there were four options for reading interesting content. Buy a (good) newspaper, buy a magazine or journal, buy a book or borrow a book from a library. The internet changed that. Now we have instant access to the entirety of human knowledge instantly. But how do we find the most relevant online content for ourselves. And once, we’ve found it, how can properly process it?

    Today’s blog post is how I find, read and then apply content I read online.

    Table of Contents

      FOMO: The problem with online content

      Fomo affects my reading of online content in two ways.

      1. I worry that I’m not consuming enough,
      2. I fear that there’s some other, new content that would be better for me to read.
      3. I get distracted by notifications and worry that I’m missing out on something else.

      Although there are steps I can take to help ensure the quality of what I read as well as reduce distractions, accepting fomo is a key step.

      Defeating FOMO with an abundance mindset

      The truth is that I (and you) will never know everything or even everything we want to.

      We are limited human beings and there’s just too much information. In fact, there will be more great content published today than you have time to read.

      At the same time, this is a blessing.

      We no longer have to strive to read every great article that is being published, instead we can be selective, knowing that there is more great content out there.

      When we accept an abundance mindset, we can cope with not reading everything. We don’t even need to read the best things. Instead, we just need to read something that is beneficial for us.

      This pragmatic approach helps us focusing on gaining value from what we do read and defeats the FOMO that can prevent us from actually reading.

      Avoiding distractions while reading online content

      Many websites are minefields of adverts, push notification popups and email optins. Not to mention the ease of switching browser tabs. To avoid this, I send articles to a read it later service (instapaper in my case). This helps

      • remove distracting popups
      • changes the reading process to encourage complition
      • allows me turn off notifications while reading and stay focused.

      I’ll return to this aspect later, but now I want to address the process.

      Step 1: Find good things to read (two methods)

      The first step in the process is to find something to read. Not finding just anything, that’s easy enough as we’ll soon see, but finding something good to read. When it comes to finding content, there are two methods: Pushed content, and pulled content.

      Push content

      Push content is content sent to us without our explicit engagement.

      Advertisments are push content (we often don’t want to see them) but so are social media feeds. A feed will include content that others users (and the algorithm) believe you will be interested in.

      The challenges of pushed content

      There are obviously issues with push content. We have limited to no control over what the feed will spew out. If it is time based, then our interesting friend may have decided to push some selfies.

      Algorithims will tend to favor easy “pop” content over meaty enriching content. While there is nothing wrong with watching the latest Hollywood block buster, if you only watch big budget movies there is a problem. You are unlikely to advance in areas of knowledge you want to develop.

      Push content also tends to interrupt us and be endless. The social media feed is practically never ending and a ping during a focus study hour can ruin the whole time.

      Push content can be fantastic, but we need to control it.

      Sources of push content

      • Advertisments
      • Social media streams
      • TV channels
      • YouTube

      How to raise the quality of your pushed content

      If the content pushed to you doesn’t feel “High-quality” then you need to add some filters and open some new doors. There are some easy ways to do this.

      1. Curate your twitter feed – remove some people you follow, add some new people.
      2. Make some twitter lists – you don’t have to follow people, you can start a list instead.
      3. Get recommendations – ask people you know for good sources to follow.
      4. Adopt a more critical view – be careful about clickbaitey titles. Ask yourself if it would be better to read something from your pull list than the latest item pushed to you.
      5. Adopt more in-between sources – some content is half push half pull. A journal, blog, or newsletter is still technically pushed but is more often curated around a single topic. This makes it more likely to be relevant to you. Increase your sources of these content over pure push content.

      Pull content

      Pull content is content we bring to ourselves.

      Debatably this would be exclusively articles and books we search for and find but In practice I also include heavily curated sources. These still push content, but you choose to have this topic enter your list.

      The advantages of pull content is that you set the bounds and you are unlikely to get added distractions or off-topic pieces. It’s a great way to dive deeper into a certain field. But there are limits.

      One issue with pull content is the lack of serendipity. After an initial exploration of a topic, you are likely to be going deeper and learning the details of a topic. You are more likely to find the same names repeating and the same ideas and issues. This is especially true of reading the same writers and sources.

      The joy of suddenly encountering a radical new idea that challenges many of your assumptions can be lost from pull content.

      Sources of Pull content

      • Google searches
      • Books
      • RSS feeds
      • Curated newsletters
      • Searching through bibliographies

      Balancing pull and push content

      I don’t (yet) have a perfect formula for how much push and pull content is right. I do, however, have a rule of thumb.

      Reduce push, increase pull.

      Most of us don’t have an issue with push content. The real issue is limiting the low quality push content and finding the gems. This stems from our FOMO over content. The truth is that we are more likely to miss out on great content from pull content than push content.

      By filtering the content pushed to us, we can pull more content and raise the overall quality of reading materials.

      Step 2: Send it to read later

      Instead of reading content there and then, I send it to instapaper. There are many read it later services including pocket or note taking applications like Evernote, notion and roam research.

      This might seem like an unneccasery step for some, but there is a reason I use instapaper.

      Instapaper removes distracting elements and allows me to highlight and annotate key parts that resonate with me. It also provides me with an additional step before reading.

      That extra delay helps me prioritise high-quality content.

      The only exception is for short content. Think of it as the David Allen “2 minute rule” but for reading.

      Step 3: Triage to manage content

      With a list of interesting articles in Instapaper, I can now browse and select the items that most appeal to me. I read an article or two this every evening after my daughter has gone to bed and whenever I take a commute (althought that is not so common now).

      I don’t go through from oldest to newest or the reverse, but I skim what I can see and pick the most interesting articles to me at the time. Sometimes, I don’t bother reading an article but archive it as I realise that it isn’t that interesting to me.

      Step 4: Read, Highlight, Annotate

      As I read, I highlight the most interesting and relevant parts for me.

      Admittedly, I also highlight quotable parts that might be good to share, but I seek to find the parts that are relevant to my interests. I also add notes with questions and comparisons to other ideas.

      Step 5: Sumarize from memory

      Next I turn to the applications Drafts and write notes on the individual ideas within the article that resonated with me.

      I do this from memory and then return to the article to check any points I’ve missed. Critically I do not look at the article until I’ve finished making a note so that I push my memory.

      The aim is to test my memory and help entrench those points in my mind using a method similar to read, recite, review.

      I also look for actionable takeaways and ideas. Something which I could do today or start doing that would make a difference. If it is a one time task, I add it to my todo list application. Meanwhile I send my plain text notes to Obsidian.

      Step 6: Archive

      Once I finish reading an article and made my notes, I archive it from instapaper and save my highlights. Previously I did this manually by sending from instapaper to Evernote, but now I can use readwise (more later). The main point is to remove it from the to be read list and save the key points.

      Step 7: Review and find connections

      The processes of reviewing and connecting ideas helps me both remember what I read, identify how to apply it to my life and find interesting connections with other ideas.

      Now I connect my notes to the highlights that I’ve taken so that I have the original text or inspiration indexed with my own notes.

      Later that day or at the end o the week, I start looking for themes and connections with other ideas and notes.

      I’ll start a note saying with a comment about either the connections or similarities between ideas, or the differences and contradictions between ideas. These notes focus on:

      • Points of agreement (both people think this)
      • Similar analogies or expressions (Some times people in the same or different fields say something in different ways)
      • Points of contradiction (X disagrees with Y about Z because…)
      • Questions (sometimes it’s not clear. Is this about the same thing or something different? Does this apply here? Does something explain something else.)

      The aim with these patterns is not to write a final version with definitive conclusions them but to start thinking and let the subconscious mind take over.

      I return and revisit these notes later on to see if I have discovered something new or thought of a new insight.

      Bonus: Reminders from Readwise

      I use Readwise, a service which saves highlights from a wide range of sources and automatically saves them into your note taking application. As Obsidian is locally based an not a SaaS solution with API, this isn’t automatic for me at the moment.

      Readwise does, however, resurface highlights in its daily summary which provides me with a reminder of old highlights that may have a new meaning now.

      What to do when reading an article online

      Personally, I choose to highlight as I read through an article. I think this comes from experience editing work and appreciating well worded phrases as well as habit.

      According to a study (Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Butler, Andrew C. and Roediger III, Henry L.(2009)’ Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own?’, Memory,17:4,471 — 479) Highlighting appears to be a nearly useless endeavor for remembering a text. With that acknowledged, I still find it useful when retracing my steps to find a section.

      Perhaps that is just a cargo cult excuse though.

      How to read more

      Reading more articles online requires an approach similar to reading more books. You need to create an environment where it’s easy to read articles and avoid distractions. It’s also good to set regular times for reading and have a collection to read.

      Paper books naturally work this way. They are a single purpose device. They don’t have notifications or other easy to reach distractions.

      Reading online articles are the opposite, especially on the web.

      Action Plan

      • Pick a note taking application (I use evernote and obsidian.)
      • Pick a method to save things to read later. (I use Instapaper)
      • Install any browser extentions that can help you save content for later.
      • Clean up your social media feeds.
      • Find some relevant newsletter and websites you can visit.
      • Set a time when you will read
    • How I read 3x more books this year

      Growing up, I struggled with reading. As someone diagnosed with Dyslexia, that is hardly surprising. Last year I set my self a modest goal to read more books.

      My target was a book every month for 2019. I did it, so I decided to set a more ambitious reading goal. Read two books every month for 2020. Well, currently I have read 36 books this year and will probably read a few more before the year-end. Here’s how I tripled the number of books I read in 2020.

      Table of Contents

        Sketchnote of how to read more

        read more sketchnote

        Principles for reading more

        Every action I took conformed to one of a few principles. While you may choose different actions, I suspect the principles will help inform your actions.

        • Want to read more books
        • Momentum is key
        • Create an encouraging reading environment
        • Cheat (you’ll see)

        Start with Why

        Start with why

        The first step was to start with the reason why. There are so many goals that are born out of ideas of what we ought to do and not whether we want to. This can lead to feelings of guilt and failure rather than motivation.

        My motivation started two years ago when I revisited my intention to read more timeless books and fewer temporary articles and social media posts. Last year I started a reading habit, but I was inconsistent. I knew that I could read more by making it a regular part of my week.

        That small success gave me a taste of the benefits of a consistent reading habit:

        • Learning about important entrepreneurial insights
        • Discovering fascinating new developments in different fields
        • Stretching my imagination by entering a new fictional world
        • Learning lessons from the lives of those who have gone before us.
        • Knowing interesting ideas to share in conversations
        • Having a break from a screen
        • Gaining ideas to blog about

        All these benefits provided the inspiration and motivation I needed to read more.

        Set yourself a goal

        The first practical step I took was to set a goal. I knew I wanted to read more than last year. I also knew my rate of reading thanks to tracking my reading in goodreads.

        When I really applied myself, I could read a short book in a week (with some other reading on the side). I decided to aim for two books a month. This gave me a bit of leeway if I came across a heavier book or if life got in the way. In the end I have managed three books a month.

        Form a book collective

        I have never formally joined a book club, but they certainly help many readers. Instead, I have taken part in reading groups and found an informal association of like minded readers.

        Some examples include the roam research book club and finding fellow readers on MicroBlog and the ness labs community.

        These book groups help find recommendations for good books and can help identify parts you might miss when reading.

        You can also share what you’ve read which helps practice summarizing and recontextualising information: both practices which help to understand and remember key information.

        Creating a positive reading environment

        Create a positive reading environment to read more books

        One of the core ideas from Atomic habits is to focus on creating a habitat that encourages a certain activity (and prevents distractions). This is more effective than seeking to increasing or exercise your willpower.

        Here are some practical points on how I created a positive reading environment.

        1. Always have something to read

        There are two aspects to this idea:

        1. Keep a collection of books that you can start reading as soon as you finish one book.
        2. Keep a book with you at all times.

        These two aspects means you always have an option to read. So you never find yourself in the situation of wanting to read, but not having anything. I save books that sound interesting to a list in my task manager and knowledge management system — Obsidian.

        I also frequently buy books for kindle even while I’m still reading a book, so I have a library ready for later. Admittedly, sometimes I don’t ever read these books as they don’t seem interesting later, but It still helps create the right reading environment

        2. Set times to read

        Initially, my reading time was at least one evening a week and during commutes. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns ended that habit and caused a blip in my reading routine.

        I adapted. I soon found the time after I gave my daughter a bath was the perfect time to get in a chapter or two. Plus, reading in the evening felt an even better way to relax after a day of non-stop screens.

        3. Read good books

        This feels stupid to say as it’s so obvious but it’s easier to read good books than bad books. That doesn’t mean you should only read light and easy books, while avoiding intellectually challenging material. Instead, pick books you want to read, not feel obliged to read.

        That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try some books that are outside your comfort zone. You may find that you enjoy them! Just don’t try to keep up with the latest “must reads” out of social pressure. You should read books that you want to.

        Also, you can always…

        4. Quit bad books

        Quit bad books

        Some books just aren’t for you. That’s okay. If you find yourself somewhere into a book and decided that it isn’t for you. Quit. It’s okay.

        The faster you quit your bad book, the sooner you can start reading another good one. You can even come back to the book later if you wish.

        5. Use external motivators

        Intrinsic motivation (motivation for the process of an action) trump extrinsic motivation (motivation for the product or reward). While most of the points here have address intrinsic motivation (as it’s more powerful), it’s also okay to use some external motivators too.

        Early, I mentioned that I set a goal. I put my target number of books in Goodreads, so I could track my progress. Every finished book was another step on the way. I also used Streaks to encourage myself to read something every day. These little motivators can help get into a state where intrinsic motivation takes over.

        At the same time, you need to be careful with external motivators, they can supplant and kill your intrinsic motivation.

        A nudge is good, but make sure you revisit your why.

        6. Avoid distractions

        It’s easy to disappear down the internet rabbit hole of Wikipedia articles, twitter threads, non-stop news and YouTube autoplays. These forms of content can be interesting, relevant and even edifying. But they are more likely distrations. They are a form of pushed content that often gets in the way of what you actually want to read. It’s good to set up some barriers against these distractions like:

        • limiting access to social media on your phone
        • reducing notifications
        • setting timers for certain activities.

        The following points are controversial and may not work for you. They do, however, work for me.

        Read different genres

        You might have a favorite style or type of book, but variety is the spice of life. Sometimes reading books of the same genre can get tiresome. By switching from fiction to non-fiction or from thriller to biography, you can have a fresh change and boost your motivation.

        This can work well with using different book formats.

        Use different formats of books

        Read different formats and genres of books

        I read both e-books and paper books (as well as listen to audiobooks). This is partially out of necessity (I can’t always get a paper book in Poland) but also for variety. Ebooks, whether on kindle or a phone/tablet and app, are great for travel as they don’t take up so much space. Paper books are great at home. And audiobooks are great when your hands are occupied.

        I also find certain types of books are better suited to different formats.

        • Fiction works well in paper (the experience) and audiobook (for long car journeys)
        • Non-fiction business works well in e-book (highlighting) and audio (2x speed!)
        • Books where you want to jump around are better in paper

        You may find that you prefer paper books for highlighting (and writing notes in the side). That’s fine. It’s important to work out what type of books works best for you in which format. Some of my preference is determined by using the service Scribd (a kind o Netflix for books) which has e-books and audiobooks.

        Have multiple books on the go at once

        Some people prefer to read one book at a time, so they can focus on it and get through each book quicker. I, however, prefer to read several books at once.

        By using different formats, I can have multiple books on the go at once with clear distinctions for when to read each one. This also helps provide some variety when you don’t feel like reading a certain book today. You can switch to a different book. Some possible options include…

        • Have a paper fiction book on the go if you tend to read non-fiction on a Kindle
        • Have an audiobook as an alternative to your paper book
        • Read a biography as a break from the theoretical book.
        • Have a book on a topic “for fun” as a break for the book “for work”

        It’s really up to you, and you should experiment and find the right book combinations for you.

        Cheat 1 – use faster playback with audiobooks

        Listen to audiobooks at 2x speed

        Most audiobook players can have faster playback speeds. I resisted this idea for a long time. 2x speed felt against the spirit of audiobooks. I also worried about not taking notes at key moments.

        That was a misplaced fear.

        Pausing is easy enough to do and it’s possible to rewind a few second (or re-listen). This also helps practice the “read, recite, review” process that helps remember information better.

        You can try speeding up to just 1.1 or 1.2x and then slowly increase from there.

        I sometime feel a bit anxious when I listen at 2x but 1.5x is always comfortable for me now. In fact, 1x feels strangely slow.

        Cheat 2 – Finishing what I started last year

        One trick I’ve employed to boost my numbers in this final month is returning to some books I quit this year and last year. These range from 25-75% finished, but they’ve helped me rack up my numbers in these final two months.

        I didn’t force myself to read these books, they were all books I wanted to read. For one reason or another — another book came along or a section felt less relevant/interesting — but I wanted to return to them.

        This helped grease the figures but I still read more than previous years.

        My goals and ideas for next year

        I’ve set my sight on 45 books for next year. Not quite one a week, but getting closer. I’m planning on using all the same tactics as before and some new ones including.

        Getting a kindle or similar ereader

        While using a tablet it great and has some advantages. A dedicate ereading device is less distracting. I’ve heard many other writers like Ali Abdaal recommend getting a kindle to read more.

        Writing more books summaries

        While I have created some book summaries this year, I want to make more. Doing so can provide some extra external motivation. There is a risk that this will prove to be a distraction, so we’ll see how this experiment goes.

        What’s your advice how to read more books in a year?

        I’ll admit that what worked for me, might not work for you and there may be some ideas or practices that I am missing. I’d love to know how you have been able to increase the number of books you read in a year. Leave a comment with your advice.