Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Taming the RSS Feed (December EMG Zine)

I love learning and I'm always eager to improve the way that I do things. This is probably a good thing considering my core field is technology! However like a lot of people I am often time poor. Some of it is through disorganisation and bad time management (hey, I never said I was perfect!), but other times there are just so many competing tasks that things fall off the wagon.

I’ve found that if I really want to do something, I have to build it into my daily routines – make it like brushing my teeth or making the bed. And if I make it something that doesn’t take much time at all, it’s easy to move around if necessary, but more importantly is easy to fit in. One such thing I’ve found increasingly useful has been spending 10-20 minutes each day flicking through my RSS feeds.

RSS feeds for me are a great way to gather information on a range of topics. I read blogs to be inspired, learn new techniques, find out about new resources and software products, and to keep up with trends (for me it’s software patterns, however it could be what type of art is selling, which companies are hiring artists, what art directors want to see in portfolios etc). Admittedly if I read every entry I'd never get any work done, so I've been trying to improve the way I access blogs and the content they contain.

One problem for me is finding a suitable time. 20 minutes may not seem like enough time to do much reading, but the key is to quickly pull out the good stuff, so you can spend more time reading useful articles. For me, it comes down to finding time where I’m not likely to be interrupted, or I’m not going to feel guilty about ignoring some other task. Before the official work day begins or over my lunch break are good times for me to catch up on work specific blogs. I also find that by doing this over my coffee break, or when I have food in my hand I’m not going to start typing madly and thus get distracted by something else.

I have about 50 feeds on average and use Google Reader (http://www.google.com/reader/view ) to keep track of them. There are a range of RSS Readers out there, some are integrated into browsers, others allow you to read them on your phone – it doesn’t matter how you do it, I just find RSS readers easier to manage than a bunch of web sites I load individually. I cull the list on occasion as I try to keep this to the blogs I actually read, not ones that I bookmark as a reference for later on. If I’m constantly setting everything to ‘read’ without looking at content, I’d rather bookmark the blog and move it out of my main feed.

Each blog is tagged so that I can group them into relevant topics making it easier to identify blogs and enable focused reading. My topics are pretty basic ... things like 'art' or 'web design' or 'management' or 'debugging'. I try and limit the category to about 5 - 10 blogs - mainly because if I've got any more I'm probably not reading them all anyway. There are only so many blogs you can subscribe to about general web design anyway!

I load them with titles only, as it's quicker to load and I’m less likely to be distracted by the pretty pictures. There are some blogs I read every entry, however many I’d rather skim through the titles to get an idea if I’m interested in the content. I can expand it if it’s interesting. I find it far quicker to scan through 50 titles than to scroll through 50 articles complete with pictures.

Here’s my setup at the moment.

If I don’t have a huge amount of time, I often flick through my feeds and star articles to read later. The idea of the RSS feed is to quickly and effectively maintain an awareness of what’s going on. I don’t need to know all the details, but it’s far better for me to know a little bit about something so I can investigate it later, than to have no idea it even existed (particularly if it can save me time in the long run)!