Reading Digital Content on Analog Medium

I love to read blogs. There are so many amazing resources available online on so many topics. When I decided to cut back my device time as much as possible, this was the first thing I missed. I wanted the knowledge available on websites, but available to read in a non-screen medium.

The simplest solution is to print everything. I don’t want to do that. It’s cost prohibitive in the long term and very wasteful.

I dug out my scarred but still functional Kindle Keyboard. This old war horse has been with me a long time. It doesn’t have a backlight or a touchscreen. This is probably as close to paper as I can get without paper.

Next I needed to figure out how to get blog content on the Kindle in a sane way. I know there are browser extensions to send web pages to Kindle. If this were just for a few articles that would work. However, I read a lot. My Kindle would quickly be full of individual articles, making books difficult to find on it.

The workflow I landed on has three steps.

Find Content

I use the RSS feed service Feedly to bring in content from the blogs I like. I’ve never needed anything beyond Feedly’s free tier. I skim through and anything I see that looks worth a read is sent to Instapaper.

Compile Content

Instapaper has been around a long time. It’s a nice way to collect articles and gives options for tagging, searching, and taking notes. I use Instapaper’s “Send to Kindle” feature to compile all the articles from Feedly into an ebook and send to my Kindle once per day. This is a feature of Instapaper Premium which costs $2.99/month.

There are several settings you can use to control the amount of articles sent to Kindle. I set the minimum size to 10 articles. If there are fewer than than in Instapaper they won’t be sent. Instapaper has nice browser extensions so you can add interesting articles to your feed as well.

Each morning I go into Instapaper and archive the articles that have been sent to Kindle. I’ve adjusted the send to Kindle settings a few times to get them dialed in. I love that Instapaper compiles articles into a book that has navigation shortcuts like commercial ebooks have, with a table of contents and the ability to skip between articles using the buttons on the Kindle.

Reading Content

This is the fun part. 🙂 Each digest of articles sent from Instapaper is dated. This is helpful so you can tell them apart. Amazon sees these as personal documents. If you’re familiar with the way Kindles handle content that will help you find the digests on Amazon.com if you ever need to. On the Kindle I delete each digest after reading it. This keeps things uncluttered. If I ever want to go back and redownload it’s available in the Personal Documents section of my Amazon account. All articles are available in my Instapaper account as well in the Archive section.

There are other methods to do this. Calibre, the free ebook software, has an RSS feed feature and a way to send content to Kindles. Pocket also has a similar “send to Kindle” function. I’ve used Instapaper for many years and enjoy their app design so that’s what I went with.


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Getting Tweets via Email

I really like Twitter for the way it allows you to connect with thought leaders. I don’t particularly like being on Twitter or any social media service for an extended time each day. I decided to find a way to get a digest of tweets from some thought leaders in my inbox each morning.

In this example I’m going to set up a digest of tweets from Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) and James Clear (@JamesClear). These two are authors and speakers who tweet regularly and have long form writing that I enjoy. Both are also in my RSS feed, but because their writing is usually long form there’s generally a bit of time between articles. I think both are people who put effort into making their tweets valuable, which is why I’d like to still read them, but on my schedule and from my inbox.

Preparation

  1. I’m using Zapier for this. You’ll need a free Zapier account which will be connected to your Twitter account and your Gmail account. If you don’t feel comfortable giving Zapier that type of permission then this workflow won’t work for you. You can find details on how Zapier handles 3rd party account credentials here.
  2. You’ll need to create a list on Twitter of the accounts you want a digest of.

Setting up the list

In your Twitter account go to the Lists page. (You can find this in the sidebar or by going to https://twitter.com/YOURUSERNAME/lists.) Click the button at the top right to create a new list, then enter a name and description for the list. I always make my lists private, but both types of lists will work.

Next add the accounts you want a digest from as “members” of the list. Click Done when they have been added.

Setting up Zapier’s integration

You can see an overview of how this Zap (the name Zapier gives their integrations) works on this page. Click the Try It button and you will be prompted to log in to your Zapier account.

Next, you’ll need to allow Zapier to connect to your Twitter account. Once that’s done, select your Twitter account from the list and click Continue. Then choose the list you created in the step above and click Continue.

In the testing step Zapier will use the settings you specified to go out and pull some data. This allows you to be sure it’s pulling the correct information. It’s useful to have Twitter open to your list in a different tab so you can confirm that the three tweets Zapier pulls match the most recent three tweets in your list.

If everything looks right, select the most recent tweet and click Done Editing.

You’ll want to the second step, Append Entry and Schedule Digest, before moving on. I gave mine a title and chose a daily frequency for 5 am. Make sure to run a test to make sure this step works correctly.

Finally, you’ll need to connect your Gmail account. Zapier isn’t an email service; it needs to use your email account in order to send the email. In my case the email is sent and received using the same email address, but you could also send an email from your email address to just yourself or to a group of people.

Here’s a look at some of my settings for the email:

Once you have the settings the way you want you can send a test email. I played around with some of the settings, in particular the body type (plain vs html) before I landed on these settings. Experiment and see what works best for you. Please note that the test email you receive will only have the most recent tweet from your list! As new tweets appear they will be added to the digest and sent together as a single email in the time frame you specified in the second step.

The last step is to turn your Zap on. Congratulations!

If you run into any issues, check out the Guide in the right sidebar of the Zap settings. It has good instructions for each step of the process.


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How to Switch your iPhone to Monochrome Mode

One of the productivity changes I added to my phone recently is enabling color filters and an accessibility shortcut. Triple pressing the home button now turns my phone’s screen from color to black and white.

Why do this? It turns out a lot of the visual fun of using a device is gone when there’s no color. Who knew? My screen time went down significantly after making this change. It’s easier to focus on the phone as a tool instead of the phone being a distraction.

Switching back to color is as simple as triple clicking the home button. (Note: My phone has a physical home button. There are other workarounds for those who don’t have a physical button.)

Here’s how to set it up:

  • Go to Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size > Color Filters. Enable color filters and choose Greyscale from the list.
  • Go back to Settings > Accessibility and select Accessibility Shortcut, then select Color Filters. When you triple click the home button, the grayscale color filter will be enabled or disabled.

HT to the Center for Humane Tech and Megan Holstein for the inspiration.


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Of Course I Understand Your Acronyms!

…and I wouldn’t be brave enough to tell you if I didn’t.

My first three months working at a tech company I was constantly looking up acronyms just so I could understand what people were discussing on the company chat. It felt silly to have to do that, but at least I was able to catch up quickly.

Now that I have teenagers they will occasionally deign to translate their acronyms for me, the old guy. In a family group chat they’ll say, “BRB. In case Dad is wondering that means Be Right Back.” Funny kids I have, right?

All of this is mostly harmless and kind of fun. Just make sure that acronyms don’t exclude people from the work you and your team do. Internally it can be inconvenient. For your customers it can be a deal breaker.

HT to Stephan Pastis and Studio C for the inspiration.


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Being Busy is Not Equal to Being Productive

One thing that always bothers me is when a coworker or friend starts a sentence with “I know you’re busy, but…” I’m never sure if this is a reflection on how I’m acting or how much I’m accomplishing.

Acting busy is easy. You just need to appear stressed out. We all do this. As Seth Godin put it, “All you need to do to feel busy is to try to get two things done at once.” Multitasking is not something our brains are built for. When we try to get two or more things done at once we do all of them poorly and we feel stress. We seem frustrated. And we probably appear very busy to the people around us.

Being productive is something completely different. (To be clear, I’m not talking about 45 step systems that allow you to become a millionaire in a month or do the work of four mere mortals without needing to sleep.) Productivity is based on results and process rather than situation. One of the most productive things I do each afternoon is meditate for 15 minutes. That time spent alone, practicing mindfulness, does more to help me get things done than nearly anything else I do. Single tasking is a close second. Productive people accomplish things but rarely do they seem “busy.”

When you feel busy, take a moment to figure out what you’re doing wrong. Have you scheduled too much? Are your deadlines unreasonable? Do you need to delegate or ask others for help? Are you trying to do two things at once? Do you need to break your current task down into smaller pieces? When is the last time you took a walk?

Being busy doesn’t help you get more done or mean that you’re important. Strive for productivity instead.

Hat tip to Scott H. Young and Seth Godin for the inspiration.


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Peace with the Present

I feel extremely lucky to get to spend time with my family during the holidays. I am one of five brothers and three of us were able to come back to my parents’ home for Christmas along with our families.

As kids we had personalities and interests that took us in different directions. We also have a pretty large age difference. (I’m the oldest and am almost 20 years older than my youngest brother.) It wasn’t until we graduated from high school and went off into the world that we started to have closer relationships. I’m sure there were days when my parents wished we were better friends. Luckily that has come with age.

Part of the reason we’ve become close is our parents. We might not have paid very close attention to each other, but our parents spent a lot of time with each of us, supporting us in our interests and activities. Today our family has a professor teaching car mechanics at a technical school, a chef, a digital marketer, a cabinet maker, and a jazz musician. My father is a teacher and my mother is a decorator. Our differences are what make us so interesting! The understanding and appreciation we give each other, which we learned from our parents, brings us together.

Peace in our life can come from many sources but it always requires time and an open heart. I’m grateful for the peace and love I’ve felt this year.

Hat tip to Ryan Holiday and Seth Godin for the inspiration.


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The Power of Crowds vs the Power of Groups

We tend to think of crowds of people in different ways. Crowdsourcing can be good, but the wisdom of crowds generally isn’t. The things that “everybody thinks” can be very wrong.

Groups of individuals, on the other hand, can have a powerful influence.

We read reviews because sometimes we can find someone like us who can tell us their experience with a product or a store. Professional critics can lead us to try food, listen to music, and read books that we might never otherwise have given a second look.

It’s important that you and I share our thoughts and experiences with others. In a world that seems to be increasingly overrun with bots and algorithms the opinions of real people matter more than ever. You probably won’t be the only voice in a given space, but that doesn’t mean your voice won’t be heard by other individuals.

Hat tip to James Hatch and Rohan Rajiv for the inspiration.


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The Simple Method to Increase your Job Performance in the New Year

I feel lucky that I’m wired to be a reader. From my childhood I spent lots of time reading books and it’s something that I still do. My mother used to kick me and my brother out of the house so we would stop reading so much. I wish I had to do that more often with my kids!

In my career this has been so important. Each time I take on a new task or join a new team I assemble a reading list, plow through it, add new blogs to my daily feed, and within a short time I feel more comfortable with the basics of what I’ve been asked to do. Reading will never be the same as doing and experience is important, but for me quality reading makes the journey towards doing much shorter and fulfilling.

In our work we are judged on our output, rarely on our input. That’s unfortunate, because low quality input leads to low quality output. I love it when my boss gives our team something to read or watch. I learn more not only about the thing we’re working on but about his inputs and influences.

Here are some suggestions for getting higher quality input into your work routine.

Delete social media apps from your phone. More than any other action I’ve taken this year this has improved my life. I still use Twitter and LinkedIn on my computer and I can log in to the website on my phone if I need to. Not having the apps on my devices means I can’t default to using social media to kill a few minutes. Suddenly I have vast stretches of formerly occupied time available! It sounds like I’m trying to be funny, but I’ve read at least 10 more books this year because I deleted social media apps from my phone.

Read more than one book at a time. This sounds counterintuitive! Alas, most good books are not page turners the whole way through. There are times when I don’t want to read more about being productive, about business, or about anything non-fiction. I make sure I have a novel or two around, and I usually have 2-3 other books in progress at any given time. (A nightstand book, a bathroom book, a book on my work desk, a book on my home desk, and a book in the front room. If there’s a book wherever you go you’ll end up reading them!) Here is Scott Young’s great illustration on how this actually helps you read more.

Source: Scott Young

Read before bed. I remember reading Tim Ferriss’s advice along these lines years ago and have enjoyed this habit since. I tend to read narrative-based books, like novels, historical fiction, or biographies, before bed. Listening to an audiobook works for some people too. (I suggest using a timer on your audiobook app if you go this route so you can easily find your place in the morning if you fall asleep before the book stops.) You’ll be surprised how many books you get through by reading 30 minutes per night. You also have the added benefit of not using a screen right before bed, which many people find makes falling asleep easier.

Put reading time on your schedule. Call it whatever you need to so that co-workers won’t think you are slacking. If you read more you will have better ideas, make broader connections, and problem solve more effectively. It doesn’t matter what field you work in, this will make you better at your job. As Harry Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Get your reading time scheduled on your calendar.

HT to Scott H. Young and Austin Kleon for the inspiration.


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Small Successes Lead to Big Victories

One of the hardest aspects of work for me is when I know I have a hard task to do. I’ve found some psychological trickery that works well on me that might be useful for you too.

I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique. There are lots of ways to implement it, but the basic premise is to work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break. After four 25 minute work periods then take a longer break.

The reason this helps me is because no matter how hard the entirety of the task is, I know I can work for 25 minutes. It’s embarrassing how often I have to tell myself that any old dummy can work for 25 minutes, or that after I do one pomodoro I’ll quit and work on something else. Starting is the hardest part. Once I get going I nearly always find that I’m surprised by the timer going off, and starting the second, third, and subsequent pomodoros is never a challenge.

There is a lot of interesting research into why a technique like this, and I consider this a form of batching, works so well. Beating resistance and getting started is so important. Getting started early is important. Perhaps the most important aspect of this for me is that I may not see a path to success for a large project, but I know I can win if the game is simply to work for 25 minutes. I’m not worried about winning the whole war, just winning this one little battle.

Hat tip to David Cain and Tim Ferriss who wrote great posts this week on subjects that reminded me of this.


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Training the Coward Inside

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about stoic philosophy and applications of stoicism. Ryan Holiday has some great books that are good primers on the philosophy and great springboards for applied stoicism.

Today I read You Must Train the Coward Inside You to my boys. (It’s a short read if you are interested.) Here are two of my favorite quotes:

Everyone has a breaking point. For most people, that point is very low, which is why many people never push themselves past their comfort zone.… And the dirty little secret is that everyone has a coward inside them, and if you really want to be tough, and I mean that both physically and mentally, you have to push that coward to the breaking point and then push past it every day. You have to embrace suffering.

That’s what Stoicism was built for. It teaches us to—as they say in the military—“embrace the suck” and find security and peace even in the midst of warfare and crisis.

While we all hope life will be smooth and easy we all know that’s rarely the case. All worthwhile pursuits involve training the coward inside us to “embrace suffering” and push past our “breaking point”.


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