Reading News The GTD Way


The way most of us take in daily news is horribly inefficient. The problem isn’t how fast we read, or even what sites we go to — it’s the process of finding news, taking it in, and returning to work. Our current habits are based in the need for distraction and the fear that we’re missing something. We wander back and forth between our main sites — refreshing each one multiple times per day, or even per hour. This approach is guaranteed to leave you 1) feeling frustrated, and 2) far less productive. There’s a better way.

Enter GTD

Most of us are familiar by now with David Allen‘s groundbreaking productivity system called GTD. The fundamental concept in his system is that anything you have floating around in your head that you haven’t actively addressed and written down can and will destroy your ability to function efficiently.

In other words, the conscious and subconcious constantly fight for your brain’s limited processing power, and if you have 8 things floating around in your head while you’re trying to get work done, you could only be using 40% of your potential on your current task. The GTD approach is simple — you let your subconscious relax — thereby getting all that brainpower back that your “background processes” were hogging. Tasks become easier, you’re able to stay focused, etc, etc.

Interestingly enough, this very same concept applies to reading your daily news.

Fighting The Urges

Like many others, the urge to check the latest goings on in the blogsphere and/or news is overpowering. We simply can’t help but be distracted by the thought of something new and exciting hitting the Internet without us knowing. Much productivity is lost during the day specifically because of this phenomenon; but there’s hope. The answer lies in a two-step process — 1) using a dependable system, and 2) learning to trust that system. Sound Familiar?

The System

The system I use is based on two products — NetNewsWire, an OS X based RSS Aggregator, and Firefox (thanks to Ken for showing me the power of the combo). The way it works is actually quite simple: I first go through my feeds one by one, from top to bottom. When I hit a story I enjoy, I either double-click it or press enter. This creates a new tab in Firefox (which remains in the background) for each story I want to read more about. So if there isn’t enough in the RSS feed, or I have some other reason to check the actual site out, I have that content waiting for me in Firefox.

Next, in phase two, I close my RSS reader and head to Firefox. Waiting for me is every single site that I found interesting for that session. This includes personal blogs, security news, world events, etc. I then move from right to left skimming the content of each tab. Once I’m through with each, I cmd/ctrl-w out of the tab which automatically selects the next one on the left. I move through each tab in this fashion until I have read all my content. After I’m done, I minimize my browser and get to work.

The key here (just like in GTD) is trusting your system. When you’re 1) confident about the feeds you have in your aggregator, and 2) you know you went through them methodically, you then know that you’ve seen the vast majority of what there is to see. That’s the whole point of this — getting your mind to relax.

When you’re opening a myriad of websites and checking each at different times, there’s never an end to it. With this system there is. You check your reliable feeds, open anything of interest, read them all in turn, then you’re done.

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Getting Started

Ok, so what do you need to get started? As I said, I use NetNewsWire for my aggregator, but it’s an OS X app that not everyone can use. A friend of mine uses the same system but using Bloglines instead of NetNewsWire. Bloglines is a web-based aggregator that can perform pretty much the same role as a local app. My buddy runs it from Firefox (naturally), which lets one simply wheel-click links to get them to open in a new tab, just like I do within NetNewsWire by pressing enter or double-clicking a story.

Here’s what you need to do to get started:

  1. Find yourself an RSS Aggregator. (Here’s a decent place to start looking for one.)

  2. Find RSS feeds for your favorite sites.

Then, once you’re all set up, here’s your system for checking news:

  1. Open your RSS reader.

  2. Move through the new stories, opening the ones you want to read more about in new tabs within Firefox.

  3. Close your RSS reader and move to Firefox.

  4. Skim/read each story you’ve opened, closing each tab as you finish.

  5. When you’re done with the last tab, close Firefox. You’re done.

Learning To Let Go

The last step of the system is learning to trust that you’re getting enough news from it. One could make the argument that you could just do that with your current habits and be done with it, but it’s not nearly as easy as with a system that has a start and finish.

What this process does is make a strong argument to your subconscious that nothing else is needed for the moment. It’s much harder to make that argument when you’re not sure if you checked all your sites, or if all your sites are still open there to look at. The key is to close the RSS reader and keep it closed until it’s time to read news again. Once you close your RSS reader, all you need to do to catch up is read the open tabs in Firefox — that’s the key. I do this roughly 3 times a day now — once in the morning, once after lunch, and maybe one additional time before going home.

Ultimately, this is really about being able to get back to work with a calm, efficient mind. Conquering the obsession over news intake is a major step in that process, and I hope this GTD approach helps you as much as it’s helped me.:

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