How to Drop an RSS Feed Like a Bad Habit

Every Wedneday is Simplicity Day on Zen Habits, and today’s post is part of a series called “Edit Your Life,” looking at ways to simplify different parts of your life.

I recently read an article about a blogger who reads more than 600 feeds a day. I thought I was bad, with nearly 100 feeds in my Google Reader. The truth is, either number is overload, as there is no way that you need to read that many feeds, or that going through so much information every day can bring you happiness.

So I made a conscious decision, within the last week, to brutally edit my RSS feeds — and now I’m down to 16.

It was a heart-wrenching process, I will admit. You get addicted to these feeds, and over time, you add one or three every day and they grow like a mountain of refuse. It gets to the point where going through all your feeds is a chore, and you can never keep up with all of them.

So I set out to eliminate all of those that weren’t bringing extremely useful or entertaining information into my Google Reader just about every day. The first day of editing, I cut down nearly 100 feeds to a little over 60. I took a deep breath, and told myself that was good enough for the day.

The next day, I cut it down to 44. That was good enough too, and I told myself that I didn’t have to do it all at once. The third day, I made it down to 28. On the fourth day, I was down to 16, and seeing my list of feeds whittled down to the essential ones was a liberating feeling. I decided to stop, and stay with those. I think I can cut them down to 10, but really, that’s an arbitrary number and I don’t think it will make that huge a difference. Of the remaining 16 feeds, there are maybe 1 or 2 that I could cut out if forced to, but I really enjoy all of them, so I think I’ll stick with where I’m at.

The result? Well, the time I spend reading my feeds has been cut down drastically. It used to take me an hour, all told (I would break that down to two sessions a day). Now I can do it in 15 minutes or less. It also saves me a lot of stress and a lot of filtering through stuff I never read anyway.

It’s probably useful to know how I read feeds before I get into the process of eliminating them. I’ve mentioned this before, but the way I go through my Google Reader is by using the keyboard to crank through my entire list of unread posts. I skim through the headline and content quickly, and if there’s something that interests me, I’ll hit a key and pop it open in a new tab. Once I’ve gone through my entire list, I’ll go to the opened tabs and read just the best articles in their entirety. If I don’t have time to read them all now, I’ll bookmark them for later.

So let’s look at the process for eliminating all but the essential feeds in y our life:

  1. Initial sweep. The first time you go through your list, if you’re like me, you can probably eliminate 10-15 right off the bat, just by looking at the name of the feed. You know which ones really shouldn’t be there. Unsubscribe to those immediately.
  2. Inactive. Next, use the “Trends” feature in Google Reader (or similar feature in other readers) to find your inactive feeds (it’s the tab right next to “Frequently Updated”). If they haven’t updated in the last week or so, you can probably safely drop them. If you’re like me, you can probably drop another 10-15 feeds. You’re done for today!
  3. Drill down. Here’s the next stage — discovering which feeds don’t give you much value on a daily basis. If there are feeds on the borderline, I would drill down into them for a couple of weeks to see if I actually read any of their posts. If you imagine your daily reading process as a horizontal scan — you’re scanning through all the day’s posts from all your feeds — then going into a single feed’s posts for two weeks or so is a vertical scan. Do a vertical scan of the borderline feeds, and see how many of their posts you have actually been interested in. If there hasn’t been a single one in the last two weeks, drop it. You can probably cut your current list in half through this step. Rest for today.
  4. Worst-case scenario. If there are a number of feeds that you are hesitant to get rid of, not because they give you value, but because you’re worried that you’ll miss something important, ask yourself, “What’s the worst case scenario if I drop this feed?” In most cases, it’s not that bad. And if there’s something really important that’s written about, in most cases one of your other feeds will mention it. Drop those “what if” feeds if your life wouldn’t be miserable without them.
  5. Test folder. You should be getting down to a much smaller number by this stage. You’re probably down to two groups — the really must-haves and the ones you still think you might need but that aren’t giving you value. If so, create a folder for this second group, and put them all in there for a week. Don’t read them. If nothing bad happens to you in that week because you didn’t read them, you’re OK. To give it a test, read through the test folder at the end of the week, and see if that little reading session gave you value. If not, drop those feeds.
  6. Friends. If you’re like me, the hardest ones to drop were those of some of my blogger friends. I really enjoy interacting with them, and they write interesting stuff, but for my purposes, reading them was absolutely essential. Still, it’s hard to unsubscribe from a friend’s blog. Then I realized: my friends usually email me with their best posts anyway. I end up learning about the post twice — once in my reader, and once in their email. So I dropped my friends’ feeds (well, most of them). I hope they don’t hate me for this, but I really needed to edit my feeds list, and I did what I had to do. I still love my friends and will drop whatever I’m doing for them.
  7. The final test. Once you’ve gotten your feeds list down to what you feel is minimal, go through each feed on your list once more, and ask yourself, “Is this feed absolutely essential? Does it give me value every day? Why do I need it?” If the answers to those questions is satisfactory, keep them. You may be able to get rid of a few more in this final test.
  8. Minimize reading. Now that you are down to the essential feeds, it should be highly satisfying to look at your feed reader. I know that it’s disproportionately pleasing for me to look at my small list. It shouldn’t take you long to go read through your feeds every day. Be sure to limit yourself now to one session per day, getting it done quickly and all at once. Don’t keep checking your feeds throughout the day, as it is a distraction from what really needs to get done.

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