I read a lot. Distressingly, somewhere along the line, I went from reading like a person with a normal attention span to reading like an 11-year-old who just mainlined a fistful of pixie sticks. I start an article, read a few sentences, and jump ahead. I look for the gist quickly and then either decide it is worth reading in full or that it is time to move on.
My reading-induced attention deficit disorder is made worse by the ever-increasing amount of stuff I read from the Web. First, the volume of information on the Web is just plain unmanageable. Too much coming in too fast. So much content passes through the transom of my mind via social media or email that I could read a stream of articles for the rest of my life and never have to go looking for a new one on my own. Second, half the time I come across articles I really want to read but it’s not a good time in my day to devote to reading a 14-page profile on Adele and her new baby.
Don’t judge me. Luckily, some nifty tech tools are available now that make it easier to organize your Web reading and incorporate it into the rest of your life.
The first step to organizing your Web reading is to gather all of your content into as few buckets as possible. The centerpiece of this step is to start using an RSS reader, such as Google Reader. Many sources of content (blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc.) publish their Web content in an RSS feed—it’s a geeky name that just means the content is published in a way that readers can subscribe to it, much the way you used to subscribe to newspapers (back when there were such things). An RSS reader is a software program that allows you to easily gather your subscriptions in one place for later reading. Gone are the days that you needed to navigate to your favorite blog, website or newspaper headlines to see what’s new. RSS allows you to have all of that information sent directly to you, just like a newspaper landing in your driveway. Without the rain, of course, or the officious paperboy.
Once you have your RSS reader set up, you can access it through your Web browser or via one of many different apps on your smartphone or tablet computer. For iPhone and iPad users, I like the Reeder app. For those using Android, I like gReader Pro. For BlackBerry owners, I recommend buying an iPhone or Android phone.
Not everything is available as an RSS feed, though. Another common input is email subscriptions and newsletters. Evernote, a free Web-based notebook program, is an ideal way to handle this. I’ve set up a rule in my email program to automatically forward all my email newsletters into Evernote, where I have a notebook set up exclusively for newsletters. I can access it via my phone, tablet and computer. It has the added benefit of getting a few more emails out of my inbox. Evernote is free, and you can keep your newsletters there in an easily accessible archive if you ever want to review them.
REMOVING DISTRACTIONS AND FORMATTING
If you are not blessed with the attention span of a Zen priest, you might, as I do, find trying to read long-form articles on the Web to be challenging. When an article appears on your screen in the middle of 10 other headlines vying for your attention, along with pop-up ads that you have to keep closing, it is hard to concentrate on dense material. What you need is something to cut out all the noise and clutter so you can focus on the article before you.
There are a couple of ways to do that. First, there is a browser add-on for Chrome and Firefox called Readability. Readability takes the article you want to read and displays it starkly and clearly while removing all of the extraneous headlines, links, ads and effluvia from elsewhere on the page. Using Readability is the difference between reading a book and looking at a corkboard covered with Post-it notes. In addition to using Readability in your browser, you can also use it as a stand-alone mobile app or in conjunction with the Reeder app on an iPhone or iPad.
Thinking more broadly about how to best assemble the content you want to read leads to a second solution: the roll-your-own-magazine app.
If there is one thing a tablet computer such as an iPad was born to do, it is to take the place of a magazine (says the guy writing a column for a paper magazine that has recently made available a free iPad app to its readers). But better than simply getting Law Practice on your iPad is getting a completely customized magazine of your own creation on it. A few pages of technology, a few pages of law firm marketing, a few pages of whatever suits your fancy.
Two apps dominate this space: Zite and Flipboard. Both are available on iOS and Android platforms but, as of the time of this writing, Zite had recently stopped development for the Android tablet platform. Google Currents is another option for Android tablet users.
Zite and Flipboard (and Currents, for that matter) are very similar. They each contain the ability to pipe in RSS feeds, social media outlets and content from a wide variety of publications into one, beautifully designed, magazine-like app. For my money, these apps are the single best innovation in bridging Web content into an easily readable and enjoyable tablet-based experience.
THE READ-IT-LATER LIST
Sometimes you come across an article that you really, really want to read in full but just don’t have the time to tackle immediately. Other times you are sitting in, say, a dentist’s office with nothing but a 1998 edition of Popular Mechanics to read (“World’s Biggest Planes”—awesome!) and you would give your eyeteeth for that article you’d sampled and found so gripping. What you need is an easy way to save articles you potentially will like to a read-it-later list. And then, just as importantly, you need to have that list with you when you are bored.
The technology that fits here is a combination browser add-on and mobile app: browser add-on so when you come across the perfect article at the imperfect time, you can clip it for later; mobile app so you can access it when you want it.
A number of apps do exactly this. My current favorite is Pocket. For reasons surpassing my understanding, Pocket used to be called the very descriptive Read It Later and switched to the very opaque Pocket. Despite the name, Pocket is a terrific app that works on both iPhone and Android platforms. Folks who prefer their mobile apps with a dash of minimalism may prefer Instapaper for this kind of work, though it is only available for iPhone and Kindle.
When it comes to reading content on the Web in a manageable way, a lot of good tools out there can help you. Check a few of these out and see if they don’t change your information flow from fire hose to lawn sprinkler.