Conquering Google Reader

Google ReaderGoogle Reader can be a very powerful tool, but it can quickly become your worst enemy.  I’m not going to tell you why you should be using it, or what an RSS feed is, etc., but rather how to get google reader working for you instead of the other way around.

The problem is this.  There are tons of different feeds available for pretty much whatever you are interested in.  When I first started using Reader, I subscribed to almost anything that had an RSS icon in firefox.  Things quickly got out of control and it wasn’t until recntly that I found a system that works for me.  So here was my typical pattern.  I’d have well over 100 items in Reader, and I would despearately try to get a handle on it by trying to knock off as many as I could.  I’d wind up spending a lot of time “reading”.  As you may know, Reader has a little checkbox for each post “marked as unread’.  I would do this for the stuff I was planning on reading later.  So, later in the day I’d check it again and would come across the items that I already had marked as unread.  Maybe I’d read them, maybe not.   Before I knew it I had 1000+ items in google reader.

I’m sure there is someone else out there with this problem.  The predicament with this situation is that posts are getting reprocessed. As David Allen would suggest this is a big no-no.  I used to love reading things from my RSS feeds, but it quickly became a huge chore for me.  Rather than reading for pleasure I started to read to see if I could get Reader back to 0 again.  You may be thinking that I’m just going to tell you to start unsubscribing from feeds.  That wouldn’t really make for a great blog post, would it.

read-it-laterWhat I do is go through and assign a block of time once a day or so for reading my posts in Reader.  No more casual “oh, I’ll just check to see what’s been update”.  If I find something that is very interesting, but I don’t have the time to read it right away, I tag it in a nifty little service called read it later.  Their explanation of the service is excellent:

Eliminate cluttering of bookmarks with sites that are merely of a one-time interest.
Think of it as a ’staging area’ for bookmarks.

google-reader-read-it-laterWith this awesome little firefox extension, there is a little checkbox that gets integrated with google reader.  You can check it or hit the i key (more Reader shortcuts here) to read it later.  Also, make sure to have the integrate into google reader check box checked within Tool -> Addons -> Read it Later Preferences -> Google Reader.  This may seem like procrastinating, but it’s not.  When you have time later, you can read the checked articles without having to worry about zeroing out google reader.  I have found that when I do this I actually process the posts much better and definitely enjoy the reading I do more.  I also get a lot more read in a shorter time period.  No more reprocessing.  If you would like to learn more about read it later, a good post on it is here.

I have also found the Better Google Reader firefox plugin extremely helpful. There is a skin called minimalistic that is great.  You can hit the w key to hide the top search bar.  I also use the u key to hide the left navigation.  What you have left is simply a list of the posts.  Then j and k to navigate through them.

So that’s it.  If you have any tips or tricks on conquering google reader, please let the world know in the comments section below.  A big thanks to whomever runs this blog for the sweet Google Reader icon.


  1. Talk about timing. I just started using Google Reader and I was just starting to experience inbox overload. I have experienced this significantly with email, so I’m excited to see how I can enjoy all that Google Reader has to offer, without handing my time and life away. Thanks, E

  2. Some good pointers here! I haven’t tried the Read It Later extension, but my method of handling the number of posts is something similar.

    I have Yojimbo (an “information organizer”) installed and I tend to archive a lot of links in there so that I can read them at my leisure, online or off, and without letting my Google Reader count get too overwhelming.

  3. Tim: Yojimbo looks very nice. It looks similar to evernote which is another sweet cross-platform program for managing information. You can take photobooth pictures, it does text recognition on images, sync to their servers, etc. etc. Thanks for the comments!

  4. I always ‘star’ an item in GR if I don’t want to read it right now. I then check my starred items list later on to catch up on things.

    Also, did you notice that GR finally implemented a commenting system so that when your friends share an item, you can comment on it? I’ve been using it a lot with you guys but haven’t seen the reciprocal. That was probably the #1 feature I’ve been waiting for them to do.

  5. I also do the star when I really want to look at something later. Another thing I’ve found myself doing is ctrl-click to open an article in a new tab. Then if I don’t have enough time to read all of them, I’ll just bookmark all tabs – and read later.

  6. I love RSS and I love Google Reader. However, I have no problem hitting the “Mark all as read” button even when I know there are 5000+ unread posts.

    Generally I will skim through my “Must Reads” categories which consists of a few blogs run by friends. Depending on how much time I have, I’ll either do the “Mark all as read” at the top level, or I’ll go through some of my folders and mark them as read.

    I have invested some time developing some server-side processing of my own which regularly scrapes RSS feeds and then parses those posts for keywords from a MySQL database. If there is a match, that post is forwarded to me via e-mail. If not, I never see the post.

    For example, in about the last week, I’ve processed over 65,500 RSS posts from various sources. Of these, I’ve received only 178 posts, via e-mail, which have matched keywords that I care about. For the other 65,300 or so posts, I never saw, or had to deal with them.

  7. Thanks for all the great conversation! @theunixguy I usually have no problem hitting “mark all as read” either. If I take a break from reader and have no intentions on catching up I’ll definitely do that. Again, it should be working for you.

    However, I used to click around on my different feeds to read here and there. For me I found this way completely useless. What would happen is I’d never really process what I was reading. I was instead focused on what I can knock off of reader. Rather than clicking around I just go to “all items” hide the left sidebar, and just read. It is way more relaxing for me to read this way. The focus now is simply on skimming / reading.

    Another thing I found that helps me is I only go into reader when I know I have the time. I don’t want to be going there 500 times a day when I can do it once. If you read the book by Tim Ferriss, the 4 hour work week, he discusses batching jobs to save time. He doesn’t discuss feed readers, but rather applies it to email and other areas of a typical office day.

  8. Eric,

    Through my own processing, I can eliminate the need to check Google Reader all together if I so desire. However, even though I am greatly reducing the number of posts I actually need to contend with, the posts I do care about go to e-mail. And this, as you’ve discovered, is another problem.

    However, I do utilize many features of Gmail to filter and label my e-mails and make optimal use of it.

    My use of Google Reader is for casual reading when I am bored. 🙂 Or, perhaps, I want to discover new keywords that I’d like to read more about in the future. These keywords, through this discovery session, would then be added to a MySQL table, and then I would receive relevant posts automatically in the future via e-mail.

    My server side processing also has the capability to send me an SMS when certain keywords are matched. Which, depending on the importance of the RSS post, I could have it alert me via SMS and avoid me having to watch for it in Gmail.

    I tend to live in my e-mail a little more than is ideal, but my use of e-mail is a little more complicated than casual e-mail use. In a sense, it is the collecting point from a variety of processes and sources which have already reduced greatly.

    In my previous example, I reduced the number of items I received, to less than 1/3 of a percent (0.280314 %).

  9. In response to Garret’s comment, “However, I do utilize many features of Gmail to filter and label my e-mails and make optimal use of it.”

    I remember Tim Ferris suggesting in his book (4 hour work week) that the elaborate filtering/labeling of emails typically enables an addiction to email or information.

    In response to Tim’s idea I have eliminated all my email folders and either archive or respond that day to it. I figure that if it isn’t important enough to respond to immediately, maybe it doesn’t deserve my time. It has made my one-time-a-day email sessions much more brief. Any other thoughts?

  10. John Lewis, I mostly agree with your point. I think that labels in gmail should be used to make emails easily retrievable later. For instance, I label my emails with a project label when they are associated with a certain project. I do the same thing for client-based emails.

    Also, I think there are certain circumstances when you just can’t give an email the time or effort that it deserves. For that I will label it “next action” so that I know at some point in the next day or so I should reply. I also use the “waiting on” label in case the email can’t be completed until whatever it is I’m waiting on is complete. This is from getting things done and the gmail firefox extension gtd inbox

    The only problem I have with the follow-up labels is that now I must check my inbox as well as the labels.

  11. I also use labels to find stuff easier later. For example, I have labels automatically applied (via a filter) for all Voicemail MP3’s that come in either from Vonage or I do the same thing for faxes from So if I am looking for a fax that I had received, I can click the label for faxes and just see the faxes that I’ve received.

    I also use them to highlight very important e-mails. By applying a filter which is colored bright red, I can quickly go to that e-mail, deal with it, and get rid of it.

    Periodically, one of my servers needs to get ahold of me, and when it does, I’ll get an e-mail with a bright red label applied.

  12. @elightbo and @theunixguy

    That makes perfect sense. My long term plan is to have my “web concierge” deal with all that stuff, so I don’t even need to check my emails or vm unless it has already been filtered for importance.

    I’ve been having crazy thoughts lately about significantly reducing the amount of technology that I allow into my life. wondering if I can go without a cell phone and move to checking email once a week. One result is that I would end up spending more time with people face-to-face, instead of posting on blogs, skyping, ect.

    Do you guys know of any programmers/developers that have gone “lo-tec”? That would be interesting

  13. Mr. Zoeckler…

    Living in a digital world makes me yearn for more things that are “real”. I am constantly wondering if these things are actually helping me out. Are we trying to streamline something that shouldn’t even be getting our attention? As you know, the internet can be so powerful, but at the same time it can be such a huge freaking noose. Part of the point of this blog is to start having technology work for us instead of the other way around. I am very happy you brought this up.

    Going lo-tec as a developer would be nearly impossible, but there are certainly things we can all do to streamline things. I hope to post more about this soon. For example, as a result of checking email less often and sending off less email, I find myself having more conversations with people over the phone or in person. That is real.


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