As I’ve mentioned before, I read others’ blog posts using Google Reader. It shows me the unread posts in reverse chronological order, I go through them and read them; if I want to keep one around for a while for some reason or other, I hit the ‘s’ key to star it. If I run out of new posts and don’t feel like, say, writing here or going to bed or reading a book or something, I go to the starred posts and give them a look. I read a few and unstar them.

This worked okay for a while; recently, though, I noticed that my list of starred posts was getting longer and longer, and it was no longer clear what good those posts were doing me in general. I didn’t want to get rid of them all, but clearly the system wasn’t working.

But I should have decent queue management skills by now, no? So what can I pull out of my bag to deal with this? The Getting Things Done people talk about categorizing and emptying your inbox instead of just letting it build up; while my real inbox in this situation is unread posts, which I’m good at going through, I’m putting a big uncategorized stack right past that. Which is no good. So let’s see if categorization helps?

In my mail reader, I’d move things into folders; Reader has tags as an equivalent. (Except it’s supposed to be better since you can put multiple tags on an item. Which sounds like a good idea to me; not using that capability yet, but I can imagine it will come in handy.) So I went through the whole pile of starred posts, and tagged them all.

It took a little while to do the initial triage; I’m glad I didn’t put it off for any longer. Actually, it took me two phases: at first, I had some tags in mind (videos to watch, flash games to play, posts I’d left a comment on and wanted to return to the comment thread), which covered many of the posts, but I wasn’t sure of an appropriate tag for other ones. No problem; I just tagged those with ‘to-tag’ and kept on going. By the time I was done with my first pass in the list, I had a pretty good idea of what tags I wanted; a couple of days later, I went through the ‘to-tag’ bucket, tagged all of them with one of my other categories, and deleted that tag. So now all of my starred posts are in one of 12 buckets.

At which point, the utility of this exercise was clear. Some of the buckets really are pits that I’ll never clear out: videos and flash games simply do catch my eye at a higher rate than I’ll be able to go through them, and that’s okay. So if things in those categories moulder a bit, it’s not a big deal; periodically, I’ll delete some of the older ones without watching them/playing them, and I’m fine with that.

Other buckets are much smaller and get cleaned out more regularly. For example, one benefit was identifying that there were several blog posts that had something interesting to say that was a bit too much for me to deal with at 10:30 at night. I tagged those with ‘read’, and now I’ve gone and read all of them, and will be able to keep that bucket low in the future.

There are some other buckets that I also expect to clean out regularly. I keep a bucket of posts that I’ve commented on; those I’ll return to every day or two to see what others have to say, and then delete them when nothing new shows up. And I have a ‘blog’ tag for things that I’m considering mentioning in one of my ‘random links’ posts; now I have an easy way of collecting those, and I imagine I’ll just generate such a post every time that I have five or six items in that bucket.

I’m still not sure of my approach to all the buckets, but that’s okay; I’ll keep on experimenting and figure it out eventually. I’m definitely pleased with the results so far; I should really reread the GTD book and give the system a serious try.

What I am not pleased with is the Reader interface. Don’t get me wrong, it works well enough, and I’m sure I’m missing some ways to use it better, but there seem to me to be some pretty strange decisions here:

  • I try to always empty out my stack of unread items, which means that tagged items that I want to get back to have to be marked as read. (Otherwise, I’d have no way of distinguishing between things I haven’t looked at at all and things that I’ve looked at and am keeping around.) So, in the “all posts” screen, I want to only look at unread items; in a tagged post view, though, I want to look at all items. I have to manually toggle between these two modes, however: it’s not smart enough to either realize that looking at only unread tagged items doesn’t make sense or to simply remember when I want to look at unread items and when I want to look at all.
  • Actually, though, in the tagged items, I don’t want to look at all of them: I just want to look at the starred ones. That way, when I’m done with a saved item, I can type ‘s’ to unstar it and not see it again. This, however, isn’t possible: there’s no way to only looked at the starred items with a given tag. What this means in concrete terms is that there’s no simple way to delete a post: you have to type ‘t’ to edit the tags, and hit the delete key a bunch of times to erase the existing tag.
  • Speaking of editing the tags, there’s a bug (either in Reader or in Safari): when I add a tag to the post, the name of the new tag just sticks there in my browser window, even when I’ve moved on to other posts, until I click on the screen.
  • The tag entry screen is “helpful” in an incredibly annoying way. One of my first tags was ‘long-read’, for posts referring to documents that were long enough for me to need to set aside time to read them. Then I decided that I needed a tag for posts that I didn’t want to read right now but wanted to get back to when my brain was fresher. No problem, I’ll call that ‘read’; the helpful autocompletion will surely select that when I type ‘r’, no? No: when you type ‘r’, it lists all the tags containing an r. In fact, if you type ‘read’, it lists all the tags containing that string. And, if you type ‘read<return>’, which surely should mean that I want to tag the post with my existing tag ‘read’, it in fact selects the first tag in alphabetical order containing the substring ‘read’, which matches ‘long-read’. To get ‘read’, I had to type ‘rea’, then down arrow, then return. Which is just stupid; I ended up retagging all of my ‘long-read’ posts as ‘long’ and deleting the ‘long-read’ tag. Why autocompletion from the middle of a tag name is supposed to be a good idea is a mystery to me.

Maybe there’s something in the usage model that I’m missing, and maybe there is a way lurking to see only the posts I want in any given view while having single-key delete. I can’t quite see how, though. So a pity about the rough edges; still, it works well enough for now, and I hope they’ll improve it in the future.

Post Revisions: