Reading articles on iOS: My workflow revisited

I believe reading is integral to personal development. Even when done as a leisure activity, it aids the development of your cognitive skills, restructures your thinking and boosts your productivity. We should probably all be doing more of it.

Reading on the iPad

Reading the news and articles on topics such as tech and health comprises a large chunk of the tasks I pursue on my iOS devices.[1]

In fact, reading has become the hallmark of my use of the iPad. Some people question the role of the iPad within a personal setup due to the existence of larger size iPhones. From my point of view, this notion does not hold up. In terms of reading, the iPad is in a whole different class which to me cannot be replaced by the iPhone.[2]

The iPad and its capabilities as a reading device are at the core of why I have started to question the role of the Mac in my setup. While I am still struggling to establish proper workflows for scientific writing and creating slides on iOS, reading is something that I do on iOS only these days. I prefer the immediacy and connectedness that reading on an iOS device provides, especially when compared to reading on a computer. Due to the iPad, I haven’t read a paper-printed magazine in a long time.[3] When I’m reading on my iPad, I feel close to the text, more so than I do on OS X. There is something about touching the screen that helps me process the content on a deeper level.

The pleasure and focus that I get from reading on my iPad is the reason why I am looking for ways to make iOS my only operating system at use. I believe it can foster my learning and reading habits in powerful ways. Looking back, reading on a computer has never quite worked well for me.

Where I get my articles from

Most of my casual and personal reading these days is split up in between my aggregated RSS feeds and links that I collect from Twitter.[4]

This bifurcation of input from where I collect stories to read, poses its challenges when it comes to an integrated reading experience. To bridge the gaps, I have forever relied on read-later services that collect all my links of interest wherever I happen to stumble upon them. My read-later app of choice has long been Pocket which is an Internet favorite. While some people have doubled down on Pocket in the recent past, I am starting to jump this ship. In recent months, I have changed my RSS reading system. Instead relying on a chain of specialized apps, my new approach has made my reading more efficient and less of a burden. The backbone of my RSS system since the demise of Google Reader has been Feedly. However, I hardly ever use the standalone Feedly app for any reading and only occasionally open it to subscribe or unsubscribe from feeds.

How I read RSS feeds on iOS

To display my RSS feeds, I now exclusively use Silvio Rizzi’s magnificent app Reeder. Over the years, I have dabbled with quite of few RSS readers, but Reeder is the one that has ultimately stuck with me. In the past, Reeder has been my place of triage. I used the app primarily to browse my RSS feeds and do a first sorting. Articles that I wanted read, I used to save out to Pocket.[5]

This is where I didn’t take advantage of the potential that Reeder itself offers. It’s in fact a much greater way to read articles than Pocket. I found that I was missing out by clinging to the notion that I need Pocket as a collect-it-all box where I’ll finally catch up on my reading. I love Reeder’s elegant design and the overall swiftness of the app. It’s much faster and cleaner than Pocket (and Instapaper, for that matter) are. I’m especially intrigued by the typographic and layout choices that Reeder provides. It further offers the option to invoke Safari View Controller which nowadays is a make-or-break for any app to me.[6]

If an article is of particular notice, I will favorite it with a star in Reeder and it’s saved right there for later access. Reeder also integrates smoothly with all kinds of sharing services including Safari Reading List. Reeder provides all the tools I need for my RSS reading in a beautiful package. There is no need to add another layer of complexity on top of it.

Why I no longer use a third party read-later service

Today, I am done with dedicated read-later apps and here is why: My Pocket is a mess. It’s chucked up with articles that I won’t ever read. It has countless tags that I never use. I follow numerous people whose recommendations I never look at. It’s ugly, slow and expensive. It doesn’t add value but more friction to my reading. I already have too many full buckets and to-do lists in my life. Getting rid of tasks that never get finished helps my mental clarity and support a sense of accomplishment. My Pocket list is one of those buckets that I have had to repeatedly give up on. I have gone through repeated purges in which I have declared read-later bankruptcy and simply archived all my saved articles. However, the heads of the Pocket hydrahave always grown back. I have been suffering from obsessive reading-list hoarding for too long. All too easy, I find myself falling back to this unhealthy habit. I just can’t let go of articles that I consider important reads. What if I miss out on something?The mess that my fear of missing out has created is distressing to look at. “I haven’t read this great article from two months ago. I must be missing out.” But what am I to do? While the promise of read-later seems to be working great for a certain set of articles which I will quickly read up on after storage, others I will forever defer. These are the ones that get stuck in the cue. Because of FOMO and my tendency of being an Upholder, it’s hard for me to let them go.[7]

Pocket encourages hoarding behavior more than it does the completion and clearance of articles. It is called read-later, but it’s not supposed to make you feel guilty about articles that you don’t find the time to come back to. My Pocket always felt like a failure. As a mere storage system for future reference, Pocket has its shortcomings. There is less friction when working with articles or citations from Safari than from within Pocket. If I need to refer to an article for a writing project, I prefer to use my note system which is comprised of Drafts, Notes.app and Ulysses. Over the years, I hardly ever found myself using the advanced features that are supposed to make Pocket stand out. I rarely use the search functions of Pocket that would justify the extensive tagging I do. Ironically, most of the articles in my Pocket cue contain more than one tag. It became a strange obligation to me to put tags on any article that I added to Pocket. Most articles that I read easily fall into several categories within tags such as science, health, fitness and nutrition or Apple, tech, gadgets and apps. It’s cumbersome to assure each article is properly tagged. What’s it really good for in the end? I can’t remember the last time that tagging in Pocket has made a difference in finding an article I was looking for. It’s just another layer of complexity that doesn’t pay off. I can’t say that Pocket’s smart lists or the recently added recommendation features have worked for me, either. I just never use them. For recommendations, I prefer Twitter or Facebook where I already curate lists of people worth following. To me, reading depends a lot on how text is presented on a canvas and with Pocket’s meager choice of typefaces that don’t particularly appeal to me, I never felt satisfied.[8] Why can’t I choose San Francisco now that it’s the standard all through iOS?

The fairly recent subscription and ad models that Pocket introduced only reinforced the doubts I have about the service. To me, the whole thing is no longer worth it. Instead, I am reconsidering my reading workflow from the ground up. Instead of switching from Pocket to Instapaper or a similar service, I wonder whether I need a dedicated read-later app at all. Why not go for a simpler, more streamlined reading experience instead? What’s wrong with just using Reeder and Safari? For those moments where read-later makes sense, can’t I go by with what iOS itself has to offer?

Switching to Safari Reading List

I have somehow dismissed of Safari Reading List from the moment that Apple announced it. I think I have done so in an unjustified manner. After a couple of weeks that I have now done my deferred reading with Reading List only, I have started to like it. Even though it has its obvious shortcomings, it’s a functional representation of my own habits when it comes to reading articles:

  • I have always been a top-to-bottom user of Pocket. I prefer to read newer stuff. The older an article gets within my reading list, the less likely I am to read it.
  • I find it hard to read articles in chunks. If I close an article half-read, I’ll rather start it all over again the next time I open it than continue from where I stopped before.
  • I am a mark-as-read-when-opened kind of guy. That’s why I am fine with Reading List’s binary choice of read or unread articles.
  • I am choosing articles based on headers, teasers and images and that’s the mode that Reading List happens to provide.
  • Smart lists and tags that I added myself are secondary when I am choosing what to read.
  • Reading List is only a tap away from Safari. I can easily switch between the Reader view and the web view, both of which are greatly superior reading experiences than the options that Pocket provides.
  • Add to Reading List is a native feature of the share sheet and it works quicker than the Pocket extension. It’s also easier to add articles from Facebook to Reading List than it is to add these articles to Pocket.
  • Reading List is lean and focused. It’s not about discovering new stories.[9] It’s not about adds and upsells. It doesn’t want to suggest further reading and I happen to like that.
  • If Reading List gets filled up with articles, it’s easy to mark them as read or to delete them.

Reading List is not perfect. It has its own shortcomings (like being hidden too deeply within Safari), but for the time being I can live with them. By obviating the need for dedicated apps like Pocket, it has helped me cut back on overhead that I once considered central to my workflow. Now, things are no longer unnecessarily complex and I can read more and worry less about it.

 

  1. Besides reading basic news articles and RSS, I have to do a lot of my reading in PDFs for my work in academia and science.

  2. Let alone in terms of writing.

  3. I hardly read books on paper, either, except for my medical textbooks which weigh like 5 pounds each.

  4. As I have done some restructuring of my Facebook timeline, I find myself saving an increasing amount of articles from there as well.

  5. After a short intermezzo with Instapaper in my early days as a new iOS convert, I have stuck with Pocket and never went back.

  6. I really dislike how Pocket as well as the Facebook and Twitter apps use their own inferior browser views.

  7. One of the strategies I used to keep a balance in Pocket was the integrated text-to-speech feature. It lets Siri read an article to you, thereby practically turning it into a podcast.

  8. The typography and the display options that Instapaper has had for years, have been the reason why I have kept my Pocket list connected with my Instapaper account via IFTTT. Just in case I would one day feel the urge for a transition.

  9. The exception being the list of recommended articles from Twitter within Safari. I don’t use that one, however.