How to Read Online πŸ“–

A pirate framework for reading online in a structured and effective way.

I am pretty much a process guy.

I always try to reflect on the things I do, how I do them, and turn them into workflows I can write down and improve over time.

A few months ago I published How I Write Refactoring β€” a detailed explanation of what I do every week to create a new article. It became my most successful article at the time, and many people reached out for more advice about writing.

Among the most frequent questions there is one about reading, that is, how do I make sure I keep reading relevant stuff, and I do it regularly week after week?

🍝 Reading is Food

I think at reading / writing as an input / output relationship. To write new articles I need to be inspired by what I get in touch with every day, and what I read plays a major role in that.

But even if I didn't write a weekly newsletter, reading well would be crucial for me as a human being.

Information is like food, so I can ask myself:

  • Am I eating the informational equivalent of junk food?

  • What's the nutritional value of the information I consume?

  • What does my diet looks like, exactly? And why?

πŸ΄β€β˜ οΈ The Pirate Framework for Reading

I have always read a lot, but it's only after I started writing that I developed a process to read online in a structured way.

My process is made of four steps:

  1. 🎯 Aim β€” define your sources.

  2. πŸ“₯ Receive β€” create your inbox.

  3. πŸ” Refine β€” seed your backlog.

  4. πŸ‘“ Read β€” consume items at a later time.

I call it the Pirate Framework for reading, because pirates say ARRR. It is also a nod to the great pirate metrics by Dave McClure.

How does it work? Let's look at each step πŸ‘‡

🎯 Aim β€” define your sources

To begin with, I make two lists:

  1. Topics β€” I want to read about. They can be anything that is of interest to me, work-related or not. I just made a list of <10 areas I want to learn more about.

  2. Sources β€” I currently read. Newsletters, magazines, even my favorite twitter accounts, I list everything that is relevant to me and I keep reading regularly.

After I have these, I can match topics with sources and look at how things look like:

  • Are there topics with few or no sources?

  • Are there topics with too many sources?

From there I can refine both topics and sources, adding / removing a few until I am satisfied with what I have.

πŸ“₯ Receive β€” create an inbox

This second step is a bit counterintuitive.

I believe the best way to consume content is not by directly reaching out for it β€” like you do if you open Twitter and start scrolling β€” but by making the content available to you in asynchronous fashion.

So I create an inbox where to put everything I might read, from which I can refine and choose what to actually consume.

In order for this to be effective, content should come to the inbox by itself. I do this in two steps:

  1. πŸ’Œ Turn everything into newsletters

  2. πŸ“¬ Send all newsletters to the same place

πŸ’Œ Turn everything into a newsletter

I use Mailbrew to create digests about pretty much everything that doesn't already come through email. Among these:

  • Tweets from my favorite accounts

  • New posts from magazines and blogs

  • Top posts from aggregators (e.g. Hacker News, Product Hunt)

  • Stock prices

I heavily recommend Mailbrew, but I realize it is a paid service ($10 / month). In alternative, you can setup something similar (albeit less powerful) for free with Feedly + Zapier.

πŸ“¬ Send all newsletters to the same place

After turning everything into digests and newsletters, make sure they all land to the same place. I created a dedicated email address just for them.

If you have already several subscriptions and it is too much of a hassle to migrate all to a new address, you can match most of those emails with the Gmail filter below πŸ‘‡ and then forward them to the new address:

(unsubscribe OR from:noreply OR from:no-reply OR from:no_reply OR from:do_not_reply OR "[New Article]" OR "[New Post]" OR "make sure you keep getting these emails" OR "this email was sent to" OR "turn off these emails" OR "You’ve received this email because" OR "this e-mail is sent to" OR "this email is sent to" OR "received this email by mistake" -{"confirm your" subject:urgent subject:alert label:notifications}) 

I stole this a while ago from Fabrizio πŸ™ (can't find the exact tweet).

In alternative, Mailbrew has a dedicated space for newsletters now. I don't really use it because when it launched I had already the other system in place β€” but I might switch at some point.

πŸ” Refine β€” seed your backlog

The truth is I still read only ~20% of what comes to my inbox.

This is natural β€” for example, many newsletters I receive are collections of links and I am only interested to a few at a time.

So when I go through the inbox I still triage between items I actually want to read and those I am going to discard. I save articles I want to read later on Instapaper, via the web clipper or by forwarding emails to it.

The web clipper is also useful to save things I find randomly on the internet, without them passing from the newsletter inbox.

The Instapaper list becomes my primary backlog of things to read. It contains only the very best items because they went through two levels of filtering:

  • πŸ… They come from trusted sources that I decided to receive via email (receive step)

  • πŸ” I further selected them among other items in the inbox (refine step)

πŸ‘“ Read β€” consume items at a later time

The final step of the process is to finally read what I have saved!

I mostly read things from my Instapaper backlog, so that means that I very rarely read on the spot. That is, I always save and revisit instead of just reading what is in front of me.

This time-shifting behaviour makes me escape the reactivity loop. By separating the moment I find something that looks interesting from the moment I actually read it, I am able to apply a better judgement to what it is actually worthy of my time.

Many things feel urgent to be read just because of the state of mind we are in. Things we want to read when we are angry, anxious, or bored, are very different from what we want to read when we are happy, or at peace.

By constantly saving content for later, I find that what seemed interesting at a given time, often it isn't anymore even just a few hours later.

πŸƒβ€β™‚οΈ Iterate β€” reflect on the process and improve it

This is a bonus step, but it is essential. It is hard to setup a complex process and make it work for you from day one. It will take time.

Here are a few ideas not to get stuck:

  • ⏱️ Make it a habit β€” At the beginning, schedule fixed times to go through your inbox and save things for later. You can also schedule time to read from the backlog.

  • πŸ™…β€β™‚οΈ Don't you like what you read? Remove / replace sources from which you are rarely saving for later.

  • 🀯 Is your backlog ever growing? Reduce sources or become more restrictive in what you save.

πŸ“š Resources

  • πŸ“½ A Process for Reading β€” I first talked about this topic in this presentation I gave in 2020. I refined the process over time, but many ideas were already there.

  • πŸ“‘ Forte Labs β€” This is not a single article, but an entire blog / newsletter full of incredible insights about managing your personal knowledge. I have been vastly influenced by Tiago's work, and I even attended the latest edition of his Building a Second Brain course.

  • πŸ”¨ Mailbrew β€” I use it to create daily and weekly digests of content I want to read from sources that would be "real-time" otherwise β€” like Twitter, Product Hunt or Hacker News.

  • πŸ”¨ Instapaper β€” I use it to save content for later. My Instapaper list is my source of truth from which I do most of my reading. In alternative, you can also use Pocket.

⭐ Weekly Featured Jobs

Here are the remote jobs featured this week! They are all from great companies and I personally review them one by one.

Browse many more open roles (or add your own) on the full board πŸ‘‡

Check out all Refactoring Jobs


Hey, I am Luca πŸ‘‹ thank you for reading this far!

Every week I read tens of articles and draw from my own experience to create a 10-minutes advice about some engineering leadership topic.

Subscribe below to receive a new essay every Thursday and put your own growth on autopilot!