Weekly reading lists with Zapier, Evernote, and Slack

A short braindump on "read later" services, and how you can McGuyver your own in a couple of minutes using several services you already use.

Usually when I'm browsing through online content — which is a daily routine — I am not in the reading mindset, I'm more combing through the noise and identifying the stuff that I may be interested in later; later being the key word here. When I find something interesting I put it in a place where I will be able to come back to it when I feel like focusing and reading. This is a habit I've been nurturing for years, and it's how I consume content online.

Over the years I have used various services for this habit of mine, and to be honest since Instapaper went away — I'm talking about the Marco Arment version, not the Digg version — I haven't found an appropriate replacement. Other services either try to do too much — I don't want any suggestions crammed down my throat, thank you — or don't fit into my workflow for some other reason.

It seems like it was only the old Instapaper that did the job well for me, as it:

  • saved the actual content of the article I wanted to read and not just a link,
  • made everything available offline,
  • didn't offer any content suggestions because it understood I have limited time for reading.

Here's what I tried so far:

  1. Pocket — does too much.
  2. Trello — mixes with my work stuff, and it's a hassle to switch accounts.
  3. Chrome bookmarks — it just feels too nineties, and is a hassle to manage.

However, even with Instapaper I had the issue of creating a massive reading backlog that was too intimidating to start plowing through. This is exactly what happened while I was using Trello too; since it offered such an easy way to send content to my reading lists I was very lax about what should go in there and what shouldn't. I would just send it, and think I will curate the lists later.

Now here's the thing, if I keep deferring this curation and consumption for later, it just gets pushed back to infinity and you end up with a list of things you will never get to the bottom of. I've had articles become irrelevant due to how late I was with reading them.

This is when I figured out I need a new system…

Enter Zapier + Evernote + Slack

So, I figured there are two things this new rig of mine needed to do:

  1. enable me to send a link to it from desktop as well as my phone,
  2. save the actual article I want to read (this is more of a nice-to-have, but I really do hate linkrot),
  3. make sure I don't slack off — no pun intended — on reading and curating.

I knew I didn't want to rely on a dedicated third party service for such a simple task; considering how small the market for something like this might be, it seems it's a matter of time before someone pulls the plug and shuts it down, or sells it to another company that will turn it into something I don't want to use.

And I know it's ironic that I am relying on three third party services in my setup, but all three have their own respective business models, and are profitable, so I think I'm good at least for a while.

Naturally, I turned to my trusty old Zapier, and McGuyvered something that has worked incredibly well for me for the past couple of months.

The setup is basically this:

  1. I have created a notebook in Evernote called "Later" that I send articles to using the excellent Evernote's Chrome extension, or it's iOS app.
  2. I have set up Zapier's Digest app to check for new entries within that notebook, collect them into a list, and post it to a Slack channel — as "Laterbot"— every Thursday at 9am.

Evernote* makes sure I have all the important content backed up in article form (I choose whether to save as a bookmark if it's just a site I want to check out, or a simplified article if it's a long-form read) and offers an easy way for me to send stuff to my list, and I generally have Slack opened at all times of the day, so having my week's reading list there creates a sense of urgency for me to go through it, and not put it off. Sometimes I skip a week when I'm really busy, but I have caught up immediately after the next week's notification showed up. Zapier ties it all together perfectly and allows me to create a weekly reading list.

This method has worked surprisingly well for me for a while now, and I recommend it to anyone who is having issues with infinite reading backlogs, or frustration/distrust with "read later" services.

* If Evernote is not your cup of tea, you could use Zapier's Chrome extension to send the links to another service such as Google Sheets, or Airtable, but you would not get the added full article content backup.

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