3 min read

Taming Email Newsletters with RSS

Taming the messy inbox

Over the years I've accumulated a large number of email subscriptions. The main problem with this approach is that there are actionable emails (reminders to pay bills, requests for advice, etc) mixed in with asynchronous knowledge consumption packets (newsletters and updates).

This goes completely counter the the philosophy of Inbox Zero. I have emails sitting in my inbox for weeks while I wait to make time to sit down and read through the various newsletters or updates sent my way. It causes stress, and worst of all I spend brainpower re-reading subject lines on emails I don't plan to read at the moment.

It's possible to snooze emails, but that simply kicks the can down the road. The main objective here is to get those emails out of the inbox.

RSS to the rescue

RSS has been around since before this millennium (first released March 15, 1999).

Using RSS, it's possible to subscribe to various "feeds" from blogs and periodicals, and consume them in a consistent UI. The problem there is that there's no good way to filter what you see. Typically you don't read every article from your favorite news site, but instead only read a few that stand out. This can be mitigated with an aggressive filtering process - more on that later.

RSS platform selection

There are many great solutions for consuming RSS. Some of the most well known, self-hosted ones are Tiny Tiny RSS and Miniflux. Personally, as a fan of Golang and Docker, Miniflux was a clear winner. Using my Ansible scripts for Let's Encrypt + Nginx deployment, I was able to spin up a reverse proxy to my docker image in less than 3 minutes.

I wired up the Pocket Consumer Key to Miniflux, and now I can simply tap "Save" and my articles get automatically added to Pocket.

Email to RSS with "kill-the-newsletter.com"

RSS is great, but not all authors provide it. Many folks prefer to have an email mailing list, in order to better track metrics such as conversion ratios, demographics, etc.

While I would love to donate my data to deserving authors, I simply can no longer afford to have my Inbox be a source of stress. Thus, we can use https://kill-the-newsletter.com/ to set up an Email to RSS bridge.

The process is very simple:

  1. Create a new inbox on https://kill-the-newsletter.com/
  2. Sign up using the randomly generated email to the newsletters you would like to read.
  3. Add the RSS url to Miniflux (or your RSS reader of choice)
  4. Check your RSS feed, and click on the "Confirm your email" message if needed.

Done. Now you have an email newsletter happily landing alongside your regular RSS feeds from HackerNews and whatever other media sources your consume.

The Process

The system that I've come up for my own consumption follows this flow:

  1. Open the RSS reader (in my case Miniflux)
  2. Rapidly scan article titles, either as one big list or on a per-feed basis
  3. For each article, mark it as "read" (so it's gone forever), or mark it as "save" (which sends it to pocket)
This process takes less than 3-5 minutes once or twice a day.

Generally less than 5% of articles make it into the next step in the pipeline.

Pocket as a destination

Ultimately, everything that I choose as a candidate for reading lands in Pocket. I like it because it's a consistent UI, supports offline reading, and most importantly integrates with https://readwise.io/. This allows me to take highlights and practice spaced repetition to work on my recall of useful information.

It's worth pointing out that I will read about 30% of the articles that make it into Pocket, and archive the rest without even opening them. This allows me yet another escape valve to relieve the backlog when the list gets too long.

Managing Overhead

Ultimately, the whole point of this system is to reduce overhead and improve the signal to noise ratio of the content we consume. This system provides the following benefits:

  1. Your inbox is purely actionable emails, not passive information that waits to be consumed
  2. You can have a more dedicated and intentional approach to media consumption: only open Miniflux and Pocket when you want to consume media.
  3. You save time by not running a mental "diff" each time you view a news site to see if something new appeared
  4. The pipeline allows you to filter out articles at several points - at the RSS selection, as well as Pocket
  5. Using Pocket -> Readwise, the content you read can be surfaced back to you during your weekly or daily repetition practice.

I hope you find this system useful. You may end up picking different tools, and that's great - as long as you save time and mental overhead, it's progress.