My journey to Instapaper Zero

Posted on August 2, 2015

I know the title sounds faintly (ok, a bit more than that) ridiculous, but… it is what it is. If you’ve found this post because you too reached the end of your tether then I hope you’ll understand.

A couple of months ago I had about 1,400 unread items in Instapaper, with things saved over the past 5 or so years. I think the oldest article was from sometime in 2011. I suppose I could’ve declared Instapaper bankruptcy and just deleted everything, but where’s the fun in that?

Now I’m down to a couple of hundred articles, and that number’s ticking down nicely. Here’s how I did it.

Choose your weapon. I found most of the steps below lot easier on iPhone/iPad apps than on the desktop site. Especially sorting – can you even sort on the desktop site?

Know thy enemy. If you haven’t already, put the badge on the app icon so you can see the number of unread articles you’re dealing with.

Get the enemy in your sights. We’re going to be doing a lot of sorting, and you can only sort the articles you’ve downloaded, so go to settings and set the app to download up to 500 articles at a time. If you’ve got more than 500 to work through then you’ll need to keep refreshing as you go along, to bring in more articles.

Stem the flow. Turn off any RSS importing you might have set up. If you’re like me then you probably thought that was a good idea for a day or two, then failed to keep up. Use an RSS reader like Feedly for that sort of thing.

Remove dead wood. Sort your list by ‘Shortest Articles’. Anything that shows ‘Unable to download’ can be deleted straight away. These are likely to be articles that have been deleted. You won’t miss them.

Don’t let things linger. Sort by ‘Read Progress’. Anything that’s been read should be archived or deleted. Use the note feature to save a particularly good paragraph if you like. Maybe save the article somewhere like Pinboard or Evernote, if you do that sort of thing. It shouldn’t be clogging up your Instapaper.

Remove irrelevancies. Sort by ‘Oldest Saved’. Is there anything that looks out of date and no longer worth reading? Get rid of it now.

Remove videos. Youtube and Vimeo have their own ‘save for later’ features. I’d recommend using those instead of Instapaper. I tend to use Instapaper for offline access, which doesn’t work with videos anyway.

Kill off the old and weak. Anything that you’ve already mostly read, or is very short, should be finished off when you’ve got an idle moment. Sorting is your friend.

Multi-task. Use the text to speech feature to listen to articles when you’re doing other things, like walking around, doing the washing up and that sort of thing.

Keep at it. You’ll get there. Really.

A couple of notes:

  • I’m finding that I’m still adding things to Instapaper as normal – I’m no more discerning than before, but I am keen to clear articles sooner.
  • I found that my threshold for ‘worthwhile reading’ went up as I went along. After a quick skim I was much more likely to delete something if I felt it wasn’t worth my time.
  • I’ve not set myself any targets and I’m not tracking my progress. I can see that number on the app icon getting smaller over time, and that’s good enough for me. If you want to go a different route then you should.
  • I saved some good stuff! I’ve found some really good articles from a couple of years ago that have been worth discovering. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d just deleted everything, so hooray for that.

Final thought: it’s a slow grind. It’s taken me a couple of months to get down to where I am now and shifting the last few hundred articles is going to take a while – there are some big ones in there. At least things look a bit friendlier now.

I hope this helps.