Knowledge work is frustrating.
You spend years getting good enough at something so that an employer will pay you to do it for them.
But knowledge isn’t static. Your skills constantly need updating. If you don’t stay up-to-date you’ll soon be obsolete.
In this post I offer some ways for you to make sure that nothing important happens in your niche without you knowing about it.
Via alerts, feeds, and newsletters you can be the most clued-up person you know.
Parts of this system will take some time to set up and tweak. You’ll also need to make adjustments over time so that you receive only the best and most relevant information specific to your industry.
I really think that it’s worth the time investment to make sure you understand the direction that your field is heading.
Of course, you’ll need to find the time to read and take notes in order to synthesise all this information.
And then you must find time to take actions based on your new knowledge. After all, you learn by doing.
Anway, here’s how to stay up to date and at the top of your profession.
You’re probably aware of Google Alerts. It’s an amazing tool.
Set up alerts for a series of keywords that reflect your niche. Spend some time thinking about these. A rule of thumb: If you were scanning a newspaper/magazine what words in the title would peak your interest?
Aim for a mix of alerts that cover the core areas of your industry and also some of the emerging trends.
From the good people at Google:
Tips for creating alerts
- Try to be as precise as possible. The more precise your search terms are, the more relevant your alerts will be.
- Use quotes around a group of words if you are looking for them together. For example, “White house”
- Use a minus sign (-) in front of words that you want to leave out. For example, paris -texas.
- Use the site: operator to limit your search to specific sites. For example, congress site:nytimes.com.
Initially, you’ll probably find that your searches are either too broad or too specific and you won’t find the search results useful.
For the first week or so be sure to tweak the alert’s search terms in order to filter out irrelevant information.
For example, if you’re interested in news on Jam (the food) make sure to add the negative search term for music (- music) so that your alert doesn’t pick up irrelevant results.
With 5-6 well-defined alerts hitting your inbox each day you will quickly know what’s happening in your areas of interest.
Blogs / Newsletters
There are almost certainly some blogs and newsletters in your field that you really should subscribe to.
To find them, Google “[Your specialism] + blog”. Most decent blogs have a newsletter, too. Google is pretty good at finding quality blogs: its algorithm rewards websites that consistently produce great content around your specific search terms.
Use your own intuition as well and be selective. Only subscribe to the best information sources otherwise your bloated inbox will be a major drain on your productivity.
On many newsletter platforms you are able to search previous editions via an archive (i.e. on Mailchimp). Find these and check whether the blog is actually relevant and high-quality.
Sign up to the newsletters that look like they might be a good fit, set yourself a calendar reminder for a month’s time, and then ruthlessly unsubscribe from any that haven’t added value.
Protect your inbox in order to defend your time. Reading bad newsletters steals time that would be better spent reading the good newsletters.
RSS feeds are a Godsend for knowledge workers.
I highly recommend using Feedly to manage your RSS feeds, which lets you categorise and tag them.
When you discover a website or blog that covers your industry, add the RSS feed to your feed reader.
As with newsletters, only subscribe to the best. If you find that you never read the posts of any particular blog, unsubscribe.
Again, set a calendar reminder to purge your blog feeds every few months.
[Note: Should you subscribe to an RSS feed or get the newsletter? It’s up to you. Do you prefer information in your email inbox or in a separate space? As much as possible, I try to keep email for communication rather than reading; I favour RSS feeds wherever I can.
If you don’t like RSS feeds, you can always use Blogtrottr. Blogtrottr converts RSS feeds into email alerts if you prefer to keep everything centralised in your inbox.]
What if an important website in your field doesn’t have an RSS feed or newsletter?
For retro, 1990s-style websites that you really need to monitor but that don’t have any dynamic way to alert you to new content, use Change Detection.
This website will send you an alert when a static page is altered. Job done.
Not as specific but still useful as a source of relevant information, topic-based websites can have a role in your information gathering system.
Newsnow is a fantastic news aggregation website. If some aspect of your niche isn’t covered then you really are working in an obscure area.
Another useful, topic based aggregation website is Alltop.
Some major news sites have very niche, topic based RSS feeds. For example, NYT, NPR, and the Guardian. Find the topics that are relevant to your niche and subscribe to the feed:
Cutting-edge academic literature
Going straight to the latest research is a great way to stay way ahead in your field.
Two easy ways to do this:
1. Sign up to Google Scholar alerts
Like Google Alerts, but focused on academic literature. Pick your search terms carefully – remembering that academics love jargon and add layers of complicated language to simple concepts. Tweak these terms often to keep them relevant.
2. Locate relevant academic journals and subscribe to their RSS feeds
Search for the most relevant academic journals in your field. Most publishers now provide RSS feeds for new journal articles. Keep an eye out for the most relevant new findings.
To find relevant journals to monitor, start with these:
Read the hot new books in your field
For some of their categories, Amazon generates RSS feeds. This is a great way to learn about the new books that are available in your niche.
Believe it or not, reading books is a great way to stay up to date in your field. (Perhaps this section should be at the top of this post – READ MORE BOOKS).
There are some very good reasons to read ‘physical’ books over e-text, which I wrote about here: Going Paperless Is Not the Answer
Use Twitter as your listening post
With some up-front curation, you can make Twitter an invaluable information source.
Think of all the organisations related to your field. Which conferences do you go to? Do the organising institutions have active twitter accounts? Add them to a Twitter list.
Next, take a look at the schedules for these conferences over the past few years. Most conferences release schedules in PDF format.
Look at the talks/seminars that you would have gone to. Note down the speakers and search for them on Twitter. If they pop up, add them to a Twitter list.
Create Twitter lists for each specialism that you want to monitor. Try not to have more than, say, 30 in any one list otherwise you’ll lose track of what’s happening.
It’s far better to have command of fewer accounts in a narrow specialism than add everyone who has, for example, the #marketing tag in their profile.
Follow interesting people
If there are individuals who lead your field (the current buzzword is ‘thought leader’), you’ll want to make sure you know what they’re up to; you want to learn from the best.
Set up a Google Alert for their name. Set up a ‘must follow’ list in Twitter and add them. Subscribe to their blog.
This isn’t about celebrity worship. If you don’t find that an ‘influencer’ adds value to your daily work, ditch them.
You only have so much time to learn each day so too much self-promotional content from any one source should prompt you to cut the feed.
Protect your attention – keep your lists and alerts tidy!
Tend to your digital garden: regularly take the time to make sure that alerts, feeds, and lists are aligned to your professional goals.
- Avoid swamping yourself with information. Be selective.
- Narrow down your scope where ever you can. Be specific.
- Never overthink hitting the unsubscribe button. (If you truly miss that particular source, you’ll remember and can resubscribe later.) Be ruthless.
IMPORTANT – Don’t forget to create as much as you consume.
It’s really easy to spend ALL your time staying up to date on what’s happening in your field.
But don’t over do it.
You must take deliberate action to progress as a professional. Give yourself the time to do new things based on your reading: right now, put recurring time in your calendar under ‘Create Something’.
If you find that you’re overwhelmed by all the new stuff that’s happening in your field and that you have no time to take action yourself, this is a clear sign that you need to narrow your niche.
Strike a balance between reading new things and trying new things.
If you get too far out of kilter then you’ll be either book-smart but totally impractical or be working on projects that are years out of date.
This workflow is how I (do my best) to stay up to date and conscious of what’s happening in my areas of interest.
It takes a little time and effort to get up and running but afterwards you can spend just 15 minutes a day to survey your field. That means more time to actually do your job and add value to your company/clients.
You might also want to check out an older post: How to archive everything you read online.