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Power Reading for Greater Productivity

Photography: Margolove

Time-sucks come in all shapes and sizes. Google Earth, for example, is a planet-sized time-suck that could draw in hours if you were to allow it to — and especially if your Internet connection is running a little slow.

Following Twitter tweets can be a pretty big time-suck too, but they at least come in bite-sized chunks letting you look up and remember that you’re supposed to be doing something more productive.

Much more fatal is research.

That has the dangerous temptation of at least looking and feeling like work. It’s something that needs to be done, and reading — whether it’s surfing online, browsing through a magazine, or leafing through a book — is something that just about everyone has to do if they’re to stay informed about their field and up-to-date with the latest ideas.

Unfortunately, it’s also something that can go on for ever, with one article leading to another and one book to another reference in the bibliography. The result is that instead of pulling out the information you need to know to make the right decisions, you waste hours picking up details that are interesting but unproductive.

Only a small fraction of the time you spend scouring words may actually give you practical knowledge that you can use.

Faster Pussycat, Read, Read!
There are solutions. Speed reading, for example, uses a range of different techniques to help readers absorb written information while spending as little time as possible actually reading it. Those methods might involve skipping the subvocalization (not sounding out the words in your mind as you read them), skimming some sections to focus on others or identifying words without focusing on all of the letters.

That can have some pretty dramatic results. Howard Stephen Berg is reputed to be the world’s fastest reader with a rate of 25,000 words per minute and can even remember everything he reads. He’s unusual. The best speed-readers tend to reach a top speed of 1,000-2,000 words per minute and that comes at a price. Their comprehension rate tends to be a paltry 50 percent, which suggests that at least half those minutes were wasted.

An alternative approach is what philosopher Mortimer Adler has called “Synoptic Reading.” This involves reading around a subject. Rather than focusing on one book in detail, synoptic readers gather a number of different volumes on the topic, and check the table of contents, introduction and conclusion to get a feel for the book and the approach the author takes. They then dip in and out of selected chapters from each book.

The advantage of this system — apart from the time it saves reading each book properly — is that it provides a general picture from a number of different viewpoints. Read just one book on a topic and you might gain an in-depth view from one person; dip into several books and you’ll have an idea of the way several different thinkers approach the same field. You’ll be aware of the different arguments affecting the field and the weaknesses of each approach. Provided, of course, that you can remember what you’ve read and you can understand it based on a quick dip.

Google — The Ultimate Synoptic Reading Tool
In practice, this has become the way people research on the Web. Unless you’re boning up on some esoteric topic of interest only to you and one other person, it will be impossible to read everything that exists online about any field. (And with much of it copied anyway, you won’t need to.) Nor is it easy to find a site that goes very deeply into any topic, offering new knowledge as well as background material.

Googling then might be seen as the last evolution of synoptic reading, the most efficient way to gather information on one topic from a range of different sources — and skim them.

But synoptic reading still takes time, in particular, because it’s never quite clear when you should stop reading. That’s especially true online where one link can lead to another, and before you know it, you’ve somehow drifted from an investigation of the versatility of Ruby on Rails back to the latest posting by Perez Hilton.

The alternative is to read with “Intention Bias.” This involves understanding what you what you want to achieve from your reading, then seeking out the material that supplies it.

Someone interested in using meditation to relax, for example, would pick up a pile of meditation books in a store and only read those chapters that explained how to use the lotus position to lose stress. A synoptic reader would read other parts of the books too and understand that some people believe that meditation isn’t relaxing at all.

So which approach should you take when there’s knowledge to be acquired and time is short?

As is often the case, the best method might be a combination of all of them. Knowing what you’re looking for from your reading will help to reduce the time spent looking at the least relevant information, even if it does limit your knowledge. Dipping into more than one source will help to broaden your knowledge and show where you can go to learn more at a later date.

And reading quickly is always a good idea when you’re not reading for pleasure, if only so that you can move on fast to something more fun.

But perhaps the best advice is to set yourself a time limit. Know when to stop reading and you’ll not only give yourself an incentive to focus, you’ll also increase the chances that you’ll turn that knowledge into action.

One Comment

  1. manny Says:

    great read and good evaluation of the different reading styles

    i use a similar approach, but save some of the least important stuff for later, so i can come back when i get more time.

    that way i can get a good general idea first by reading the most important stuff

    during the break my brain keeps analyzing and can come up with some great ideas

    then i can fine tune the details later on when i come back for the rest.

    if i didnt use this method of saving for later i would procrastinate and postpone work forever since am so interested in a broad amount of topics 🙂

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