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Josh Kaufman is the bestselling author of books on business, entrepreneurship, skill acquisition, productivity, creativity, applied psychology, and practical wisdom. About Josh »
Abby Marks-Beale is the author of the Personal MBA-recommended book 10 Days to Faster Reading , as well as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading. If you want to fly through your reading pile, RSS reader, and e-mail inbox at breakneck speed while maintaining consistently high levels of reading comprehension, these speed reading books are for you.
For more information about Abby’s work, check out:
Here are ten big ideas from Abby Marks-Beale’s 10 Days to Faster Reading …
The purpose of non-fiction reading is not to read every word on every page - it’s to extract useful information from the material. Growing up, most of us learned to read by starting with the first word on the first page, then continuing to read until we get to the last word on the last page. Unless you’ve learned structured non-fiction reading techniques, you probably still read this way, even though it’s extremely inefficient.
Efficient reading is non-linear - a series of quick skims, skipping around, referencing, and note-taking. The purpose is not 100% eye-coverage of the text: it’s to extract all of the useful information that’s relevant to what you want to do.
It’s easy to get hung up on “reading the book" as turning pages until there are no more pages to turn. Once you get comfortable with the idea that you don’t have work your way through the entire book linearly to benefit from your reading, you can read much faster, and put the book down when you’ve learned what you need to know.
Most of us have way too much to read. Between books, newsletters, magazines, e-mail, blog posts, and snail mail, our reading pile overfloweth. Until someone invents a Time-Turner that will allow us to keep up with our reading, choices must be made.
Triage helps you read the most critical materials first. In any good hospital Emergency Room, doctors identify which patients need help first - everyone else can wait. Heart attacks get first priority; cases of indigestion can wait a while. The same principle applies to reading: you may have a large pile, but some reading material will be more important than others.
Having a sense of clarity about what you’re trying to do is necessary in order to triage your reading pile effectively. If you’ve taken the time to clearly define your goals (i.e. “what you want"), it’s much easier to figure out if reading certain materials will help you get what you want.
When I was in the middle of writing my book, I didn’t check my blog reader for over four months. That was okay: reading RSS feeds was not as important as writing chapters, so I made a conscious decision not to read them for a while. When in doubt, throw it out or defer the reading to another time.
Effective non-fiction reading does NOT start with picking up the book. You can multiply your reading effectiveness by taking a few minutes before you start reading to decide why you’re bothering to read in the first place. I call this technique “Purpose-Setting."
Purpose-Setting is the act of deciding what you want to learn by reading this material. By figuring out what information would help you, what questions you want answered, and how you intend to apply the material, you’ll make it much easier to recognize useful information when you find it.
I’ve found the best way to purpose-set is to write down 8-10 questions on an index card or in a notebook before opening the book. This effectively programs your brain to look for the information you’re trying to find - a very important concept called “Priming."
Priming is the act of “programming" your brain to notice certain things about your environment. If you’ve ever been interested in a certain type of car, only to find you start seeing them EVERYWHERE you go, you know what priming feels like. The universe hasn’t unloaded thousands of new cars all over the highway - they’ve always been there, but your brain filtered them out as irrelevant. Your interest changed the filters, so you actually notice when they appear.
Priming happens unconsciously, but you can control it if you know what you’re doing. Purpose-Setting works because it gives you an opportunity to consciously “prime" your perceptual filters to notice information related to your interests. That’s what allows you to read so quickly - when you’re sufficiently primed, you can skim through a book quickly until your brain recognizes something as interesting or important. As you skim, you suddenly find your eyes stopping on the part of the text that relates to what you’re looking for. It feels like magic, but it’s just your brain doing its job.
Before you start reading, don’t skip the two richest sources of priming material in the book: the table of contents and the index. The TOC gives you information about the book’s structure, content, and order. The index, aside from being a useful reference tool, is essentially a frequency-map of the book’s key terms. If you find a term you don’t know with a large number of citations, chances are it’s important - write it down on a list of key terms before you start reading.
Purpose-Setting and Priming only take a few minutes. Once you’re done, you’re ready to fly through the book.
The biggest barrier to faster reading is subvocalization: sounding-out words verbally instead of thinking them. Subvocalization is a useful tool in learning to read, but it’s a major speed barrier once our skills have developed. Our minds are capable of taking in written words as thoughts much faster than our ability to vocalize them.
The first step in eliminating subvocalization is realizing that you’re doing it. Pick up a piece of reading material and notice what’s happening in your mind as you read it. If you’re saying the words to yourself as you read, you’re subvocalizing. To stop, simply start reading faster: at a certain point, you’ll be going faster than you can subvocalize, and you’ll be amazed at how much you’re still able to comprehend and retain.
Realizing that you can comprehend written material without subvocalizing is a major milestone that will increase your reading speed dramatically.
Your eyes can easily take in more than one word at a time. Instead of fixating on every word, taking in groups of 3-5 words at a time can increase your reading speed without harming your comprehension. Learning to read more than one word at a time is mostly a matter of training - Marks-Beale includes many exercises that can help you learn this skill.
New speed readers tend to gravitate to eye fixation techniques because they’re concrete, but they’re not the most important part of reading speed. In my experience, Purpose-Setting and Priming are far more important - if you’re trying to get the 80/20, start there. Eye fixation naturally develops with practice and experience.
(Note: a useful tool you can use to train your abilities to read without subvocalizing and taking in more than one word at a time is Spreeder.)
Reading is not a passive activity - it’s not like television, where your job is to simply absorb stimuli. Reading is an active mental process that can result in all sorts of unexpected insights and connections, so it pays to be ready to capture them before you forget.
Don’t hesitate to write as you read. Taking notes does two useful things: it creates an archive of your thoughts for later reference, and it helps reinforce what you learn. Personally, I find the latter most important - if I read something and then write it down, it almost always sticks in long-term memory. The idea capture / archival process is useful for application - you can spark many new ideas by reading older notes.
Note-taking can take many forms. Some people prefer to write notes in the margins of the book itself, some prefer notebooks, and some prefer capturing notes via a computer or other device. Personally, I prefer a physical notebook - it’s easy to carry and easy to reference. Regardless of what you choose, always take notes.
Reading quickly requires intense mental concentration and effort. Done well, it engages your total attention, challenges your skills, and requires focus. If the phone is ringing, e-mail alerts are buzzing, and co-workers are constantly interrupting you, it’s best to find a quiet, pleasant environment where you can focus for longer periods of time.
(Side note: don’t ever let a co-worker give you a hard time for reading at work. Reading is real work, and is often one of the most effective things you can do with your productive time.)
Once of the differences in reading for school and reading for your own self-education is being able to reach out to authors you respect or disagree with and get answers. Since most of us grew up reading school textbooks and assigned material in an effort to pass tests, we often forget that authors are real people who are happy to engage with their readers.
Capturing your thoughts as you read is a major opportunity to discuss and engage with the author and other interested readers. Once you’ve sketched your own thoughts regarding a book, you’re in a much better position to have interesting and useful discussions about the book with others.
I often read material twice: the first pass is non-critical, keeping a completely open mind and trying to understand the author’s key points and position. The second pass is critical: are there elements that are confusing or contradictory? Are there positions I don’t agree with? If so, I write my thoughts down for later reference and discussion.
The purpose of reading non-fiction is not to simply read the book - it’s to learn something useful. While reading is fun (and gets even more fun as you learn these skills), it doesn’t become profitable until you start translating things you’ve read into real-world results.
After reading a good book, you should always be able to add at least 3 tasks to your active to-do or projects list. Capture these actions while you’re reading, and review the list when you’re done. Ideally, these actions should be directly related to accomplishing one of the goals you had in the purpose-setting step.
Effective non-fiction reading is a skill. It takes some time and practice to learn, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll experience enormous gains in your productivity.
Once I learned the material in 10 Days to Faster Reading , I easily quadrupled my reading speed. Now, I can easily sit down with a book for 10-15 minutes and extract most of the valuable information from the text - a task that would previously take me at least an hour.
Here’s an experiment I highly recommend trying for yourself: go to your local bookstore or library, grab 6 books and a timer, and spend no more than 10 minutes trying these techniques on each book. At the end of the 10 minutes, go back and write down in a notebook all of the things you learned. You’ll amaze yourself - guaranteed.