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Here’s How Speedreading Can Help Busy People Process More Information
The Internet can be an overwhelming place, as links shoot past at the speed of light and your bookmarks / favourites list swells unhealthily. Organising lists and feeds can help to order the flow of information, but reading articles just takes time. So much time. And there are so many of them: from the ‘How To’ articles that you’re sure are valuable, to the latest industry updates, to articles shared by family and friends, news about music, events, and people you want to keep up with. That’s not to mention the actual books and magazines you read or are intending to get through. The world today is rich in information and filtering it is a vital survival skill.
Although this more true now than ever, the feeling of being overwhelmed is not new. Ever since the dawn of mass communication and the wide distribution of printed material, people have struggled to make sense of the information available to them.
“Paper work and reading are threatening to engulf modern society. People in every walk of life find it necessary not only to cope with their professional papers, and to follow their ‘trade interest’, but to absorb the increasing daily and weekly rounds of newspapers, magazines, periodicals and books. Expanding knowledge means more to read and less time in which to do it” – Manya and Eric Leeuw, 1965, on the cover of their book Read Better, Read Faster: A new approach to efficient reading.
Do we read any differently than we did in 1965? I set out to find out what we’ve learnt since 1965, what general tools are available to readers. Join me in testing them out and comment or tweet us.
There is an ideal speed for everything, and fast is not always good. “A stew should simmer slowly, but a good steak should be grilled intensely and briefly,” noted complexity thinker Paul Cilliers in an essay on slowness. Reading faster than you can absorb information will not make you cleverer, and there are some forms of reading that are best enjoyed more slowly. Rob Boffard reached this conclusion when testing a speed-reading app for the Guardian, arguing that poetry and nuanced literature are not suited to speed reading. But: having the ability to read quickly and efficiently, and being able to strategically select a reading speed and plan that is appropriate to your purposes is definitely empowering.
Increasing Your Speed: The Best Insights
Reading fast is a pretty desirable ability so there is a lot of advice floating around on the internet. I’ve drawn together the most useful bits, and there are more links at the end if you are really that fascinated by speed reading. Also: all of these skills need practice. You won’t be speedreading overnight, but given a little work each day you should be flying through the pages (or burning up your mousepad) in no time.
Before You Start:
- Ask yourself what your purpose is. Why am I reading this? Are you skimming many articles in order to prioritise which to read, which only requires a little information? Are you seeking specific answers to questions? Do you need a broad outline or a full, detailed understanding? Is this something complex you need to read multiple times? Are you simply pressed for time and need maximum speed? Manya and Eric De Leeuw made this important point in 1965 – time to take it seriously! Once you know what the aim is, design a reading strategy for yourself.
- Begin by previewing whatever you are reading: skim through looking at headings, subheadings, and introductory sentences. This will give you an idea of what is important and unimportant, enabling you to vary your pace accordingly and leave some things out.
- Eliminate distractions: stop multitasking and make sure you won’t be interrupted. Make sure you can focus on reading: concentrating properly will save you time. Focus and read actively, asking questions and thinking as you go along.
Mark Manson’s Advice on Reading
Mark Manson is an author, coach, and public speaker who is known for writing unique perspectives and advice on almost all aspects of self-help. Keeping abreast of all the topics he covers requires buttloads of reading, and Manson has developed simple strategies and tips over time to read faster and retain more. Here’s a summary of his steps to better reading, peppered with titbits from other helpful articles too.
1. Shut Off Your Inner Monologue and Double Your Speed
Children are taught to read by sounding the words out loud. As adults we continue to do this (silently in our heads), which is known as subvocalisation . This is a very inefficient way of reading as generally our eyes can track faster and process way more information without verbalising. Manson suggests using meditation to help unlearn this habit. A few days of practice will yield a big increase in productivity. Spreeder, a speed-reading app, suggests keeping your mouth occupied by chewing gum or humming, which will disengage the part of your brain that does vocalisation and allow you to process the information faster.
Reading words one-by-one (again the way we were taught as children) slows you down and doesn’t harness the power of your brain to filter out unnecessary words and gather information efficiently. Once you’ve stopped subvocalising, the increased speed should prompt your brain to only see important groups of words and miss most of the buffer words, saving time and energy. The important “chunks of words” will stick out, enabling you to rapidly gather the meaning, and the implied relationships between words will help you connect the concepts. This takes practice, and if you’re not getting the meaning you should slow down, reread, and then pick up the pace again.
Rereading too much (for this reason or simply because you lost your place) is known as regression and it can become inefficient: try to keep it to a minimum. MindTools notes that you can avoid regressing by accident by using a pointer or your finger to track the words as you read.
3. (and 4) Be Ruthlessly Selective
“If you are consistently running into shitty ideas, things you already know, or the book is just extremely repetitive (like most self-help books), then just skip entire sections.” Manson highlights this, repeating it in two points. Do Not Waste Time. Do not read whole paragraphs if you are already familiar with the ideas: just read the first and last sentences. If those sentences are especially interesting, or you don’t understand them, then read the full paragraph. This applies particularly to non-fiction. The same concept applies to books: if the book is bad, stop reading it. Manson gives a book 10% of the total pages, and if he doesn’t like it he stops. If only parts of the book are bad, skip sections and only read the parts that are relevant or interesting. Again this comes down to being strategic: for what purpose are you reading this book? Are all of the chapters going to help you achieve it, or only a few?
Manson highlights this, repeating it in two points. Do Not Waste Time. Do not read whole paragraphs if you are already familiar with the ideas: just read the first and last sentences. If those sentences are especially interesting, or you don’t understand them, then read the full paragraph. This applies particularly to non-fiction. The same concept applies to books: if the book is bad, stop reading it. Manson gives a book 10% of the total pages, and if he doesn’t like it he stops. If only parts of the book are bad, skip sections and only read the parts that are relevant or interesting. Again this comes down to being strategic: for what purpose are you reading this book? Are all of the chapters going to help you achieve it, or only a few?
5. Relate Important Information to Things You Already Know
If you are concerned that you’re not retaining anything you read, try making connections between the concepts and other things you already know, concepts you use, or relevant experiences. Memories are storied in our subconscious and you can learn how to make the connections to dredge them back up.
If something you have read is important and you want to make sure you retain it for later: highlight to indicate what’s crucial. Then when you’re done, go back and make notes, then create a short (100-200 word) summary and store it in a database. Don’t do this with everything you read, just the books that you think are really important and worth retaining.
Mark Manson’s full article is definitely worth reading (and his site is a treasure trove) is available here.
How to Hone Your Skills
Learning to read fast and inefficiently will take time and practice – you are changing a life-long habit. Time yourself before you start changing your habits, and track your progress. Average speed is about 200-250 words / minute. Click here to measure your baseline, and then track your progress as you implement changes. Read something every day: start with something relatively easy, and give it 20-30 minutes. Use a pencil or pointer to set the pace, moving it along as you read and following with your eyes.
- iGeeksBlog has a recent list of the top five speedreading apps for iOs, featuring ReadQuick, Syllable, Spreeder and Acceleread .
- ReadWrite has another list that includes Android options here .
- Spritz is being hailed by Buzzfeed as the best thing since sliced bread, and uses Rapid Serial Visual Presentation technology to train you to read faster and faster.
There are plenty of apps, courses and books in addition to these tips. If you decide to give any of these tools a try, please comment / tweet us and let us know how it goes. Did you succeed in increasing your speed? Also look out for follow up book summaries and a review of some apps as I try this out myself.
A slightly different perspective: Speedreading and speedreading apps became a trend in 2013, and LifeHacker wrote an interesting article questioning how useful it really is. The article cites actual research (compared to many of the bold claims made by apps and productivity bloggers), and provides a nuanced perspective on the pros and cons of going faster.
And Even More
Time Ferris is unsurprisingly a pro speed-reader, and he has shared quite a technical article on the PX method, which claims to increase people’s speed of reading by 300%. Read it here.
If you want more depth and slightly more technical information, Rick Hunter is a speed reading coach and 7speedreader.com has a number of his short webinars available as posts and videos here.
Mindtools.com also has offers tips and tools linked to speedreading (such as reviewing and mindmapping) with videos, similar to the one on reading strategy referenced in this article. http://www.mindtools.com/speedrd.html