Jan 01, 2020
It’s the New Year and there is a surge in committing to self-improvement. Sometimes it's not about doing more of the action, but doing it better.
In this post, I want to share some practical tools that you can use to improve your reading process. From teaching over 500 people how to improve their reading and memory skills, I have noticed that everybody has reading habits, most of which they are unaware of. This is a list of tools and habits that I use to get the most out of the time I spend reading and retain the nuggets of wisdom and insight that I find on the page.
This may seem incredibly obvious to many people but this is a rule that I had to implement upon myself. Sometimes we see a book in a store or a suggested book on Amazon, or come across an article online that is related to a topic that we think we will need to know about in the future, and we dive right in to read it. Last year when I was travelling in Ukraine I saw an interesting book on Neuroplasticity called Elastic, it’s a topic I had been wanting to learn more about but it wasn’t really on my list of priorities. I tried to read it for two days but couldn’t connect with the book because at the time I was interested in reading books on other topics. Six months later I was ready to start reading up on neuroscience and I was able to breeze through the book. This has happened to me so many times in the past where I would battle with myself to read a book that I knew was interesting but I wasn't so interested in. So if you are struggling with a book you’re trying to read, think about whether it is relevant to you right now.
2. Read with Intent
This follows on from my previous point about reading for now but this is probably the most important habit to instil for more effective reading. Reading is an active exercise. You are mining for information to build upon your current foundation of knowledge. To do this well you need to be aware of why you are reading something, and what you already know about the topic.
So before you choose to read a book, look through the chapter titles and read the opening paragraph of each chapter, and if you are reading an article, read the opening sentence of each paragraph while constantly asking yourself the following questions;
A. Why do I want to read this book/article?
B. Is this relevant to me right now?
If your answers to these questions indicate that the book/article will bring you immense value then make sure you are very clear on your intent for reading. If you are reading a book, the most effective way to do this is to take a blank piece of paper and map out what you already know about the topic, this may be from previous reading on the topic or just some assumptions that you might have. On the same page, create a separate map laying out what you wish to learn more about and where you plan on implementing the new information. Return to this map halfway through the book and at the end to add to the map that you created. Highlight any changes of perception on the topic and new lessons learned.
You want your mind to be less like a storage unit with junk piled everywhere and more like a collection of bank vaults where your knowledge is organized and stored. We ingest information today like junk food thinking that more information leads to better performance, but it is almost the opposite, knowledge is valuable in its application and to do that we have to have the endpoint insight.
3. Check Yourself
One of the most common issues that people have when reading is a lack of focus. People who attend the Speed Reading workshops often tell me that they can start off reading with a searing focus and intensity but after just a few pages that fades and their minds begin to wander. There are many ways to further focus when reading and I will discuss them in further detail in coming posts, but for this overall process to read better I will offer you two very effective and simple solutions.
A. Start with the end in sight
When we are reading a book we all have this internal competition with ourselves to read until the end of a chapter, and with each passing page we hope that the chapter is coming to a close. There comes a point where we have kind of tapped out but continue to read because we have to push on to the end of the chapter. Does this sound familiar to you?
It is so helpful to start reading with a cut-off point in mind, i.e there are 30 pages left in this chapter but I don’t have enough time to read until the end so I will read 15 pages and finish the rest tomorrow. The simple act of choosing when you plan to finish brings much more peace to your mind when you read and allows you to focus on the words before you.
B. Give yourself breaks
If you are sitting down to do quite a long reading session then break it up into 25-minute increments. Read for 25-minutes and take a 5-minute break doing anything but reading, allow your mind to focus on something else. This will sustain you to read for much longer and help you maintain a sense of urgency while reading. This practice can also be used for work or study to maintain productivity over a longer period of time.
4. Separate the Act of Reading from the Act of Memorizing
When we are reading we are often trying to balance 4 acts at the same time, reading fast, comprehending the material, connecting with the narrative, and memorizing what’s valuable.
These four acts are constantly competing with each other for our mental energy and processing power. The act of reading should be simply focused on speed and comprehension, with memorization coming afterwards.
As I mentioned in, #2 Intent, we should already know what the narrative structure of a book or article from reading the opening paragraphs of each chapter in a book, or the opening sentence of each paragraph in an article. By doing this we see the journey of the writer's argument and already have an idea of their central message. Seth Godin refers to this as ‘the joke’, and as an author of 18 books, he makes the point that every book has a ‘joke’ and the quicker you can find it the better.
With the awareness of the writer's argument, you can just focus on connecting with the message and finding what is most relevant to you.
If you come across something that is interesting make a note of it and eventually add it to your mind map that was created at the beginning. Trying to memorize the information as you read it will just slow you down.
Possibly the most valuable tool that I have developed in my reading experiments is the use of a legend when I read. In the past, I would write lots of notes in the margins but it was extremely time-consuming to go through everything after I had read it. So I created a legend with icons that denote a value or action to take.
X - Interesting
XX - Relevant
XXX - Critical Information
G - Google this
Q - Save as a quote
This helps so much when you flick through a chapter that you just read or pick up a book that you want to review because your eyes are drawn to the important information. Using the G for Google helps because then you can Google everything in one sitting instead of picking up your phone each time and probably getting sidetracked by notifications and other distractions. I still write notes alongside these icons and when I do I always make sure it is something familiar to me or as relevant as possible to what I already know. The mind grows when you build knowledge on top of the foundation you already have so if you want to remember or connect with new information that you have read that try to make it familiar and link it to what you already know.
Happy New Year!
If you found any of these points helpful or have questions on reading and learning you can email me at [email protected]