By December 16, 2010 14 Comments Read More →

How To Read Faster

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“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” — Dr. Seuss

I promised my readers to share ways to read faster.   I originally posted this on my work blog, but now I’m sharing it here with a wider audience.

One key note up front – I read for pleasure slowly, but when I read to learn or for work, I read very quickly.  I only use these techniques when I’m reading non-fiction, to learn, or as part of the job.

I’ve learned to read faster out of necessity.  I get a lot of email, and I don’t like to spend time in my email.  I do a lot of research while creating prescriptive guidance, and reading comes with the turf.  I regularly spend $200 – $300 a month on books as well.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Microsoft, it’s that extreme scenarios lead to the fastest growth, and necessity is often the mother of invention.

The Quick Answer on How to Read Faster

Before we start, if you want the short answer to reading faster, simply use sticky notes.  As you read through pages, ask yourself, “How can I use this?” and turn the information into a one-liner insight or action, write it in the sticky note and stick it on the page.  You can turn a several hundred page book into a short-set of actionable sticky notes.  I wish somebody told me this years ago.

With the quick answer out of the way, let’s dive deeper and elaborate.  My approach is extremely effective, but It’s not magic.  It’s simply a matter of know-how and learning little distinctions over time, that all add up.  I’ll share the key bottlenecks, the core process, then follow up with some additional tips.

3 Steps to Read Faster

These steps are optimized for reading paperbacks or printed books, but you can adjust the process to emails, articles, or whatever.  Here is a summary of the steps:

  • Step 1. Build a mental model of the material.
  • Step 2. Read to answer your questions.
  • Step 3. Use sticky notes to capture and consolidate insights and actions.

Step 1. Build a Mental Model of the Material.

Before you start reading the material, you need to size it up.  By making a quick mental model or map of the material, you will make it easier to learn the information or read through it faster.  It’s always faster when you have a map, even if it’s just a simple, high-level idea.  The point is to simply frame it out.
To do this, skim the book (or email, or article) end to end.  This is your dry run.  Your goal is to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land (chapter names, key headings, key concepts).  Think of this as mapping the terrain.

A good outcome of this step is that you know how the information is mostly structured.  For example, if it’s a fat book, I flip from the back to the front to see if it’s the type of author that leads to all the best information in the back.  I want to get a sense of the density of value as well.  Does the author take one point and stretch it out for miles, or do they keep pivoting off the same point, or do they pack in a lot of points of information along the way.  This helps me pace, know what to skip, and where to drill deep.

Step 2. Read to Answer Your Questions.

In this step, you identify questions and you use them to drive your reading.  This makes your reading actionable, relevant, and engaging.  Questions help you focus and they tell you when you’re done.  You’re done when you’ve answered your questions.

Drive from a a baseline set of questions.  Information is useful when it solves a problems, answers a question, or helps you perform a task.  The short-cut through any information is to jump to the question, and use the question as a lens for the information.  For example, is this email action or FYI?  If it’s action, then “who does what when?” … and if necessary, “why”?  Tip – You can quickly generate useful questions by skimming the back of the book or the inside cover, and from the chapter heading and paragraph headings.  This is also how you can quickly figure out whether the information is even relevant for you.

Step 3. Use Sticky Notes to Capture and Consolidate Insights and Actions.

I already gave this away, but this is gold.   Sticky notes are your friend.  As you answer your questions, turn them into insight or action and write a one-liner note down onto your sticky note and stick it on the page, so it sticks out beyond the page.  This way, when you put your book back on the shelf, you can quickly flip back through and pick up wherever you left off, or go back and refresh your mind on the key insights.  You can also type up your one-liner notes if you want to boil down your insights or lessons learned.

What’s important here is that you are creating little ticklers for your mind.  Simply jotting down notes can help remind you what’s important.   If it’s electronic information, such as email, or an article, or an e-Book, you can still jot the notes down on your sticky note, but you obviously won’t stick them to your screen.

Key Bottlenecks to Reading Faster
Here are the key bottlenecks to reading faster:

  • Comprehension. Reading faster doesn’t help if you don’t comprehend what you’re reading.  Your reading speed will always be gated by your comprehension.  The good news is that your comprehension is likely already faster than your current reading speed, and you can speed up your comprehension.  A quick way to speed up your comprehension is to focus on building mental models, and asking better questions as you go.  Once you have a mental model for something, it’s easy to incrementally render your knowledge.  When there’s nothing to hang the information off of, then you have to work harder to make sense of it or understand it.
  • Eye speed.   Don’t let your eyes limit you.  Unless you train your eyes to move faster, it’s likely that they slow you down.   I learned this when I had to dramatically increase my speed with email.  It’s not just scanning, it’s actually teaching your eyes to up the pace.    I used EyeQ, by Infinite Minds, to increase my eye speed.  I was amazed by just how much faster my eyes could move through some quick training.  Once I got used to moving my eyes faster and learned what that felt like, I didn’t rely on the training anymore.  I mostly used it to get over a hump and get to a new level.
  • Subvocalization.  Sounding out your words with your larynx, even inside your head, slows you down.  If you want to read faster, don’t subvocalize (as much.)  Just like your eyes, your voice can slow you down.  This video on how to read faster explains the process and how to reduce or eliminate it, to dramatically speed up your reading speed.
  • Mindset.    If your mind says “slow”, then your eyes won’t go.  Think sprint or series of sprints versus marathon.   To read faster, you need to both want to read faster, and your mindset needs to match.  It’s also about being fully engaged.  This reduces distractions, increases focus, and improves comprehension.  The simplest way to put this is be an active reader versus a passive reader.  Flipping the switch makes all the difference.
  • Distractions or tangents.   Whether it’s a shiny object or an interesting rabbit hole, or just your own wandering thoughts, there are lots of ways to get distracted while you read.  There is a quick fix.  You can change your focus by changing the question.  I’ll share some key questions you can use within the process.  One quick way to stay on track is ask, “What’s the point?” or “What’s the insight?” or “What’s the action?”

Additional Considerations to Read Faster

  • Don’t slow down for speed bumps.  If there’s stuff you want to drill into more, just write it on a sticky and then revisit.  This way you don’t slow down for speed bumps and then you can give your speed bumps more focused time.  Sometimes moving past a speed bump will help you understand it once you have more of the book under your belt.
  • Make multiple passes.   If you’re getting stuck on something, move on, then circle back.  Sometimes things are way easier to absorb on the second or third time through.  Of course, if other information depends on this as a building block, then make sure you get the foundation in place.  The key here is to make sure you don’t stop for every roadblock.
  • If you get tired or you’re not engaged, stop.  if I get tired or distracted, I just stop.  Otherwise, I read a bunch of pages but miss all the points.  It’s better to just take a break and come back when I’m ready.  Sometimes even just a 5 minute break is enough.
  • Switch gears before you start.  Switch out of passive mode up front, and start out as an active reader from the start.  Setting the stage here makes everything else easier.
  • Point the way.  Don’t make your eyes work too hard to figure out where they left off, each time you blink.  Use your index finger to point the way as you skim through.
  • Set a limit in time or quantity.   It’s hard to keep a fast pace indefinitely.  It’s easier to sprint if you can see the end in mind.  You can set simple limits either in terms of time, such as read in a burst for 20 minutes.  You can set limits in terms of quantity, such as read a chapter or 20 pages, etc.  The point here is that rather than read until you’re done, chunk it up into easy mini-milestones so you can stay engaged and keep your pace, and allow for breaks.

If you have a tip or trick on how to read faster, I’d like to hear it.  I’m especially interested in speeding up comprehension.  I think I’ve pushed my main bottleneck to my comprehension speed.

14 Comments on "How To Read Faster"

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  1. I find Amazon’s Kindle ability to highlight areas and add notes, and then be able to browse them on your profile web page (or even share them to myself or others) has drastically improved how I consume and index the content I go through for later reference.

    I also like that you can adjust the font size dynamically to suit your environment, mindset, and so on – and if you really want to put things on background, just ask the book to read out loud to you in fast mode!

    I do 90% of my (professional) book and article reading on Kindle these days and it definitely has improved the ‘post-its’ workflow!

  2. Really good stuff here! I especially like that part about quitting when you are tired. So many times I have tried to read when I was just too pooped and not only is the process much slower but I find I don’t retain the information anyway, making it a big waste of time.

  3. JD says:

    @ Eduardo — Beautiful tips! I especially like your point on how you can easily change the fonts to match your mood and how you can set the Kindle to read to you in fast mode.

    @ Clearly Composed — Thank you. I think that’s one of the hardest things to come to terms with is that it’s not the time we spend, but what we absorb that counts. Spending more time doesn’t translate to more value. It’s all about recognizing diminishing returns, and optimizing the time we do spend (so that we can free ourselves up for other things.)

  4. Jk says:

    J.D. – this was so helpful. Obviously I can read – but I notice that when I speed read (better yet, TRY to speed read)out goes the comprehension.

    -Sticky Notes: this is brilliant. And, I can see this making me pay particular attention to the content so that I can sum it up in one sentence. Great idea!
    -Subvocalizastion: that was a great insightful video.

    This was very valuable to me. Thanks J.D.

  5. JD says:

    @ JK — Thank you. I think you’ll find that you’ll get really fast pretty quickly, especially with comprehension, just by asking questions as you read, and stickies are a great help.

    The more I think about it, the one question that really helps me the most is, “How can I use this?” … it very quickly forces me to distill the insight and action, and it just keeps getting easier.

  6. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. love the stick notes idea; I guess part of your 3 steps – is to identify succinctly why you’re reading the book – why you decided to read it – and what you think you’re going to get out of it .. all available before you open the first page: your steps 1 and 2, then enhanced by your sticky notes ..

    Better set out in your elaborated steps 1 and 2 ..

    Step 3 – are you using Evernote .. it doesn’t seem like it?

    I’ll be back to look at EYEQ, and to watch the video ..

    Really useful tips & I really like the idea of a Kindle now! after Eduardo’s recommendations .. and he moves, and is busy ..

    Thanks – I’m definitely going to try these .. great thoughts ..

    Have a great Christmas and festive period .. Hilary

  7. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. just had a quick look at the EYEQ … one negative comment – but I don’t think they really understood the concept, and another comment gave it the thumbs up .. as you obviously have done here. Sometime I’ll have another look. The Speed Reading .. is definitely something to try .. and I’ll give that a go – seems a funny way of doing things! .. but why not .. all grist to the mill and probably will definitely help.

    Thanks – cheers Hilary

  8. JD says:

    @ Hilary — That’s right. One of my mentors long ago said, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re not going to see it.” He was right on multiple levels.

    Just by starting with the mindset of getting something out of everything you read, gives you an enormous advantage because your brain goes into “hunter and gatherer” mode.

    I use little yellow sticky pads. While I might transfer to Evernote, the sticky notes let me jot notes down extremely fast. As I pass through, I mostly focus on capturing what’s interesting, while trying to turn it into an actionable statement … a one-liner reminder.

    Eduardo’s recommendations are gems.

    EYEQ helped me see what is possible for eye speed. Before that, I didn’t know what was possible. It helped train my eyes to go faster than I thought they could, so they helped me remove my eye speed as a limit. I may have been able to simulate this by moving my finger faster, but EYEQ helped me change my mental model, which was key.

    Happy Holidays!

  9. Really good stuff here! I especially like that part about quitting when you are tired. So many times I have tried to read when I was just too pooped and not only is the process much slower but I find I don’t retain the information anyway, making it a big waste of time.

  10. JD says:

    @ Christie — Thank you. It reminds me of an insight from Bruce Lee — he never practiced when he was tired because he wanted to always practice good form.

  11. Shirley says:

    Great article. Love stick notes and eye reading faster techniques.

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