Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
I promised my readers to share ways to read faster. 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 to Reading 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.
Key Bottlenecks to Reading Faster Here are the key bottlenecks to reading faster:
3 Steps to Reading 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. 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.
If you have a tip or trick for reading 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.
About the last point (set a limit in time), it has been "formalized" in the www.pomodorotechnique.com
Awesome post. Thanks a whole heap for sharing this.
Great post. Do you have any tips for reading on a Kindle?