If I were to attempt to project the demographics that make up a typical lifehackista, according to the comments I see here and the roots of the phrase life hacks, I’d say that the average specimen spends a heck of a lot of time reading and writing, online and off, pretty much every single day.

It surely doesn’t apply to everyone who loves lifehacks, but then again, you’re reading this now. You may have typed a URL or search query to get here. In the quest to save time on routine tasks, there are plenty of ways we can optimize these core practices of everyday life.

In the next couple of articles, we look at making reading and writing quicker and easier. Let’s start with reading.

Saving Time on Reading

When you think of saving time on reading, the first thing that comes to mind is reading quicker – otherwise known across the Western world as speed reading.

There are a bunch of techniques popular amongst the personal development crowd that boost your reading rates in only a few minutes, with a bit of practice and attention. These techniques are derived and boiled down from plenty of different speed reading systems. If you read a lot of books, you might have seen some of these before.

1. Tracing with a Pen

A good idea is to take a pen or pencil (or a twig, if that’s what suits you) and use it as a pointing device while you read. Keep its tip under the word you are reading as you go, constantly moving, and your eye will follow. You can practice moving the pen faster as you get used to reading this way – as your eye starts to naturally follow along, you’ll be able to read faster just by moving the pen faster. Be steady and consistent. Speeding up and slowing down a lot isn’t recommended.

2. Learn to Capture Phrases

A common obstacle in increasing reading speed is your eye span, or the number of words you take in at a time. If you read each word individually, you’re crippling your speed. If you take in phrases in one glance, or fixation, instead of single words, you can boost your reading speed by an amazing amount. This takes a fair bit of practice, but there’s really nothing more to it than taking a mental “photograph” of a cluster of words at a time, instead of just one. Don’t overanalyze what you see in front of you. Some call it looking through the words instead of at them, but I think the best analogy would be taking a snapshot. Fake it until what you’re reading starts to make some sense!

3. Capture Quickly with Snapshots – Not Long Exposure!

When you’re taking in clusters of words instead of single words, work on reducing the amount of time the fixation takes. As you get started with this skill, you’ll be stopping and starting and reading in a fairly jerky fashion as you move from one cluster to another. This is because the fixation time takes longer. The solution is to smooth this out by taking faster snapshots.

Intuitively, one might think it’s best to practice speed reading until you naturally get faster. In fact, it’s better to learn this not by expecting it to come with time, but by forcing it; start running your eyes across each line without stopping in a smooth but rapid fashion, attempting to capture phrases and speed read as you go. You probably won’t have great comprehension at first, but your brain will be forced to keep up with the movement of your eyes and you’ll get it with repetition and dedication. Just remember not to stop the eye movement to take longer fixations, or you’ll get nowhere!

You will have to temporarily sacrifice comprehension until you are good at it, so don’t try this on important documents unless you intend to re-read them later.

Once you get this skill down, you’ll be able to read a line in the amount of time it takes to roll your eye across it.

It takes dedicated practice (like all things that are worthwhile), but eventually you’ll be able to capture not just phrases but entire lines at once (perhaps in two glances for really wide texts, ie one-column websites). At this point, you can practice making the process even faster by scanning down the page rapidly, instead of across.

Allow your eyes to run over each line without stopping. With practice, you’ll be reading each line in the time it takes to run your eyes over it.

You can practice your speed reading skills at Spreeder.

Remember that the most common reason for slow reading is fear (just like most obstacles in life); fear of missing an important word or line, of confusing the meaning of the text down the track, of having to go back to the top of the page and start again. Lose this fear and allow yourself to go with the flow, keep reading forward – never backward, unless you’ve truly missed something. This takes practice, because backtracking is an ingrained habit, ever since your first grade teacher told you to read slow and take your time, word-by-word. How inefficient!

One Book at a Time

Maybe one word at a time is a bad idea, but perhaps not so much when it comes to reading one book at a time!

Trying to read two fiction books and four non-fiction books at once is not doing you any favors. In fact, you’d be sabotaging yourself from every perspective; it would take more time, since it’s harder to pick up the book and keep reading where you left off if your attention is divided between more than one, and you’d have a much harder time absorbing the content. So, the multitasked books are not only taking more of your time, but there’s no reason to read them in the first place since you’re not learning anything. That’s a lifehackista’s nightmare!

It is wise to limit yourself to one fiction and one non-fiction book at all times. This is the perfect reading level, and not only do I suggest you not exceed it, but you should not be reading any less than this amount at a given time. Both are important for different reasons to our productivity and growth.

You can safely read a fiction and non-fiction book at the same time – your brain won’t confuse the two like it will confuse two stories or two textbooks.

Ditch Yer Browser, Use RSS

One excellent way to read faster, when it comes web content, is to use RSS wherever it’s available. The process of switching from one website to another, and then going deeper into each website to read new content, takes a lot more time than reading the new content in one aggregated location. I’d say using an RSS reader can at least halve the time it takes to do your daily online reading. Take advantage of it.

Next time: optimize your writing process.

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