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Saving Time on Routine Tasks: Optimized Reading

Saving Time on Routine Tasks: Optimized Reading

    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.

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    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!

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    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.

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    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!

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    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.

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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