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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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    1 3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively 2 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 3 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 11 Reasons Why You Aren’t Getting Results

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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