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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.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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