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16 Skills To Make Your Reading More Productive

16 Skills To Make Your Reading More Productive

Reading skills can change your life. Without any qualification, reading has changed my life for the better. I’ve learned skills, enjoyed many incredible stories and learned about the world. I’ve learned about history, explored the rich depths of science fiction, discovered other countries, learned business ideas and much more.

Like any skill, you can become more effective with practice and an introduction to the key techniques. In this article, I will mainly focus on reading traditional books, which remain deeply valuable despite advances in digital technology. That said, many of these ideas can be adapted to digital reading. These ideas will help you learn and remember more from the books you read.

“Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”- Joseph Addison

1) Determine Your Reading Purpose: Leisure or Learning

Generally speaking, there are two broad reasons to read: for leisure or to learn. If you are reading for leisure, developing productive reading skills may not be a priority. That said, you can deepen your appreciation for literature by developing reading skills. In this article, I will focus on reading for learning (with a few examples on leisure and fiction reading here and there).

2) Make Notes In The Book (Yes, You Have Permission!)

Have you ever noticed that most printed books have margins? Those blank spaces make it easy for you to add your own notes! Even better, some business and self-improvement books have blank pages for exercises and other activities. Once you start writing in books, you will slow down and gain more from the experience.

Tip: There is a centuries long tradition of readers writing in their books. For examples and insights on this key reading skill, consult Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books By H. J. Jackson. You will be in good company too: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf, John Ruskin, and William Blake are some of the great authors who have made a habit of writing in their books.

Important Note: Only write in books that you own. Libraries are an excellent resource and your responsibility is to return the book back to the library for others to read in top condition. If you’re reading library books, you can still gain practice in productive reading by implementing the other ideas in this article.

3) Use The Swarm Strategy To Go Deep With Your Reading

I learned the swarm strategy concept from strategist and author Ryan Holiday. In essence, the swarm strategy involves going deep into a topic and learning about it from multiple viewpoints. Holiday also suggests supplementing your learning strategy with non-reading activities where possible. Here are two examples showing how you can use the swarm strategy.

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Learning about the Second World War:

With thousands of books to choose from, you have many different options. For example, let’s say you live in Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States (i.e. the Western Allies). Your understanding of the war and its consequences are likely from the perspective of your country. You can apply the swarm strategy by reading about how the war impacted civilians in Europe, seek to understand the Holocaust and read biographies of war time leaders (I recommend Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life for a robust and deep introduction to Winston Churchill).

Learning about marketing:

Marketing is one of the most important business skills you can learn. Fortunately, there are many excellent books you can explore. To apply the swarm strategy, read about marketing form at least three different perspectives. For example, read about specific marketing techniques (e.g. Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords, 4th Edition By: Perry Marshall, Mike Rhodes, and Bryan Todd), read a classic marketing book (Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins) and read about copywriting (The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan Kennedy)

4) Read About The Author

Who brought you the book you’re reading? Learning about the author can deepen your experience considerably. Last year, I read a biography of Wiliam Shakespeare. I was fascinated to learn about Shakespeare’s work habits. You may not be able to find a full length biographies on every author you read about. Instead, ask these questions to deepen your understanding?

  • What books has the author previously published? (i.e. how does this book fit with the rest of the author’s work. Is it new ground or deepening previously explored ground)
  • How do books fit into the author’s career (e.g. is the person a full time author, a business expert who writes books on occasion or something else altogether)?

5) Write About What You Read

Writing works wonders on your comprehension and appreciation of reading. You can write full length book reviews (I’ve done that several times and it can be rewarding). You can also write notes on the inside cover of the book to create a short guide that you can easily reference.

Not sure what to write about? Consider these points:

  • Does the book provide exercises or templates for you to read? Complete the exercises.
  • Does the book reference other books that sound interesting? Make note of the titles.
  • Were you struck by the beauty of a particular phrase? Note it.

6) Discuss Your Reading With Other People

In most respects, reading is a solitary habit. However, you can turn reading into a social activity with some planning. For example, you can join a virtual book club where you swap notes and messages with other readers. You can also use a service like Meetup.com to search for book clubs in your area. If you are reading to improve your life or productivity, you will get the best results from discussing your reading with others interested in the same material.

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7) Ask Yourself: Do I Agree With The Author? Why Or Why Not?

When you read a good book, it is natural to be become absorbed in the process. Some books are so engaging that you end up staying up all night reading. While passionate, deep reading is admirable, there is more you can do.

Most non-fiction works (and many fiction works) are seeking to prove a point. Explore how the points are developed. Does the author provide footnotes or references to other works? Are they writing based on their own experience? These questions will help you to evaluate your reading more effectively.

8) Explore the context of your reading (i.e. acknowledgements and footnotes)

In most books I read, I often look into the acknowledgements, footnotes and other supporting material. Why? These sections provide extra context that shed new light on the book. The same can also be said of a book’s preface and introduction. In fact, introductions to classic novels and fiction works often explain how the book was translated and why the book has come to be regarded as a classic.

Reading acknowledgements: In some cases, the authors will provide a simple list of names. In other instances, you will learn about the author’s key relationships. You may learn about the contributions played by the editor and who provided the best feedback on the book during the editing process.

Reading footnotes: footnotes and references provide valuable suggestions for further reading and additional details that can open your eyes. You don’t have to read the entire footnotes section – simply take a look whenever the author makes an unexpected or interesting point.

9) File Ideas In A Commonplace Book

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”

Seneca, Roman philosopher

In an earlier time, books were expensive. You might have bee able to borrow a given book for a short time and then have to retun it. That’s one reason why the commonplace book was developed. You can use a Moleskine notebook, collect notes in a document on your computer, use Evernote or whatever system you like.

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Author Ryan Holiday recommends keeping a “Commonplace Book” . He recommends searching for wisdom and ideas that make our lives better. A single example, quote or phrase fro your reading can be powerful. When you record those ideas in a commonplace book, you can easily refer back to what you learned from your reading.

10) Reflect on what you enjoyed in leisure reading

Once you finish a novel, short story, play or some other work of leisure reading, put down the book. The next day, think about what you liked most about the book. Were you excited by the richly imagined world of J.R.R. Tolkien? Were you pleasantly surprised by the relevance of Jane Austen’s reflections on relationships? These observations will help you find other books that you will enjoy in the future.

In fact, this reflection skill will help you ask for recommendations from others. Instead of simply stating that you enjoyed a book, you can explain what aspects of the book you enjoyed.

11) Read Reviews About Your Reading

Reading reviews about books you read can provide a fresh perspective. You can start by reading reviews on Amazon but you don’t have to stop there. You can find outstanding reviews in publications such as the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. In fact, reading thoughtful book reviews equips you with new productive reading skills.

12) Develop “Mind Reading” Powers By Reading Fiction

Did you know that reading fiction can help you understand people better? Researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have shown that reading fiction helps you to develop a Theory of Mind for other people. In order to access these benefits, the researchers recommend reading literary fiction:

Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.” (Source: Reading literary fiction improves ‘mind-reading’ skills, research shows)

Looking for literary fiction suggestions? Here are two resources to start with:

13) Use Aides To Augment Your Reading

Whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction, you are likely to come across unfamilar ideas, words and more from time to time. Instead of skipping over confusing phrases, take one minute and look up the word in a dictionary (a print dictionary on your shelf or an online dictionary). Likewise, I recommend using Google Maps if your book mentions unfamilar places.

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Your imagination is powerful! But you need to give it clear material for the best results.

14) Use A Highlighter (To Prepare To Make Notes)

Using a highlighter is a classic way to engage with the text. Unfortunately, CBS News reports that highlighting is among the least effective reading strategies. However, this technique can be revived if you use it thoughtfully. For example, consider using a multi-step system. You may start by reading a chapter of textbook and highlight a few key phrases. Next, write up notes using your highlights as a guide.

15) Create Study Notes (for tests and academic situations)

Let’s say you are reading a technical book such as the Project Management Body Knowledge (i.e. PMBOK Guide) in order to earn the PMP certification. Simply sitting in a chair and reading through the material will provide partial results. In order to master the material, you need to create study notes.

The type of study notes you create will depend on your learning approach. Here are a few ideas to get you started in creating study notes from books you read:

  • Formulas. Write down important formulas and define the terms.
  • Look for BOLD WORDS. If the author uses a phrase in BOLD over and over again, that is probably a hint
  • Draw diagrams between concepts. I learned this concept from Scott H Young who famously completed the MIT Computer Science program in 12 months using his advanced study strategies.
  • Note concepts you find challenging for further review. When you are learning a new subject, it is natural to come across challenging concepts in your reading. You may not understand the new idea right away. By making notes of these ideas for further review, you can look up the ideas in other books and consult experts to deepen your understanding.

16) Read Every Day

Many people set goals to read more. How do you get there? You simply need to develop a lifetime reading habit. Hint – always carry a book with you! If you are not a natural reader, look for ways to add reading to your routines (e.g. before you leave home for the day or before going to sleep).

Featured photo credit: Books/memyselfaneye via pixabay.com

More by this author

Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham is a Project Management Professional and Founder and CEO of Project Management Hacks.

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Published on January 16, 2019

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

We’re all busy, but sometimes we go through periods where the work piles up and it seems like it might never end.

You might have such a heavy workload that it feels too intimidating to even start.

You may have said yes to some or too many projects, and now you’re afraid you won’t be able to deliver.

That’s when you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start looking at what’s working and what’s not working.

Here’re 13 strategies you can use to get out from under your overwhelming workload:

1. Acknowledge You Can’t Do It All

Many of us have a tendency to think we can do more than we actually can. We take on more and more projects and responsibility and wear numerous hats.

We all have the opportunity to have and take on more work than we can reasonably expect to get done. Unfortunately, our workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this article, I’m guessing that your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.

To make real, effective progress, you have to have both the courage and resourcefulness to say, “This is not working”. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all and look for better solutions.

At any given time in your life, there are likely many things that aren’t going according to plan. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself and those around you about what’s not working for you, both personally and professionally.

The more you exercise your ability to tell the truth about what’s working and what’s not working, the faster you’ll make progress.

2. Focus on Your Unique Strengths

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a leader or working as part of a team, every individual has unique strengths they can bring to the table.

The challenge is that many people end up doing things that they’re simply not very good at.

In the pursuit of reaching your goals or delivering a project, people end up doing everything themselves or taking on things that don’t play to their unique strengths. This can result in frustration, overwhelm and overwork.

It can mean projects taking a lot longer to complete because of knowledge gaps, or simply not utilizing the unique strengths of other people you work with.

It is often not about how to complete this project more effectively but who can help deliver this project.

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So, what are your unique strengths that will ensure your workload is delivered more effectively? Here’re some questions to help you reflect:

  • Are you a great strategist?
  • Are you an effective planner?
  • Is Project Management your strength?
  • Is communication and bringing people together your strength?
  • Are you the ideas person?
  • Is Implementation your strength?

Think about how you can bring the biggest value to your work and the projects you undertake.

3. Use the Strengths of Your Team

One of the simplest ways to manage your workload effectively is to free up your time so you bring your highest level of energy, focus and strengths to each project.

Delegation or better teamwork is the solution.

Everyone has unique strengths. It’s essential to think teamwork rather than working in isolation to ensure projects can be completed effectively. Besides, every time you give away a task or project that doesn’t play to your unique strengths, you open up an opportunity to do something you’re more talented at. This will empower both yourself and those around you.

Rather than taking on all the responsibilities yourself, look at who you can work with to deliver the best results possible.

4. Take Time for Planning

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. – Abraham Lincoln

One hour of effective planning could save hours of time. Rather than just rushing in and getting started on projects, take the time to map everything in.

You can take the time to think about:

  • What’s the purpose of the project?
  • How Important is it?
  • When does it need to be delivered by?
  • What is the best result and worst result for this project?
  • What are the KPIs?
  • What does the project plan and key milestones look like?
  • Who is working on this project?
  • What is everyone’s responsibilities?
  • What tolerances can I add in?
  • What are the review stages?
  • What are the challenges we may face and the solutions for these challenges?

Having absolute clarity on the project, the project deliverables and the result you want can save a lot of time. It also gets you clear on the priorities and timelines, so you can block out the required amount of time to focus and concentrate.

5. Focus on Priorities

Not everything is a priority, although it can often feel, in the moment, that it is.

Whatever you’re working on, there is always the Most Urgent, Important or Most Valuable projects or tasks.

One tool you can use to maximize your productivity and focus on your biggest priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. This strategic tool for taking action on the things that matter most is simple. You separate your actions based on four possibilities:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

James Clear has a great description on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix: How to be More Productive By Using the Eisenhower Box

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    The method I use with my coaching clients is to ask them to lay out their Top Five priorities for the day. Then to start with the most important priority first. At the end of the day, you review performance against these priorities.

    If you didn’t get everything accomplished, start the next day with your number one priority.

    If you are given additional task/projects during the day, then you will need to gauge their importance V the other priorities.

    6. Take Time Out

    To stay on top of a heavy workload, it’s important to take time out to rest and recuperate.

    If your energy levels are high and your mind and body is refreshed and alert, you are in more of a peak state to handle a heavy workload.

    Take time out of your day to go for a walk or get some exercise in. Leave early when possible and spend time with people who give you a lot of energy.

    In the background, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthily to sharpen the mind.

    Take a look at this article learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

    7. Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

    Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. The balance we all crave is very different from one another.

    I’ve written before about 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life. Working longer and harder doesn’t mean achieving more, especially if you have no time to spend with the people that matter most. The quality of who you are as a person, the relationships you have, the time you spend in work, deciding on what matters most is completely within your control.

    Work-life balance is about finding peace within yourself to be fully present, wherever you are, whether that be in the office or at home, right now. It’s about choosing what matters most and creating your own balanced life.

    If you feel there is not enough balance, then it may be time to make a change.

    8. Stop Multitasking

    Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply can’t work effectively by doing more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention.

    So get your list of priorities (see earlier point), do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

    When you split your focus over a multitude of different areas, you can’t consistently deliver a high performance. You won’t be fully present on the one task or project at hand.

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    If you allocate blocked time and create firm boundaries for specific activities and commitments, you won’t feel so overwhelmed or overworked with everything you have to do.

    9. Work in Blocks of Time

    To keep your energy up to produce your best results it’s essential to take regular breaks.

    I use the 60-60-30 method myself and teach it to my coaching clients.

    Work on a project for a sustained period of 50 minutes.

    Then take a 10-minute break. This could be taking a walk, having a healthy snack or just having a conversation with someone.

    Then continue to work on the project for a further 50 minutes.

    Then take another 10-minute break.

    Then take a complete 30-minute break to unplug from the work. This could be time for a proper lunch, a quick bit of exercise, reading or having a walk.

    By simply taking some time out, your energy levels stay up, the quality of your work improves and you reduce the risk of becoming burned out.

    10. Get Rid of Distractions

    Make an estimation on how many times you are distracted during an average working day. Now take that number and multiply it by 25. According to Gloria Mark in her study on The Cost of Interrupted Work, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after interruption.[1]

    “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

    Distractions don’t just take up your time during the distraction, they can derail your mental progress and focus for almost 25 minutes. So, if you are distracted 5 times per day, you could be losing almost 2 hours every day of productive work and almost 10 hours every week.

    If you have an important project to work on, find a space where you won’t be distracted, or try doing this.

    11. Commit Focused Time to Smaller Tasks

    You know sometimes, you need to simply tackle these tasks and take action on them. But there’s always something more pressing.

    Small tasks can often get in the way of your most important projects. They sit there on your daily To Do list but are often forgotten about because of more important priorities or because they hold no interest for you. But they take up mental energy. They clutter your mind.

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    Commit to spending a specific period of time completing all the small tasks you have on your To Do list. It will give you peace of mind and the space to focus more on your bigger priorities.

    12. Take a Time Audit

    Do you know exactly where your time is going each day? Are you spending too long on certain projects and tasks to the detriment of bigger opportunities?

    Spend a bit of time to analyze where you are spending your time. This insight will amaze you and give you the clarity to start adjusting where you focus your time and on what projects.

    You can start by taking a piece of paper and creating three columns:

    Column A is Priority Work. Column B is Good Work. Column C is low value work or stuff.

    Each day, write down the project or task and the time spent on each. Allocate that time to one of the columns.

    At the end of the week, record the total time spent in each column.

    If you are spending far too much time on certain types of work, look to change things so your focused time is in Column B and C.

    13. Protect Your Confidence

    It is essential to protect our confidence to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed, stressed and lose belief.

    When you have confidence as a daily resource, you are in a better position to problem solve, learn quicker, respond to anything, adjust to anything, and achieve your biggest opportunities.

    Confidence gives you the ability to transform fear into focused and relaxed thinking, communication, and action. This is key to put your mind into a productive state.

    When confidence is high, you can clearly see the possibilities at hand and create strategies to take advantage of them, or to solve the challenges you face each day.

    Final Words

    A heavy workload can be tough to deal with and can cause stress, burnout and ongoing frustration.

    The key is to tackle it head on, rather than let it go on and compound the long-term effects. Hopefully, you can take action on at least one of these tips.

    If it gets too much, and negatively affects your physical and mental health, it may be time to talk to someone. Instead of dealing with it alone and staying unhappier, resentful and getting to a point where you simply can’t cope, you have to make a change for your own sanity.

    Featured photo credit: Hannah Wei via unsplash.com

    Reference

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