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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

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Bruce Harpham

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

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Last Updated on May 22, 2019

Ditch Work Life Balance and Embrace Work Life Harmony

Ditch Work Life Balance and Embrace Work Life Harmony

How do you usually go about your day?

Do you wake up in the morning, get ready for work, and then spend the whole day looking forward to being at home and unwinding?

We often hear about work life balance – having a good balance between work and personal time. Whilst this may sound like a smart idea, it can also imply that we should dedicate at least half of our time to work–and sacrifice time for our “personal life”.

To me, that seems…off balance. Because, the truth is, it’s nearly impossible to split your time equally between the two. And, you may end up stressing out if you’re not able to meet that expectation of balance.

Instead, why not think of having work life harmony instead?

With this mindset, you can actually integrate work into your life in a way that feels more complete. This way, you don’t need to view work and having personal time as separate.

So, how do you achieve work life harmony?

Work Life Harmony Explained

The difference between work life balance and work life harmony is pretty simple.With the former, there is an implication that you have to sacrifice your “life” for work. But, this is the worst way to go about things! How can you truly be at peace in life if you dread 8 hours of your day?

Work life harmony on the other hand, allows your work to be a part of your life. This means that you can choose to be happy both at home, and at work! Work no longer needs to be seen as the ‘bad’ or un-fun activity.

Having work life harmony also ensures you’re truly present in whatever place you find yourself.

Just take a look at Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon for example.

He uses a non traditional approach to work by making time for breakfast every morning with his family, doesn’t set his alarm before going to bed, schedules surprisingly few meetings, and still puts aside a few minutes every day to wash his own dishes.

He believes that all his staff should stop trying to achieve a ‘balance’ in their work and personal lives as that implies a trade off. Instead, he envisions a more holistic relationship between the two.

As the world’s richest man, he must be doing something right!

Rethink Time Management

Now, when we think of striking a balance, we usually associate it with time, don’t we? How much time are we spending at work versus how much time are we spending in our personal lives?Are we taking enough time to be with our loved ones, to do meaningful activities with others or even for ourselves, or are we just dedicating all our time to work?

This is the so-called-balance that many struggle with.

With work life harmony, we learn to rethink time management. By re-assessing how you manage your time, you’ll have a lot more of it. It’s incredible how much time can get wasted over the period of a day–especially when you’re not accurately tracking it.

Unfortunately, unless you’re consciously making an effort, your brain is not always the best at making accurate judgement calls when it comes to prioritizing. It tends to have a bias towards short term benefits and short term costs.

As there are often many more options our brains link to short term benefit; when you’re trying to focus on a task that gives you a long term benefit, that task usually becomes low priority. This is otherwise known as Priority Chaos.

In order to overcome this and be in better control of your time, identify the tasks that need the most focus to get accomplished. If it’s a big task, then it’s good to break it down into smaller bite-sized actions that will provide you with a clearer short term benefit.

When setting up tasks, give yourself a time limit. The brain has a bias towards short term benefits, and your attention span is limited, so if your tasks are going to take ages to complete, you’ll end up losing focus… and wasting time.

Once you have all your tasks written down, it’s time to prioritize them. Since you have a time limit, your focus should be on the top priority tasks. By doing this, you will already be able to get more done in less time at work!

Have Passion for What You Do

Managing your time is important in achieving that work life harmony. But, perhaps of greater importance, is loving what you do in life.One of the most effective ways to achieve a work life harmony is to really enjoy, or find a purpose, in what you do for a living. Even though everyone isn’t always lucky enough to find a position that pays them for pursuing their passion, you can strive to find meaning in what you are already doing, or pursue something new entirely!

For example, say you work at an office that sells paper. While many people wouldn’t consider this a world changing pursuit, I beg to differ. Think of all the individuals in the world that rely on paper. From creative types to quantum physics experts, your role at your workplace brings incredible value to many many people all over the world. You will have, without a doubt, helped bring a new idea into existence. Several new ideas to be precise.

So have a think about what you’re doing now. Is it something that allows you to embrace your passion?

Or perhaps you might not even know what it is that you love or enjoy doing. Why not explore and reflect on what gives you joy and contentment? Is there an area or industry that you could see yourself exploring to experience that fulfillment?

Can you find a deeper purpose in what you’re already doing?

When you’re able to find meaning in your work, you’re that much closer to achieving work life harmony.

Don’t Be Intimidated By Obstacles and Limitations

Creating work life harmony is also about understanding yourself–which includes your limitations and past obstacles–as this allows you to become more resilient.

If you never had to experience struggles, challenges or setbacks, then you would never be forced to adapt and mature. So in theory, having to face obstacles in life is actually quite necessary.

Most of us think of setbacks and obstacles as negative. Though, if you’re able to maintain an optimistic attitude, you’ll almost always have a higher chance of success of overcoming those obstacles to reach your eventual goal.

Your attitude towards setbacks will define the outcome of whether you rise from the challenge or remain stuck in it. So, in order to achieve work life harmony, it’s important to have a resilient attitude as challenges will always come your way–especially when you strive to integrate work into your life, and not a separate or dominant part of life.

Delegate When You Need To

Of course, when you want to increase productivity and minimize the time or effort spent, a great way to do so is to delegate!

If you spend a lot of time doing tasks on your own that could be delegated to others (whether at work or at home) you’re losing a lot of precious free time that could otherwise be spent elsewhere.

At the end of the day, we all have a limited amount of time. So we should all be striving to create a harmonious work and living situation where we can find meaning in all that we do.

While an overall goal may be meaningful, not all of the milestones or tasks needed to get there may be meaningful. That’s because we have our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Not every task is going to be enjoyable or easy to complete. That’s where delegation comes in.

Delegation simply allows you to leverage time from an external source, thus giving you opportunities to increase your own quality of time. Keep in mind that delegation should be done with deliberate attention, otherwise you may end up over relying on others.

If you find that you’re running into the problem of over delegating, then it may be time to re-evaluate your motivation for doing whatever it is that you’re doing.

Embrace the Circle and Become Happier and More Productive

Living in harmony is about feeling good about the ways in which you spend your time, despite how busy you may be.Your switch from work mode to a more personal mode should be effortless. It’s about integrating your personal life and the things you love into your busy work life!

It all begins with the shift in perspective. Understanding what your passions are, and learning to be resilient, before taking a different approach to the way you manage your time and everyday tasks.

These are steps that you can start taking to move away from balance to harmony. 

Featured photo credit: Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash via unsplash.com

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