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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 21, 2019

How to Be More Creative and Come up with Incredible Ideas

How to Be More Creative and Come up with Incredible Ideas

Regardless of how creative you already consider yourself to be, there’s a good chance you would like to level up your creative abilities.

You might want to write a better song, think of better solutions to problems at work or around the home or maybe paint a picture.

In any case, the good news is that creativity is not born: it’s made, and each one of us has the potential to be more creative and come up with incredible ideas.

“Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The definition of creativity is broad, and reminds us that creativity is not limited to artists or musicians. It does however require that we have some kind of impact on the domain in which we create.

Creativity also emphasizes values.

“The process of having original ideas that have value” — Ken Robinson

This makes up for what Csikszentmihalyi misses out. For instance, we can make a change in the world without adding significant value. Any destructive act, like smashing a window, creates change, but it doesn’t necessarily create valuable change.

In short, there isn’t one single definition of creativity It’s up to us to find a definition that feels true and useful. When you know what your standard is, It’s much easier to embrace creativity and start to cultivate it.

And in this article, you will learn how to be more creative and take a good look at what goes into the creative skill:

1. Cultivate Focus

In order to create, there needs to be a focus on creating something, whether it’s a song, a theory, a product, or a sculpture.

You could also call this “drive” – it’s the initial spark that drives the solution to a problem, or the will to get on your laptop and start typing.

However, it’s worth noting there are different stages to the creative process: the divergent stage and the convergent stage.

In the divergent stage, we want a broad focus – we want to be willing to let in lots of different inputs, ideas and insights. This is the time for brainstorming all possible ideas and solutions.

In the convergent stage, we start to narrow our focus, like a camera lens. At this stage, we start to drill down to a handful of ideas or solutions, discriminating throughout the process.

How to cultivate focus?

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Take a 20 Minute Walk

Walking away and getting your heart rate up is the best free tool you have in regaining your focus.

I know it might seem counterintuitive to take a break right when you’re at your busiest, and especially when you’re drowning in your massive to do list, but the effects it will have on your clarity and ability to focus are undeniable.

Walking is physiologically proven to release stress, and clear your mind. In fact, most of my most brilliant ideas (and some pretty terrible ones too) have occurred on my daily walks.

If you give this technique a try, what you’ll find is that you’re much more productive than you were before you took a breather.

Over time, if you do these walks daily, you’ll quickly find that your to-do list starts to feel a lot less significant, and a lot more doable. It’s all about keeping razor focused, and that’s what short daily walks will gift you.

2. Build a Structure

When I wake up in the morning, I start the day with a structure in mind. I know that 15 minutes will be dedicated to meditation, 30 minutes to coffee and reading, 20 minutes to yoga and so on.

The structure of this morning routine might be boring, but the act of each task in itself has the potential to be, on some level, “creative.”

The point of structure is that it gives you the space to make time for something you want to do. It helps you carve out the time to do your creative work. Once you begin that thing in itself, you are free to go about it however you’d like.

Without structure, we can lose focus and can feel overwhelmed with possibility. If you’ve ever looked at a blank page and felt too overwhelmed with possibility to make a mark on it, you’ll know what I mean. How much easier it gets when you are given some guidelines or a deadline?

The trick is finding the right amount of structure for you and your creative needs. Too little structure and we feel overwhelmed. Too much structure, and we risk feeling limited and stifled.

Again, it’s worth thinking about creating in those two stages: divergent (less structure) and convergent (more structure.)

How to build a structure?

Create a Morning Routine

Your morning routine doesn’t have to be rigid or so arduous you dread waking up. In fact, it should feel like the opposite. When you get a routine that works for you, you’ll look forward to starting the day.

We all have different needs and preferences which can shape our ideal routine. In the book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, you can be inspired over 160 different creators’ daily routines, from Charles Darwin to Pablo Picasso.

Experiment with any that take your fancy, and see how you feel with a bit more structure to start your day.

You can also take a look at this article about morning routine for inspirations: The Ultimate Morning Routine to Make You Happy And Productive All Day

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3. Find Motivation

There is a theory that suggests: people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself — not by external pressures. This is also known as intrinsic motivation; a drive that comes from within.

Think of a time when you did some of your best work — chances are you were totally absorbed in what you were doing, to the exclusion of everything else. You were completely focused on the work itself, barely noticing time flying by.

Now think of a time when you felt under pressure to perform. Maybe it was an exam, or a commission for an important client, or maybe your boss had told you “there’s a lot riding on this.”

Notice the difference? In the first memory, you were driven by intrinsic motivation, which made it relatively easy, even enjoyable, to be highly creative.

In the second memory however, extrinsic motivation was breathing down your neck, distracting you by whispering about the rewards for success and the horrible consequences of failure: likely making it harder to focus on the task at hand.

For this reason, intrinsic motivation, if you can find it, is what separates the good from great creative work.

This isn’t to say only internal motivators help. I personally get motivated by luring myself to work with a good cappuccino at my favourite cafe. That will get me ready to write or edit or whatever I’ve been avoiding.

How to find motivation?

Connect to Your “Why”

Your “Why” is your fuel: the thing that drives you forward, that gives you a reason to do what you’re doing.

‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’ — Friedrich Nietzche

When you have a reason to do something, a purpose or a goal that matters to you, you can connect your daily actions to it. Then, each act becomes infused with meaning and you find that intrinsic motivation comes naturally.

The trick is to remember your “why” and connect with it on a regular basis.

Think about how you want to feel on a daily basis. What would you like to accomplish in the next year? What would you like for yourself in the next five years? How about in your lifetime?

Ultimately, the tasks you face on a daily basis, or at least some of them, will connect to a greater purpose if you follow this path and you will find you feel more motivated to create and less resistance.

If you aren’t sure where to start looking for motivation, this will help: How to Get Motivated and Be Happy Every Day When You Wake Up

4. Be an Expert in a Chosen Domain

Research has shown that just as expertise in one domain does not predict expertise in other unrelated domains; creativity in one domain does not predict creativity in other unrelated domains.[1]

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So just because you can paint a pretty picture, doesn’t mean you can creatively solve a mathematical problem.

If you’ve taken one of those tests like the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which will ask you to think of a bazillion uses for a pencil, and scored well, unfortunately this is only an indicator of divergent thinking skills. It is not a predictor for creativity all round.

The good news is, you can train your creativity in your chosen domain. Much like a muscle, you can isolate exercises to strengthen it.

Of course you can still do a total body workout – or atotal creativity workout – but it means your creativity-training exercises need to come from a wide variety of domains; not just thinking up uses for a pencil.

How to become an expert?

Make a Mastery Training Plan

Following our physical workout analogy, it’s worth applying the habits of great athletes to your chosen creative domain. For example:

1. Decide what area/s you want to work on

Much like a tennis player who decides they need to improve their serving technique, you can decide what area within your creative domain you want to improve at. Get specific.

2. Decide how much time you can dedicate

Most of us don’t have all day to train like a pro tennis player might, but you can likely squeeze 20 to 30 minutes in a day, if you want to. Whatever the time you can allow is, decide to dedicate yourself to it.

3. Review your progress

Finally, in order to check your progress, you can take regular reviews. Decide what your metrics are, and take time each week to check in with yourself.

How many days did you practice? How did you compare to the previous week? This kind of review can help you stay on track, and actually creates more intrinsic motivation as you see yourself develop.

5. Create a Conducive Environment

A psychologist in 1943 proposed that behaviour is:[2]

“a function of both the person as well as the physical environment they are in.”

I would suggest that the act of creating is a behaviour and that, even though it begins as an internal process, it’s very much affected by and even dependent on the environment we are in.

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I started noticing how environment affects me when I worked in an office. Over time, I realized that the more people who were in or who were talking, the more distracted I was. If I got to the office early before my coworkers arrived, I was twice as effective.

I was even more effective if I was at home. Now that I work from home, I know I’m even more effective when in certain coffee shops. Ideally, places that have high ceilings, gentle lighting, some barely noticeable background music – and excellent coffee.

It’s these little variations in our environment that can really shape our creative output.

If you’re an introvert, you probably do your best work alone. If you’re an extrovert, you probably do your best work in the company of others.

This isn’t to say you should find one way of doing things and stick to it: in fact, varying your environment from time to time is a great way to stoke the creative fire too, which we’ll touch on more later.

How to create a conducive environment?

Add or Subtract Stimuli

Novelty in our environment has been shown to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases our desire to seek out reward.[3]

If you’re looking for creative motivation, adding some novelty into your environment can be just what you need.

On the other hand, some people are highly sensitive and when it comes to having too much stimulation in their environment, they find it difficult to focus.

Experiment with working in different environments. Note how you feel. Note whether you do better creative work or have more interesting ideas when you’re alone or with others.

Try listening to music, people chatting or try being in complete silence. Try a dimly lit room, try working in bright sunlight.

In each case, note how you feel before, during and afterwards and rate the quality of your work.

The Bottom Line

Creativity is not one particular skill or talent one can have. It comes in as many broad and unique flavors as there are people on this earth.

To be more creative, take little steps each day. Acknowledge where and when you feel most inspired, motivated and original and spend more energy in those areas.

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Featured photo credit: Sticker Mule via unsplash.com

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