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Are You a Productive Reader?

Are You a Productive Reader?

Are You a Productive Reader?

    I know you can read. You’re reading this, aren’t you? (If you’re not reading this, never mind.)

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    But are you productively literate? That is, when you read, do you learn anything that you can apply immediately to your life, or do the words and ideas just bounce around your brain’s pleasure areas for a while before disappearing like so many wisps of morning fog?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure now and again — by all means, grab a novel and hit the beach. But too often we read important stuff — how-to manuals, business and personal development guides, science and current affairs treatises, and yes, even personal productivity blogs with the same mindset. We read to make us feel good, about what we’ve done or what we could do or what others have done — even about what a smart person we look like reading such a smart book on the subway — and not as an exercise in personal growth.

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    This post is inspired by Seth Godin’s post, How to read a business book, which I linked to earlier this week in our link round-up. Godin — the author of quite a few business books — offers these three tips for reading productively:

    1. Commit to making at least three changes in your life as a result of your reading.
    2. Create todo lists as you read, instead of notes.
    3. When you’re done, give the book away, so someone else can learn from it.

    Godin’s advice applies to more than just business books, I think — imagine committing yourself to making at least one change a week based on your reading at Lifehack, for instance.

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    Here are a few more tips about reading productively:

    • Use an index card as your bookmark. That way you always have something to write on while you’re reading. Go ahead and stick a few post-its to the back for marking significant passages, too.
    • Have expectations. Not about quality, but about content. Before you start, ask yourself, “What do I expect to gain from reading this?”
    • Keep a reading journal. When you finish a book, write down a quick summary of the book, any quotes you highlighted or flagged, and what you learned from it. Or keep a collection of chapter-by-chapter notes — maybe on a blog or wiki. Thursday Bram has some tips on journaling in one of her Lifehack posts.
    • Talk about it. Tell you boss about the new working strategy you just read about. Tell your friends about the interesting history you’re reading. We labor under the misconception that we learn by reading; we don’t. We learn by using what we’ve read.
    • Teach it. You don’t have to be a formal teacher to share your knowledge with those around you who might need it. When you can, take the opportunity to present the information you’ve gleaned: set up a seminar at work, organize a workshop at the local library, etc. This may not be for everyone, but let me tell you: nothing will help you make better sense of a topic than teaching it to others.
    • Pay attention to structure. You can often learn as much from the way the author has organized their information as from the text itself.
      • (Let me give you an example: for several years, I taught anthropology from a textbook that promoted a view of humanity as defined by a group’s relationship with the natural environment. The central part of the book had a chapter on foragers, one on horticulture (small scale farming), one on animal herding, one on agriculture, and finally one on industrialist societies. Then I switched to a textbook that saw political organization as the key element in understanding human behavior. This book devoted its central chapters to the different kinds of political structure: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.)
    • Google it. Nowadays, it’s easy to find authors on the web, who often post new material expanding or correcting their work after it’s published. Check out their websites — even strike up a conversation with the author if you feel like it.
    • Take a moment. People want to read fast, to get it done. That’s why speedreading courses are so popular, despite the fact that you almost never come across anyone who can successfully speedread. The reality is, reading takes time, and learning takes even more. If you only have 20 minutes to read, read for 15 and spend 5 minutes thinking on what you’ve read. If you’re not pressed for time, take long breaks between chapters, even between sections, to reflect.
    • Interrogate. It’s a cliche, but not everything is true just because it was in a book. While developing a Stephen Colbert-like distrust of books is probably overkill, it’s a rather good idea to ask from time to time, “How does the author know this?” and even “Does what s/he’s saying really mean this?”
    • Make a list. Always carry a list of books you want to read or topics you want to read up on. You never know when the opportunity might arise — maybe you stop into a Borders to kill some time between obligations, maybe you notice a new used book store in your neighborhood and want to check it out, maybe someone in your office clears out a box of books from their office, whatever. As you read, add books recommended by the author to your list. (P.S. Mine’s in a tabbed page in my Moleskine. Of course.)
    • Switch it up. Every now and again, read something you wouldn’t normally read. Check out an aisle of the bookstore or library you’ve never been down. Take a friend’s recommendation even if it doesn’t sound very interesting. You might be pleasantly surprised — or you might be challenged to your very core. Either way’s a net gain.
    • Accept defeat.On the other hand, if a book isn’t doing it for you, drop it. Some books are over-hyped pabulum, and there’s no need to feel guilty if you got caught up in the hype. Other books, you just aren’t ready to read yet. Whatever the case, if you’re forcing yourself to get through a book page by page, drop it and move on — you’re not being productive reading like that.

      (Of course, if you’re a student and it’s a required text, you’ll need to read it somehow — make sure you talk to your professor or teacher about the trouble you’re having.)

    Any other advice for more productive reading? Let me and your fellow Lifehack readers know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on April 19, 2021

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

    The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

    Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

    In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

    When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

    Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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    1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

    When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

    As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

    That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

    The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

    What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

    Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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    There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

    So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

    2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

    When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

    No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

    3. Move Your Body

    A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

    It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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    So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

    4. Connect With Another Person

    Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

    One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

    Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

    5. Use Your Imagination

    When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

    That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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    And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

    Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

    Final Thoughts

    Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

    Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

    More on the Importance of Taking a Break

    Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

    Reference

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