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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 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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