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Saving Time on Routine Tasks: Optimized Reading

Saving Time on Routine Tasks: Optimized Reading

    If I were to attempt to project the demographics that make up a typical lifehackista, according to the comments I see here and the roots of the phrase life hacks, I’d say that the average specimen spends a heck of a lot of time reading and writing, online and off, pretty much every single day.

    It surely doesn’t apply to everyone who loves lifehacks, but then again, you’re reading this now. You may have typed a URL or search query to get here. In the quest to save time on routine tasks, there are plenty of ways we can optimize these core practices of everyday life.

    In the next couple of articles, we look at making reading and writing quicker and easier. Let’s start with reading.

    Saving Time on Reading

    When you think of saving time on reading, the first thing that comes to mind is reading quicker – otherwise known across the Western world as speed reading.

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    There are a bunch of techniques popular amongst the personal development crowd that boost your reading rates in only a few minutes, with a bit of practice and attention. These techniques are derived and boiled down from plenty of different speed reading systems. If you read a lot of books, you might have seen some of these before.

    1. Tracing with a Pen

    A good idea is to take a pen or pencil (or a twig, if that’s what suits you) and use it as a pointing device while you read. Keep its tip under the word you are reading as you go, constantly moving, and your eye will follow. You can practice moving the pen faster as you get used to reading this way – as your eye starts to naturally follow along, you’ll be able to read faster just by moving the pen faster. Be steady and consistent. Speeding up and slowing down a lot isn’t recommended.

    2. Learn to Capture Phrases

    A common obstacle in increasing reading speed is your eye span, or the number of words you take in at a time. If you read each word individually, you’re crippling your speed. If you take in phrases in one glance, or fixation, instead of single words, you can boost your reading speed by an amazing amount. This takes a fair bit of practice, but there’s really nothing more to it than taking a mental “photograph” of a cluster of words at a time, instead of just one. Don’t overanalyze what you see in front of you. Some call it looking through the words instead of at them, but I think the best analogy would be taking a snapshot. Fake it until what you’re reading starts to make some sense!

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    3. Capture Quickly with Snapshots – Not Long Exposure!

    When you’re taking in clusters of words instead of single words, work on reducing the amount of time the fixation takes. As you get started with this skill, you’ll be stopping and starting and reading in a fairly jerky fashion as you move from one cluster to another. This is because the fixation time takes longer. The solution is to smooth this out by taking faster snapshots.

    Intuitively, one might think it’s best to practice speed reading until you naturally get faster. In fact, it’s better to learn this not by expecting it to come with time, but by forcing it; start running your eyes across each line without stopping in a smooth but rapid fashion, attempting to capture phrases and speed read as you go. You probably won’t have great comprehension at first, but your brain will be forced to keep up with the movement of your eyes and you’ll get it with repetition and dedication. Just remember not to stop the eye movement to take longer fixations, or you’ll get nowhere!

    You will have to temporarily sacrifice comprehension until you are good at it, so don’t try this on important documents unless you intend to re-read them later.

    Once you get this skill down, you’ll be able to read a line in the amount of time it takes to roll your eye across it.

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    It takes dedicated practice (like all things that are worthwhile), but eventually you’ll be able to capture not just phrases but entire lines at once (perhaps in two glances for really wide texts, ie one-column websites). At this point, you can practice making the process even faster by scanning down the page rapidly, instead of across.

    Allow your eyes to run over each line without stopping. With practice, you’ll be reading each line in the time it takes to run your eyes over it.

    You can practice your speed reading skills at Spreeder.

    Remember that the most common reason for slow reading is fear (just like most obstacles in life); fear of missing an important word or line, of confusing the meaning of the text down the track, of having to go back to the top of the page and start again. Lose this fear and allow yourself to go with the flow, keep reading forward – never backward, unless you’ve truly missed something. This takes practice, because backtracking is an ingrained habit, ever since your first grade teacher told you to read slow and take your time, word-by-word. How inefficient!

    One Book at a Time

    Maybe one word at a time is a bad idea, but perhaps not so much when it comes to reading one book at a time!

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    Trying to read two fiction books and four non-fiction books at once is not doing you any favors. In fact, you’d be sabotaging yourself from every perspective; it would take more time, since it’s harder to pick up the book and keep reading where you left off if your attention is divided between more than one, and you’d have a much harder time absorbing the content. So, the multitasked books are not only taking more of your time, but there’s no reason to read them in the first place since you’re not learning anything. That’s a lifehackista’s nightmare!

    It is wise to limit yourself to one fiction and one non-fiction book at all times. This is the perfect reading level, and not only do I suggest you not exceed it, but you should not be reading any less than this amount at a given time. Both are important for different reasons to our productivity and growth.

    You can safely read a fiction and non-fiction book at the same time – your brain won’t confuse the two like it will confuse two stories or two textbooks.

    Ditch Yer Browser, Use RSS

    One excellent way to read faster, when it comes web content, is to use RSS wherever it’s available. The process of switching from one website to another, and then going deeper into each website to read new content, takes a lot more time than reading the new content in one aggregated location. I’d say using an RSS reader can at least halve the time it takes to do your daily online reading. Take advantage of it.

    Next time: optimize your writing process.

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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