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The Secrets To Reading Faster And Absorbing Information Better

The Secrets To Reading Faster And Absorbing Information Better

As a history major, people always asked me how I could stand reading a boatload of books every week. While I answered them, they’d usually stare at my bookshelf and faint, much like I do when looking at equations on a whiteboard. What is my secret? It’s more obvious than you think: I never read any of my assigned books front to back. How, you ask, can you absorb information without reading the entirety of a book? Go on to discover some of the tricks people use to fool others into thinking they actually read those thick tomes sitting on their shelves…

1. Read the conclusion first.

A lot of authors like to speak in an arcane manner initially, throwing out long-winded, incomprehensible phrases for the first several pages of their book. It’s at this point that many fall off the wagon and throw whatever they’re reading to the ground in disappointment. The key is to cheat. Go to the end of the book first, and find the conclusion. Any writer worth their salt will provide the reader with a neat little summation of their argument and a quick review of the examples they used there. As they say on the website Spreeder:

You don’t really need to know the biography of the author, do you? So skip it. Then you can also skip the prologue in most cases – it usually contains a mere introduction to the book, and rarely contains information that will be of real use to you.

However, the Epilogue is a completely different matter – make sure you read it, because it is usually used to sum up the book, and can even provide extra information from later editions.

The other benefit of this is that all of that nonsense at the beginning of the book will make a lot more sense when you know exactly where the author is going. If you’re in a bind (read: supposed to have read a book for class tomorrow morning but never got around to it), reading just the conclusion may be sufficient enough to provide the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

2. Use a highlighter.

One of the mistakes people make early on is that they give up highlighting, either because they end up marking too many things or were told by teachers that it’s a useless endeavor. The truth is that highlighting can be a great tool – if used correctly. You shouldn’t use it on everything, and you shouldn’t use it once every fifty pages. Instead, you’ll want to focus your efforts on highlighting the author’s summary statements. They’ll often ramble on and on about one point for several pages, and provide at the end a neat little bow tie shaped paragraph that definitively states the point they were trying to get across. Highlight this, and when you go back to skim the book, you’ll have everything you need to know ready at a glance. I can’t tell you how many times this helped me when going back to review a book for a test.

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3. Use the table of contents and subheadings.

It often surprises people, often college-aged kids, when they hear that most scholars often don’t read books in their entirety. Instead, what they usually do (and I’ve been told this by a professor) is check out the table of contents, and read the chapters that interest them or are relevant to their work. Or, they’ll skim through the book and stop when they see a subheading that interests them. This makes reading less of a chore, since you’re only reading what you want to read. You’ll still get the gist of the author’s overall point as well, since they’ll usually restate it in some way in every section of the book. This is a great technique to prevent “eyes moving down the page but not processing a single world” syndrome.

4. Be proactive instead of reactive.

Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, has some interesting thoughts in regard to this point.

The number one piece of advice I have is to consume consciously and deliberately. Transform your relationship with information consumption into something that you do proactively, rather than something that happens to you. Once you do that, you can start applying frameworks.

This sort of goes back to what I was saying earlier. You shouldn’t be reading for the sake of reading, or trying to force your way through something that doesn’t speak to you.

Even in college, where professors assign readings to you, you can take an active role in what you’re reviewing. One of the ways to do this, as I said before, is to skip the parts that are boring to you, instead focusing all of your attention on sections that appeal to you.

Another way to get around this in college is to do your own research. Along with the class readings, find (professor approved) books related to your class that speak to your soul. I once took a class on 19th century Italy, and while I loved it, the readings could get a bit dry. What worked for me was finding a book on that era about a figure I found intriguing (Giuseppe Mazzini), and reading about that time period from the perspective of his life story. That made it easy for me, since all the history we were learning in class was now framed by a story that I could connect to.

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Reading isn’t something you’ll automatically have fun doing unless you put in the effort to find things you want to read.

5. Don’t try to read every word.

This was a mistake of mine for a long time. I had this idea in my head that if I read every word, I’d remember more information. Instead, I’d usually glaze over and die of mental boredom.

The truth of the matter is that most non-fiction books are formatted in a way that makes reading every word a redundant practice. The author only has so much to say, the most significant of which can be found in the conclusion. Most books are filled with evidence rather than profound points, which is good for you since, while evidence is interesting, it’s all proving the same thesis. Therefore, don’t be bogged down reading endless streams of evidence that prove the author’s argument, find a few that interest you and move onto the next chapter.

This goes for fictional reading too. Don’t quit because you get to a boring part in the book (e.g. those scenes in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin describes every little detail about the roasted duck his fictional characters are eating). Just skim it until you see something important. Sure, you might miss something, but it’s better that you keep moving than put the book down in frustration.

To close this point, I’ll quote Peter Economy (yup that’s his name, pretty cool huh?)

The one thing that helps me get through such material and actually learn something in the process is to skim it instead of trying to read it in detail. As I skim, I write down the major points in a notebook. After I’m done, I can then review the major points I’ve collected and have a pretty good idea of what I need to know.

 6. Write reader responses.

Bear with me before you start groaning. While most people hate writing, it really is one of the easiest ways to retain lots of information in a short amount of time. One of the things I used to do to remember the key points of a large book was to condense it into a single paged double-spaced reader response. In roughly two paragraphs, I’d outline the author’s argument, a few of their interesting pieces of evidence, and what I had a problem with/ what I thought they could have done better.

Like highlighting, writing reader responses provides you with a tool to quickly review the more impactful aspects of a book. When reviewing for a test, it’s much easier to pull up your reader responses than to fervently flip through all your books again.

7. Discuss what you read with others.

As much as I dislike working in groups, there’s no question that talking about readings with friends or classmates will help you retain information. Indeed, back in college I had a study buddy, and we’d discuss pretty much everything we read. We often joked about some of the author’s points, or certain pieces of evidence they used. Surprisingly, when it was time to take the final, I often remembered complicated sections from the book by thinking first of the jokes I’d made up with my partner.

Some of us are auditory learners, and, as author Eric Holtzclaw states, they “comprehend best when [hearing] content and new information.” Therefore, talking to a friend about what you’ve read is a great tool in terms of solidifying your knowledge on that subject. It’s even better if you can joke about it, because then you’re condensing that information into something you find extremely relatable, which only makes it easier to recall in the future.

8. Jot down discussion questions while reading.

This is something I picked up when I was a teaching assistant. Even if you aren’t guiding a class in the discussion of a reading, it helps to keep a notepad by your side while going through a difficult text. When you see something puzzling or disagreeable, simply pause and write down a question related to the issue you are having. The key is to never assume that the author is correct; you want to keep your mind engaged in what you’re reading, and staying critical is an effective way to do this.

This works for both fiction and non-fiction books. Basically, you’ll be asking things like this:

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  • Why does the author phrase things like that?
  • Does this piece of evidence make sense?
  • Does that paragraph reveal a bias of some kind?
  • How does that point tie into the author’s overall argument?
  • What audience are they speaking to?

They can become more complicated than these; it all depends on what you’re reading really.

These are all of the tips that I can come up with at the moment! I’m sure there are more out there, so if you find any feel free to comment about them below. To summarize, improving your reading and comprehension skills is all about becoming an active participant. You need to find what you want to read, and make an effort to try and retain some of its more significant points. With luck, you’ll be speeding your way through several-hundred page odysseys in no time!

 

 

 

Featured photo credit: Glasses_on_book_101.JPG/MorgueFile via mrg.bz

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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!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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