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Triple Your Speed for Reading and Processing Technical Documents

Triple Your Speed for Reading and Processing Technical Documents
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Has it happened to you that your boss passes by your desk with some new assignments, and then adds: “Oh, and by the way, can you go over these reports?”, while pouring 500 pages of printed paper onto your desk? And does that mean you’ll be stuck in the office until closing time? Or are you a student, battered down by all the reading assignments your professors give you? Or simply an avid, interested reader feeling like you can’t keep up with all the good books that are being published?

If you just answered “yes” to any of the previous questions, it might be time to change your reading strategy. While this post is mainly aimed at reading technical documents, the same principles can be applied to all kinds of reading. In fact, practicing these principles on your summer/airplane detective story reading is great exercise for cultivating this skill, which is the ability to absorb as much written information in as little time as possible. Others might simply call this speed-reading, but this skill not only deals with increasing your reading speed, but also with increasing your ability to filter out the most important parts of a document.

Understanding the elements of speed-reading

Certainly, reading faster will help you process information more quickly—that is easy to understand—so let’s start by looking at how exactly you can learn speed-reading. In this category, there are two skills to master: clustering words and skimming.

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Skimming means extracting the important words from a block of text and ignoring all the rest. When you skim, your eyes highlight the words that signal the action, time, and/or location in a sentence. With that information, you have all you need to know. Smaller words, such as “an”, “and”, and such are of no use for your brain’s capacity to process the information you read.

Here’s how to skim: Let your eyes move past a block of text, line by line. Instead of reading every single word, practice filtering out the keywords within a snap of your fingers, and then move on. Afterwards, take a moment to digest what you just read, and see if you could grasp the meaning of the paragraph you studied.

Clustering means looking at several words together instead of at each word separately. The ability to cluster words together and process them jointly will greatly improve your reading speed. Clusters can form around the keywords that you skim. As you can imagine, skimming and clustering are processes that go hand in hand. Clustering increases both your speed and comprehension of a document.

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Here’s how to cluster: Practice by looking at a number of words (ideally 3 to 4 at a time) together instead of looking at every word separately.

If you want to practice your speed reading, there’s a free online tool called  that you might like to use.

Reading smarter

If you need to distill information from a report, reading front to back is the least effective way of cutting through the crap and getting to the core of the story. To save time, read in a smarter way, so that you have a larger return on time investment for reading. If you are really pressed for time, you might wish to jump to the conclusions and summary section right away. An executive summary might be added, and sometimes you probably will only need to look at this part of a report.

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Too often, however, if you need to work with the presented material, you will need to understand the reasoning behind the conclusions and be able to criticize these or continue working along the same lines. For those cases, reading the summary and conclusions won’t be sufficient. What you need is to use an approach of zooming from helicopter view to detailed view.

Start by reading the introduction section, and the summary and comments section: this is your first round of browsing through the document.

Then, go for a second round. Study the titles as well as the figures and graphs, along with their captions. In a well-written report, the most important information is invariably presented in the figures.

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Your third round will go even deeper: For this round, you will read the beginning and ends of the paragraphs. If a document is written clearly, every paragraph starts with an introduction and ends with the conclusion of that paragraph.

Engage your memory

A final step to increase the amount of information you can absorb during a decreased amount of time is to engage your memory. When we read, our brain activity is typically dominated by an inner voice that reads the text out loud to us.

In a first step, you need to learn how to silence this inner voice. In a second step, you can now use the vacated computing power in your brain to actually engage your memory and thought patterns while you read. By doing so, you will greatly improve your understanding of the material you are working through.

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As you see, by improving the speed at which you read, by fine-tuning the process that you follow to win information from a report and then finally by engaging your memory while you read, you have 3 tools to triple the speed at which you can crack a technical document.

Do you apply speed-reading techniques to hack your technical documents?

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Eva Lantsoght

Eva is a university professor and a professional structural engineer. She writes about achieving excellence and success in life on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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