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Triple Your Speed for Reading and Processing Technical Documents

Triple Your Speed for Reading and Processing Technical Documents

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.

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?

More by this author

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 August 6, 2020

Why Working 9 to 5 Is Outdated

Why Working 9 to 5 Is Outdated

Bristol is the most congested city in England. Whenever I have to work at the office, I ride there, like most of us do. Furthermore, I always make sure to go at off hours; otherwise, the roads are jam-packed with cars, buses, bikes, even pedestrians. Why is that? Because everyone is working a traditional 9 to 5 work day.

Where did the “9 to 5” Come From?

It all started back in 1946. The United States government implemented the 40 hour work week for all federal employees, and all companies adopted the practice afterwards. That’s 67 years with the same schedule. Let’s think about all the things that have changed in the 67 years:

  • We went to the moon, and astronauts now live in space on the ISS.

  • Computers used to take up entire rooms and took hours to make a single calculation. Now we have more powerful computers in our purses and back pockets with our smartphones.

  • Lots of employees can now telecommute to the office from hundreds, and even thousands of miles away.

In 1946 a 9-5 job made sense because we had time after 5pm for a social life, a family life. Now we’re constantly connected to other people and the office, with the Internet, email on our smartphones, and hashtags in our movies and television shows. There is no downtime anymore.

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Different Folks, Different Strokes

Enjoying your downtime is an important part of life. It recharges your batteries and lets you be more productive. Allowing people to balance life and work can provide them with much needed perspective and motivation to see the bigger picture of what they are trying to achieve.

Some people are just more productive when they’re working at their optimal time of day, after feeling well rested and personally fulfilled.  For some that can be  from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m; for others, it could be  2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

People have their own rhythms and routines. It would be great if we could sync our work schedule to match. Simply put, the imposed 8-hour work day can be a creativity and morale killer for the average person in today’s world.

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Productivity and Trust Killer

Fostering creativity among employees is not always an easy endeavor, but perhaps a good place to start is by simply not tying their tasks and goals to a fixed time period. Let them work on their to-do list at their own pace, and chances are, you’ll get the best out of your employee who feels empowered instead of babysat.

That’s not to say that you should  allow your team to run wild and do whatever they want, but restricting them to a 9 to 5 time frame can quickly demoralize people. Set parameters and deadlines, and let them work at their own creative best with the understanding that their work is crucial to the functioning of the entire team.

Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur who previously worked in broadcasting, noted to Inc that from her experience, “treating employees like grown-ups made it more likely that they would behave the same way.” The principle here is to have your employees work to get things done, not to just follow the hands on the clock.

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A Flexible Remote Working Policy

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously recalled all her remote workers, saying she wanted to improve innovation and collaboration, but was that the right decision? We’ve all said that we’re often more productive in a half day working from home than a full day working in the office, right? So why not let your employees work remotely from home?

There are definitely varying schools of thought on remote working. Some believe that innovation and collaboration can only happen in a boardroom with markers, whiteboards and post-it notes and of course, this can be true for some. But do a few great brainstorms trump a team that feels a little less stressed and a little more free?

Those who champion remote working often note that these employees are not counting the clock, worried about getting home, cooking dinner or rushing through errands post-work. No one works their 9-5 straight without breaks here and there.  Allowing some time for remote working means employees can handle some non-work related tasks and feel more accomplished throughout the day. Also, sometimes we all need to have a taste of working in our pajamas, right?

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It’ll be interesting to see how many traditional companies and industries start giving their employees more freedom with their work schedule. And how many end up rescinding their policies like Yahoo did.

What are your thoughts of the traditional 9-5 schedule and what are you doing to help foster your team’s productivity and creativity? Hit the comments and let us know.

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