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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 March 23, 2021

Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

You need more than time management. You need energy management

1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.

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I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

2. Determine your “peak hours”

Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.

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My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

3. Block those high-energy hours

Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.

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Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.

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Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via unsplash.com

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