Reading More Selectively

The underlying principle is this:
   As the amount of information increases in a given area,
   there is an increasing need for the ability to scan that
   information at a high level and to be highly selective
   of the areas you choose to study in detail.
When I read anything, my objective is not to look at every word and picture as fast as I can. Rather, it is to identify and understand useful ideas as efficiently as possible, and then to either transfer this information to long term memory or note it for future reference.

Imagine arriving at a large lake and being told that somewhere in the water there is a buried treasure. To find that treasure, you could either put on your trunks and go for a swim, or jump in a high speed boat with radar programmed to detect the presence of anything resembling the treasure. This would allow you to do a fairly quick pass over the entire lake, noting areas that look promising, and then go back to each promising location, drop anchor, and go for a dive. You are much more likely to find the treasure because you will have eliminated huge portions of the lake very quickly.

When it comes to reading, your subconscious mind is your radar, and it is "programmed" when you invest time "self-communicating" the outcome you are trying to create.

Of course, when it comes to reading selectively, the most important thing is to make sure you are swimming in the right lake! Any time I'm presented with an information rich environment, such as a bookstore or a trade convention like COMDEX, I invest time up front getting clear on my goals, and then do some high speed scans over the entire terrain before diving into a single book or booth. It often takes discipline to finish the complete scan before stopping at an extremely promising location. Ray Dolby, inventor of Dolby noise reduction, encourages would-be inventors not to jump at the first solution because sometimes the really elegant solution is right around the corner.

I have just described a rather left-brain approach to reading. Its complementary opposite is to allocate some time looking for the unexpected. The key to this strategy is to set a specific time limit, since we tend to ignore time when operating in right-brain mode. My experience suggests that without the discipline of setting specific time limits for "right-brain" mode activities, there is a tendency to avoid them in order to maintain personal ecology.

Layered Reading

In addition to using your subconscious mental radar, you can read books more selectively by using a layered reading approach. Here are four phases that commonly show up in layered reading strategies:

  1. Overview: Look over the entire book at the rate of 1 second per page to determine its organization, structure and tone. Try to finish the overview in 5 minutes.
  2. Preview: Should you decide to read further, preview the first chapter at the rate of 4 seconds per page. Pay particular attention to beginnings and endings such as the introduction and conclusion, and the first sentences of paragraphs and sections. Mark key sections with Post-it tabs or a yellow marker.
  3. Read: If any part of the chapter warrants closer attention, go back and read it at whatever speed seems appropriate.
  4. Review: As discussed in the following section on memory, doing short reviews periodically after reading new ideas can significantly increase the amount of detailed information that makes it into long term memory.

There are several advantages to having seen every page of a document. It partially eliminates the intimidation of the unknown. It is also much easier to comprehend material at rapid speeds when your eyes have already seen the material twice, even if only briefly. And lastly, your right brain is a lot happier about the whole situation because it has at least some idea of the context or overall picture in which the material is being presented.

Saying that someone has one reading speed is like having a car that only goes one speed. Different material calls for different speeds. Layered reading is about being flexible in the strategy you use to extract useful ideas from written material.

Here are some additional suggestions for reading more selectively:

  1. Focus on key words and ignore filler words. As discussed in the previous chapter, most of the meaning in sentences is transferred by a few key words. Many times it is unnecessary to read all the "is's" and "the's".
  2. Skip what you already know. As you transfer more and more knowledge from an area into long term memory, the sections you can skip will become larger and thus accelerate your journey along the compound learning curve.
  3. Skip material that doesn't apply to you.
  4. Skip material that seems particularly confusing and come back to it if necessary after reading other sections. Books are linear while their subject matter is often multi-dimensional. As Hannah Arendt put it, "Nothing we use or hear or touch can be expressed in words that equal what we are given by the senses." It may be far easier to understand the material in light of information that follows. Giving your subconscious time to incubate the material might help as well.

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