Speed Reading: How to consume content faster
Does your work involve a lot of reading? Do you find this to be a total pain in the ass? There's good news for those of us with low attention spans or those who have too much to read and not enough time, you can actually hack the way you read to comprehend chunks of text at a time and cutdown on the time you spend consuming content.
Depending on the importance of the text and how well you need to understand, you can adjust the following points to suit the context. If it's a legal document you're signing, perhaps you shouldn't speed read at all. On the other hand if you're trying to digest a variety of news stories on your work break, you probably don't have time to sit and read through every single article and just want to quickly understand the plot points. The following techniques can help you there to consume more content faster without missing out on the key details.
- Scan ahead to understand the context of what you're reading
This point is vital. In order to understand what you're reading, by skimming the article first you are more likely to comprehend the people, places and events mentioned in the article helping you connect the dots and fill the gaps faster, thereby reducing the need to read back over sentences to leech out the detail. It helps your brain view the body of text as one whole chunk rather than a composition of individual syllables. Blindly speed reading can lead to you thinking "wait, what are they talking about?" and jumping back to the beginning. Scanning ahead helps you better understand sentences in the same way as we can finish the end of a friends sentence when you already know the topic they're discussing or have heard the story before.
- Use a finger, pen or ruler to mark your place on the page
This is not a technique just for five year olds learning to read, quite the opposite! If you are trying to read very quickly this is a fantastic way to avoid distractions or prevent losing your place. Plus, moving your hand at a steady speed works as a pace setter. Using a pointer keeps you focused on moving forward and prevents you from spending time re-reading words, because we typically re-read 50% of a body of text as our eyes jump around the page trying to keep our place. Using a pointer hones in your focus and ensures you avoid these pitfalls.
- Focus less on each word and more on chunks of text
This is the big one that may be easier said than done. This technique comes with education and practice and isn't a skill we're necessarily born with. Once you can do it, it takes much less work to read long texts. You must start to view sentences and paragraphs as singular chunks that exist to communicate a message, and stop focusing on the fact that these chunks are made up of individual words. Singularly, most words are meaningless. Individual words do not communicate meaningful messages. But string them together into sentences and suddenly, you have language! Defocus your attention and view the chunk of text in whole sentences and you can being to comprehend the message being conveyed without reading as many words, by passing your eyes quickly over a complete line of text.
- Don't repeat every word in your head
We don't need to pronounce every word in our heads we read as if we are children reading aloud from a picture book. They call the internal monologue 'subvocalisation', and stopping this habit is what speed readers pay training programs to teach them. We should focus on seeing the whole sentence or paragraph as a whole and stop silently vocalising each word as our eyes read it. As touched on in tip 3, the words themselves do not matter and should not take up too much of our focus. We stop subvocalisation by bundling words together, in the same way we bundle numbers when adding. For example "We - don't - need - to - pronounce - every - word" becomes "Wedon'tneedto - pronounceeveryword." The context of where a word is in a sentence is what gives it real meaning, not the individual words approached separately. If you're not a well practised reader, this may seem insane at first. Changing the way you read sentences as an adult, really? But this technique is how others train themselves to read at high speeds, and it really does work if you keep at it.
- Identify sections you can skip
When you scan ahead as mentioned in point no. 1, you may notice uninteresting sections in the body of text. And you know what? You don't have to stop and read those. If you identify sections that simply exist to provide evidence or support for the main points of the article, you are under no obligation to slow yourself down by reading those. If you are doing research for a university report and will require all that evidence for your argument, you should read them. But if you are just trying to digest the authors' opinion on the war in Syria, you don't need to read every journalists' defence of every argument they make. Identify the sections that aren't helpful and skip them, because you have things to do!
- Skip the supporting evidence and stick to the conclusions
To elaborate on the point above that recommends skipping entire topics you find unimportant, you can also skip the middle section of paragraphs. Paragraphs are typically made up of three parts: topic sentences, supporting evidence, and concluding sentences. To be best informed you should speed read over the supporting evidence sentences, but the topic and concluding sentences are where the real gold is if you're really looking to get the reading done fast.
- Turn off distractions and set a goal to complete your reading
If you're finding it increasingly difficult to follow the above advice, the final step is to set yourself up for reading. When I have trouble focusing it helps to make a real production out of the task. Turn off any audio distractions, perhaps move rooms. Turn your phone on silent. Maybe have a shower and get dressed first. Whatever puts you in "the zone" to signify the start of something different to your typical routine. You are here to READ SOMETHING. I like to tidy before I sit down to read something long, it prevents distractions or reasons for me to procrastinate getting through the length of text. Setting a goal of how much you'll read before you're allowed to stop is the best way to hold yourself accountable. You probably don't know your reading speed, so don't stress about setting a timer. Just set yourself an ambitious goal for how many pages you'll read or how long you have to read as much as you can, and you'll find you're competing against yourself anyway.
Can you actually scan text quickly and still understand the argument without sitting down to digest every word? Maybe not at first. But we all consume so much content as part of our daily routine, and this content comes in a hierarchy of importance. Some of it is need-to-know, some of it is just for entertainment or mindless distraction. To start, you can try speed reading the mindless distraction, and nothing you need to know for uni or work, and build your practice in reading quickly without compromising on your comprehension of important documents.