To Improve Your Reading Efficiency and Skills


By Amy Sprecher Bly and Bob Bly

As John Naisbitt points out in his best-selling book Megatrends, we are in the midst of a transition from an industrial society to an information society. Because of this “information explosion,” the amount of reading we must do to keep up in our industry is growing almost daily.


In-baskets across the country are overflowing with journals, reports, papers, memos, foams, and letters--more material than anyone could possibly hope to digest.


But however tempting it may be to dump that towering pile of mail into the wastebasket, such is not a practical solution to the challenge of staying informed and competitive in your job. A better idea is to develop a systematic method for dealing with the daily influx of mail. The following 12 tips can put you in control of the printed word, instead of vice versa:


1) Be selective in the number of magazines, newsletters, and trade journals you subscribe to or receive. Analyze which give you the best return on your reading time and cancel those that are borderline, repetitive or offer irrelevant information.


2) Figure out which sections of each publication are most useful to you. After reading one or two issues of a journal, you develop a feel for which columns, sections and features you should read in detail, skim or skip altogether.


3) Use the magazine's table of contents to distinguish between useful and non useful information. If you can't read the articles right away, clip or photocopy items of interest and put them in a folder or in-basket for future reading. This keeps your stack of "must reading" whittled down to a manageable level.


4) Use waiting or travel time to catch up on office reading. Whether you are on the bus or train, in the air, waiting in bank lines or even on hold on the telephone, these spare moments, normally wasted, can be put to good use by reading.


5) Set aside a specific time slot each day for reading. An hour is usually sufficient. Pick a time when your schedule is relatively quiet and you expect few interruptions. Lunchtime or early morning may be the best periods. Keeping distractions to a minimum helps improve concentration.


6) If possible, read demanding or crucial material when your energy level is high. Some people work best early in the morning, whereas others get more done at night. Figure out when your energy peaks occur, and do your most demanding reading during those times.


7) When reading difficult material requiring retention, take notes. Writing down important points aids in comprehension and memorization.


8) Take breaks. Studies show that most people can maintain good concentration for about 50 minutes, after which they need a 10-minute break to absorb information and prepare for further work. Forcing yourself to continue reading when you are mentally tired is ineffective and inefficient, as you tend to reread the same material over and over, and at a slower pace.


9) Develop a filing system for saving information on relevant or interesting topics. Five to ten manila foyers will do the trick, For example, if you are an analytical chemist you might have folders labeled “gas chromatographs,” “liquid chromatography,” “u/v/visible spectrophotometers,” “atomic absorption,” etc. This kind of system helps you “capture” valuable facts and puts them right at your fingertips.


10) Set up a system for passing along pertinent articles to others. Give your secretary the names and addresses of friends, co-workers, clients and colleagues with whom you regularly correspond. When you want to pass along a pertinent clipping, you simply tear out the article, attach a note saying, for example, “send to Terry Henderson,” and have you secretary do the rest.


11) Before you sit down to read, make sure you have everything you need. This includes a pen, highlighter, note pad or index cards (if you're reading study material) and the complete text of the article.


When reading trade magazines, tear out the reader service card and keep the card and a pen in front of you as you scan the magazine. By doing so, you can quickly get more information about the products mentioned in an ad or article by circling the appropriate key number on the card.


12) Take a speed-reading course or buy a book that teaches you how to read faster. Although most people can benefit from an analysis of their reading habits, this especially applies if you are a slow reader. Do you subvocalize (say words to yourself as you read)? do you read everything at the same speed? Speed-reading can teach you to use bad habits and develop new, efficient ones through training and practice. (One book we recommend is Speed-reading, published by John Wiley & Sons, New York.)


As a guideline, an efficient reading speed for many types of nontechnical materials is between 400 and 800 words per minute. Slower speeds of 150 to 250 words per minute are appropriate for technical material. You may want to improve your speed if you are reading below this level.


Originally published in CPI-1000





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