Reading Efficiently

by David Barker

Efficient reading

For most people, the single best step they can take towards improved reading is to read less! We all tend to read, or attempt to read, a lot of material that is unnecessary, uninteresting and irrelevant. Time wasted on such items could be much better spent on necessary, interesting and relevant material.

So how do you read less? The key is to pause and think before reading anything. Ask the simple question: ‘Why am I reading this?’ If there is a good reason, then go ahead and use the other techniques described here to get the most out of that article, magazine or book. If there is no good reason to continue reading, then stop right there. And perhaps take a few moments to consider taking action to prevent similar items appearing again to distract you.

  • If the item is a newsletter that you subscribe to, should you really continue your subscription? It is very easy these days to sign up via the internet for huge numbers of newsletters, but unless they prove to be of some value you should unsubscribe.
  • Perhaps you were about to look at the trade journal that circulates around the office (and probably reaches you four months after publication!). It may no longer be relevant to your job, so perhaps it would be better to remove yourself from the distribution list (which will help others, for whom it is more relevant, receive it sooner).

If you have decided that you should be reading the item, ask yourself a few more questions before you do so. What do I hope to learn? What do I already know about the subject? Thinking about these questions before you read will tune your brain into the subject and make it more receptive to the material.

As the next step, preview the material, Scanning it to determine if investing time and effort to read the material will achieve your goals. This gives you a high level view of the material very quickly. Techniques for previewing are given elsewhere in this topic.

If the results of your preview indicate that reading will not be worthwhile, stop here.

The remainder of this section contains some general recommendations for improving the overall effectiveness of your reading.

Read regularly

As with most skills, practice improves reading: the more that you read, the better you will get at reading, and the more you will enjoy it. Given the huge amount of reading that we all have to do, it should not be allowed to be a chore. And if you enjoy reading, you will get better at reading, and learn more – a truly virtuous circle.

Prioritise your reading

For most people, reading is a very important part of their job, and so should be appropriately prioritised along with all the other essential tasks. If you really need to read a complex textbook, don’t just read a few pages in bed each night for the next month – set aside quality time and do the book justice.

Keep a reading file

There will be a lot of shorter pieces of reading (magazine articles, academic papers and so on) that can be read very efficiently at times when it is not easy to be doing other work: for example, while waiting at a train station or an airport, or even in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting rooms. So keep a reading file and carry it with you whenever you are travelling. Tear out or photocopy magazine articles and put them in the file. Memos and papers that are not time critical can also go in the file. You should also have your ‘ideas notebook’ with you so that you can make notes on what you have read.

Reading files have a tendency to grow very large. On a regular basis, remove the older material, pruning the contents of the file so that it is still easy to carry around.

Improve your vocabulary

The better your vocabulary, the better you will be able to read and comprehend. Therefore, whenever you come across an unfamiliar word, take time to look it up in a dictionary, and make a note of its meaning. Ensure that you always have a dictionary to hand. Note that there are many online dictionaries.

Read in the appropriate environment

If you have to do a significant piece of reading, then do so in the right surroundings. Schedule a time of day when you can best absorb the material – for many this is early in the day, but we all have different body clocks. Sit comfortably, with a good source of light – ideally, natural light. Although we might think that relaxing in a comfortable armchair with a book is a good way to read, you will find that your recall and comprehension will suffer.

Read actively

We often tend to read passively – a mechanical process of running our eyes over the words while we think about something else. In order to learn from your reading, you need to read actively and with a purpose. Before you start reading, think for a moment about why you are reading that particular item and what you hope to learn from it. Then concentrate while reading, and make notes. When you have finished reading, review whether you achieved what you set out to achieve.