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Two Simple Habits to Become a More Productive Reader

Two Simple Habits to Become a More Productive Reader

Modern professionals spend an inordinate amount of time looking for, reading, and processing information. Just in the last day, you’ve likely read news, reports, research, commentary, and/or blog posts related to your job.

According to a 2012 McKinsey study, the average knowledge worker spends 19% of his week searching for, and gathering, information.1 In a 50-hour work-week, that’s almost 10 hours.

What if you could reduce that time?

There are many different techniques for teaching yourself to read more efficiently. Some of our favorite efficiency experts, like Tim Ferriss and Clay Johnson, have explored such techniques in detail.

We think cultivating two simple and intuitive habits can measurably reduce how much time you spend reading at work.

1. Ask Yourself Why

Let’s face it: we’re adrift in a sea of information. This requires that you first decide what information you consider to be important.

Our first suggestion is an obvious and often overlooked idea: take a moment to consider why you’re reading what you’re reading. Answering the question, “why am I reading this?” before digging in should help clarify your goal(s).

Are you reading something to learn about a topic you’re researching? To keep up with developments in your field? To get background on a potential client or partner you’re scheduled to meet with?

Or are you simply killing time, unsure of what you’re looking for?

Clarifying a goal has been proven to boost performance because it forces you to proceed with purpose. Unless you’re looking for serendipity, or just want to take a break, try stopping yourself before you begin any unnecessary reading. When you realize you don’t, you’ll save your own time.

2. Look for the Information You Need

With your purpose firmly in mind, it’s important to stop reading every word out of a misplaced sense of obedience. Here’s what we mean.

As cited elsewhere, Dr. William G. Perry, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, once ran a test. He asked 1,500 first-year college students to read a 30-page history book chapter in 20 minutes.3 Before they started, Dr. Perry told the group they’d be asked to write a short essay about the chapter when they were finished. 

After the reading, only 1% of the students (15 of the 1,500) were able to write a cogent essay that summarized the chapter’s main theme. Perry learned that the successful students had focused on the chapter’s “Summary” section and the summary blurbs in the margin. He contrasted this goal-driven approach with the majority of students who ploddingly read every word at the expense of their overall purpose.

Dr. Perry called this behavior “obedient purposelessness.” Others may recall the old idiom about missing the forest for the trees.

Sound familiar? I think it’s safe to say we all sometimes succumb to obedient purposelessness. Dr. Perry’s solution was to teach students to “ask themselves what it is they want to get out of a reading assignment, then look around for those points.” This sounds simple, but it works.

Were you tasked with summarizing an important legal document for your team? By all means, please read every word. But are you looking for the gist of a news story, or a few key facts ahead of a client meeting? By following Dr. Perry’s recommendation, you’ll gather what you need, move on, and save time.

Developing these two basic habits should help you trim unproductive reading, focus on what’s important, and read more efficiently.


[1]  I’ve resorted to a common term here, though the McKinsey report uses “interaction worker”. In a separate HBR blog post, the McKinsey authors defined such workers as “managers, professionals, sales people, and others whose work requires frequent interpersonal interactions, independent judgment, and access to knowledge.”

Nathaniel Emodi heads up business development at Wiser, a web app that helps people find and share more insightful information at work.