The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading (2008)

Part IV. Overload Management

In this information age, having a “to-read” pile—or several—is very common. If you look at your reading workload, either on paper or on screen, and immediately feel overwhelmed, stressed, guilty, frustrated, or inadequate, Part 4 helps you feel much better.

In the following chapters, I introduce to you many simple yet effective organizing and prioritizing strategies you can immediately put to good use for your paper and on-screen workload. Mix them with the speed reading strategies you learned in earlier parts, and you have an amazing formula for reading success.

Chapter 14. Embrace Your Paper Reading Piles

In This Chapter

• You have permission not to read it all!

• Get a realistic grip on all you have to read

• Gain control of your paper reading piles

• Prioritize your reading based on your time

• Get organized with LATCH

Are you a “later” kind of person? Do you put reading in a pile you tell yourself you’ll “get to later”? Anyone who has a reading pile of any size knows who they are. There’s nothing wrong with having piles; it’s the thoughts and feelings you get when you look at the piles that’s the trouble.

Now please understand, there’s nothing wrong with being a “later” piler or even just having a paper reading pile. Every knowledge-hungry professional, student, or individual should have one. However, for most people, the pile is problematic:

• It consists of too much quantity and not enough quality.

• It makes you feel guilty for not reading it all.

• It makes you feel inadequate for not making the time to get to it.

• It almost always makes you feel overwhelmed and hopeless about ever getting caught up.

• You know there’s valuable information in there, but you feel helpless to get to it.

We stack up magazines thinking that just because we receive it, we should read it. We buy books that look interesting, or that we heard about on Oprah, or a friend told us about, thinking we really have time to read them. We subscribe to e-zines (online magazines or newsletters) because we have a genuine interest, but don’t think about the time it will take to read them. Then, we spend time reading articles that bore us just because they’re there.

Out of all this, all we really want is to find just a few golden information nuggets that will make our personal or professional lives easier, less expensive, or more enjoyable. It often feels like a lot of work for such a small but useful reward. Let’s see what choices we have in making this a better experience.

Weed Your Magazines

That pile of magazines growing on your desk, nightstand, bathroom floor, and/or kitchen counter (did I find them all?!) is like an overgrowth of weeds in a garden. The weeds dull the beauty of the flowers, and we stay away from the garden because we know it will take work, and time, to make it beautiful and inviting again. But what can we do? Weeds are inevitable, right? Not so fast.

More than 10 years ago, I looked at a pile of magazines growing on my nightstand and became confused as to why someone like me, an efficient and skilled reader, still had a huge pile of reading. So I took the idea to task and came up with a simple solution that has now worked for me, and those I teach it to, for years. The process can easily be modified for other types of materials in your pile.

Gather All Your Weeds

Right now, your magazine pile is probably overgrown. You can see just how overgrown it is by putting all the reading material you have to read in one place. That means taking all your piles and consolidating them, say, on the kitchen table or your desk. (Now might be a good time to have a good laugh as you look at all you have while scratching your head and saying to yourself, What was I thinking?! I can’t read all of this!)

It helps to know exactly all you have by taking some sort of inventory of what you have in front of you. Either write down your own inventory list or just stack like titles together. Note how often you receive them: daily, monthly, quarterly, etc.

What’s Their Value?

It’s a given that some pieces of material in your pile are more valuable to you than others. By picking up each one at a time and evaluating the magazine either by your previous experience with it or the cover stories, decide its value to you on a scale of 1 to 10.

Set 1 as the lowest, least useful rating you can give. A 1 means every time you read that magazine, you feel like you’re wasting time, you rarely find any good information nuggets inside, and you don’t feel any satisfaction when you read it.

Make 10 the highest, most useful rating. A 10 means you absolutely love this magazine and it doesn’t matter what the articles are about, you want to read it. When a 10 arrives, you’re tempted to stop what you’re doing to read it right now or, at the very least, place it on top of your reading pile to get to it first when time allows.

You can place a Post-it on the cover of each with your rating, write the number in marker on the cover, or just stack them in two piles: anything with a number under 6 in one pile and anything 6 and over in another.

Get Rid of the Undesirables

One of the piles is ready to go. Can you guess which one? You got it—the under-6 pile. You’ve deemed it unimportant and not of comparative value to you. So why keep the magazines in it?

Get rid of the under-6 pile! How is up to you:

• Throw it away!

• Recycle the pile (if you can).

• Donate it to a homeless shelter.

• Share the magazines with your local school or senior center for art projects.

• Give them to a new business in town with a waiting room.

• Tie them together to make a footrest under your desk.

• Any other creative idea you can come up with!

If you consistently have the same title in your under-6 pile, seriously consider unsubscribing to the magazine. The less valuable material you initially add to your pile, the better!

Weigh Your Pile to Match Your Time

You’re not done, yet! You’ve definitely made your pile more appealing and inviting, but you have to remember one important detail: when do you have time to read it all?

If you give 3 hours a month to reading magazines and you have 10 magazines in your pile, chances are you’ll still have large piles. Most people can’t and don’t read 10 magazines in 3 hours. They might read three to five, depending on their reading speed, how much content they like to read, and how fast they turn the pages.

Match your reading time on a monthly basis with the amount you have chosen to read. If you have more reading material than time, weed out more to match your time. If you’re one of the lucky ones who has more time than reading material, add more good stuff to your pile! Ask your friends and colleagues what they read. They might just turn you on to your next number 10! (For more about this reading time issue, see Chapter 6.)

My Reading Pile

I’d like to share my current magazine reading pile with you to provide a point of comparison. Consider that I am a self-employed corporate trainer working out of my home office. I travel overnights at least 6 to 12 times each year for business. I am a wife and mother of two children whom I feed and take care of while also managing the school carpool, after-school sports activities, and social schedule. Like many of you, I do the food shopping, food preparation, laundry, and general household cleaning. My current monthly magazine reading pile (which doesn’t include the one to three books per month I read for personal or professional development, or my online newsletters) consists of the following:

• Two newspapers (one daily, one Sunday)

• Eight professional journals (all monthly)

• Three personal magazines (most monthly)

I admit I don’t always get to the daily or Sunday papers, and sometimes I immediately recycle a magazine that doesn’t hold my interest or becomes too old. I do sometimes pick up a magazine I don’t subscribe to in the airport or supermarket when I have time and interest.

You might think this pile is a lot, or a little, depending on your own pile. But considering that more than 18,000 titles of magazines are printed in this country every year, I’ve chosen only 11 per month, which some might say is a very small amount. But it is perfect for me.

My small pile is all I need to feed my personal and professional soul. I’m not afraid of it, and I’m eager to get to it. I also don’t read everything in each magazine and use other reading strategies (see Chapters 7 and 10) to quickly get through it.

I place my magazines in a stand-up cardboard catalog holder. If the cardboard starts to bend because it’s getting too full, I know I either need to make more time to read or get rid of some magazines. I limit myself to one catalog holder’s worth—no more.

Lastly, I only keep a maximum of 4 months’ worth of my chosen magazines. If I have five back issues of the same monthly magazine, either because I didn’t make enough time to read or that title hasn’t interested me as much lately, I get rid of one. Ideally, I love to read this month’s magazine in this month! But life doesn’t always work out that way ….

Prioritize Your Books

A pile of books is sometimes more threatening than a pile of magazines. One professional woman I worked with had bought so many business and how-to books from an online bookstore that when people came into her office, there was no place to sit down! She had stacked books on her guest chair as well as all around it. She had read only a few of them and wanted to know what to do. I told her the first thing that came to my mind: stop buying books!

Get a Bookcase … or Two

The second thing I suggested was to get a three-tiered bookcase to put the books on and organize them according to her own value system. Just like the strategy I shared earlier in this chapter about placing a value on each magazine, I asked her to hold each book, quickly thumb through it, and decide, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being low, 10 being high) what value she wanted to place on it. Then I suggested she place all those books with a value of 9 or 10 on the top shelf, placing them in the order she wanted to read them. Books with 6 through 8 went on the middle shelf, and books under a 6 went on the bottom shelf.

She’d bought some of the books recently so the personal value was high; others were bought years ago when she was into different things so their value had gone down over time.

Carve Out Time

The third part of the process was to figure out when she would make the time to read any of the books based on her schedule. If she was unable or unwilling to give time for reading, then why keep any of them at all?

She confided that she really liked the insights books offered, but she felt inadequate and slow as a reader. She procrastinated heavily and found a million other things to do instead of read. No wonder she had an uncontrollable stack!

Decide What Not to Read

It might seem that she still has the same number of books to read as she did in the beginning, but she can now intelligently choose which ones not to read based on her value system rating. (She ended up giving away most of the unread books from the bottom shelf and some from the middle to her corporate library.)

She doesn’t read a book anymore just because it’s there; instead, she picks a book she feels has some real personal or professional value for her. And she makes sure now if she buys a book, she has the time to read it. This saves her, and her company, a lot of money.

She’s now motivated to read more frequently and not procrastinate nearly as much. She feels much more satisfied when she reads and finds it a good use of her time.

Newspaper Reading Made Easy(er)

As a college student, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to read a newspaper every day. At the time, I was the type of reader who only read when I had to and avoided it like the plague if unnecessary. The newspaper used to be in the “unnecessary” category. When I learned the secrets of faster reading, I found reading a daily newspaper a welcome change of pace and a great way to get a broader view of this crazy world. I was better able to make conversation and understand what others were talking about. It was also easier material to practice my faster reading strategies on.

I’d like to share with you an efficient process I have created to help me get through a Sunday paper. Some of this process can be used for your daily reading as well.

1. Get rid of the clutter. Start your process by getting rid of the unwanted circulars and sections you don’t need or want to spend your time on. They get in your way and distract you. I immediately remove the real estate section (unless I’m looking to buy some), help wanted, and sports (I hear enough from my husband and sons!).

2. Set up the paper for faster reading. Lay it flat out on a cleared-off table with all the sections neatly underneath.

3. Organize the sections based on your interests. Looking at the cover page of each section, decide which ones intrigue you the most, and prioritize them accordingly. This way, if you run out of time, you’ve read the sections of most value to you.

4. Quickly skim the headlines. Look for articles of interest, and disregard those you have no interest in.

5. Read the first few paragraphs or just the first sentences of paragraphs. Most newspaper articles are written in an A-frame style, with the most important, new information upfront, followed by the other, unimportant or older news details. Start reading the first few paragraphs in their entirety and then continue reading just the first sentence of every paragraph thereafter, if you want to see if there is anything new.

6. Use a faster reading strategy. Some of the best strategies for reading newspapers based on their narrow column width include the following:

• Reading key words (Chapter 4)

• Using a white card (Chapter 2)

• Center Pointer Pull (Chapter 2)

• The Left or Right Pointer Pull (Chapter 2)

• The S or Z pattern (Chapter 2)

• Open Hand Wiggle (Chapter 2)

If you’re partial to another method not mentioned, try it. If it works, use it. And enjoy the rest of your day!

Clippings and More Clippings

What if, while reading your magazines and newspapers, you come across an article you want to keep? What do you do with it? The best solution is to clip it out and save it. But what if you save a lot of articles? What do you do with them?

Weed to Make the Information Useable

I recently worked with a gentleman who admitted that he had 10 years of back issues of the monthly Gourmet magazine sitting in boxes in his garage. (His wife was understandably upset when he suggested that they move to a bigger home to accommodate his boxes!) When I asked him why, he said, “Someday, maybe when I retire, I will use the recipes and ideas. I love making chocolate and might want to start a chocolate business.”

I probed a little further and asked how he might go about finding those chocolate recipes after he retired. He looked at me a little perplexed and said as if trying to convince himself, “I guess I’ll have to read them all?” I then suggested he not wait until retirement and consider the following:

1. Get rid of 80 percent of the magazines, or 8 years’ worth. According to Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger, most people use only 20 percent of what they keep so it makes sense to get rid of the other 80 percent. He could have just kept the most recent 2 years, but instead chose to look at the cover graphic and magazine focus to quickly decide whether he wanted to keep it or not. He forced himself to keep just 24 issues, which is 2 years’ worth.

2. Of the remaining 2 years’ worth, take one magazine at a time, when time allows, and locate the chocolate recipes and other interesting information, using the table of contents as a quick guide.

3. Tear out the relevant recipes and information. Throw away the remaining part of the magazine and, as always, recycle when possible.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 with any new issues that comes in.

I reminded him that any recipe he might want and doesn’t have can most likely be found on the magazine’s website or located online after a quick search.

So now he has a collection of recipes and other information clipped out. He put the clippings in a pile, all in one place. I said he had a great start. Then I asked how he might find that great chocolate torte recipe he might want to make. He said he’d have to look through them all. I said there is a much better way: archive them in a simple-to-find file scheme so he can make this information useable.

Find the Clip When You Want Using LATCH

I share this great idea with you from Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman, one of the best books I have read on understanding information overload. In it, Wurman says there are only five ways information can be organized—LATCH:

Location This is by place, either physical or relational. For example, if you want to keep your recipes by region, you can create files for French recipes, Italian recipes, etc. If you’re a human resources director, you can create global files for the company’s various physical locations. If you’re a medical student, you might create resource files for the locations in the human body, from the head to the toes.

Alphabet This provides you with 26 familiar and ordered subcategories to file in. You probably already use this for the names in your address book, but you can also use it for your CD collection or office supplies log. My friend from earlier can file his chocolate recipes in alphabetical order or subfile them this way under broader categories.

Time Anything that has a timeline fits in this organizational scheme. In the example of the chocolate recipes, they could be organized by how long each recipe takes to make. So if you only have 30 minutes, look for the 30-minute recipes. If you have 2 hours, look for the 2-hour recipes. Long-term projects, conference planning, and quarterly reports also fit in here.

Category This is probably the first area to look at when you need to organize a lot of information. Think about under what categories the information falls. For the chocolate lover, you could use cakes, soufflés, candies, puddings, and so on. You could use various types of products or clients, different medical plans, and assorted types of insurances.

Hierarchy Think about size in this area. Anything you can list from small to large or least to most (and visa versa) fits this area. Although many things don’t need this possibility, the chocolate recipe saver could list the recipes from smallest products to largest, say from chocolate jellybeans, to candies, to brownies, to cakes.

Source: Wurman, Richard S. Information Anxiety 2, © 2000, pages 40 to 42. Reprinted with permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Let’s look at how my friend could organize his chocolate recipes using LATCH:

I have applied Wurman’s philosophy to my business and topic files with much success. But it’s important to mention here that there’s no one best way to file anything, as long as the system works for you and makes your information easily accessible and useable, then it’s “right.”

Even the Bills Can Be Appealing

So far, you’ve read about different ways to make and manage your reading piles to make them more inviting and faster to get through. In addition, you might find a few other strategies useful:

Make the bills easier to pay. When you receive a bill, don’t just put it on a pile. Open it up, throw away the advertising inserts (okay, quickly look at them if you must), and place the bill with the envelope together with the amount you need to pay facing out. Then file or pile them by the date they’re due. (You can buy a 30-day file jacket at a local office supply store to keep them in.) When it comes time to pay the bills, you can “speed” through them, or at least faster than if you just piled them without opening them.

Handle each piece of paper only once. This is a popular time management credo that many use and an equal amount cannot understand. It doesn’t mean you literally only touch the material one time. It means that every time you touch a piece of reading material, don’t do nothing. Rather, take some action that advances it one step closer to its final destination.

For example, when a magazine comes in, decide on your scale of 1 to 10 if it even makes your pile. Assuming it does, the next time you touch it, quickly look over the table of contents and highlight the articles you’re most interested in. Or place a sticky note on the article you want to read so you know where to turn when you have time. The next time you touch it, turn to an article of interest and read it. If you can read all that is of interest and finish it, then recycle it or throw it away. If you want to file it, do so.

Manage catalogs better. For you catalog shoppers, it can be very easy to amass a threatening stack of catalogs, many of which you may never buy from. They just keep coming and coming. And that’s the beauty of it! You don’t need to keep them all, just the most recent one, so consider throwing away the older one when the newer one comes in. And if you receive one you don’t ever envision yourself buying from, immediately throw it away (or even better, recycle it!).

Use organizing software. If you need to track large amounts of reference material on your computer, try Barbara Hemphill’s Taming the Paper Tiger software available at Researchers, engineers, educators, and others who read widely or need to have an easy reference database will find this software a powerful tracking tool.

So now you have choices that perhaps you didn’t know about before. By making your paper piles more inviting, you just might find more time to read, find more nuggets, and enjoy your reading more!

And the Results Are …

Once again, it’s time to check in on your speed reading progress now. Choose to do either a One-Minute Timing or a 3-2-1 Drill found in Appendix B. Consider first warming up your eyes using the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise in Chapter 3. While you read, use your preferred pacer method. Be sure to record your progress in Appendix C.

The Least You Need to Know

• Understanding that you can’t read it all is the first step to deciding what you want to read and what’s most valuable to you.

• Placing a personal value on all your reading material makes your reading pile more interesting and makes your reading time much more enjoyable.

• Organizing your books to read based on your current interest levels encourages you to read and greatly reduces your feelings of overload.

• Reading newspapers can be overwhelming because of the amount of information they hold. Approaching them in an organized way helps you get through them quicker.

• Using the LATCH system, you can create a filing scheme that makes finding your nuggets easier.