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

Part II. Get In, Get Out, and Don’t Go Back

In Part 1, you learned how your eyes and brain can communicate differently to read significantly faster with comprehension. In addition to these physical speed techniques, the best readers use additional strategies to be even more effective and efficient.

Reading certainly involves moving your eyes across and down the lines of text, but it also involves thinking and awareness of the writing pattern by the brain. Knowing how your material is structured helps you find the important information quickly and move on. Employing the strategies presented in Part 2 will greatly enhance your ability to quickly get through your reading demands.

Chapter 6. Getting Ready to Get In

In This Chapter

• Looking at why

• What’s the best time?

• Finding your space

• Speed reading and the mind and body

• Determining the best strategy for you

Have you ever heard the saying, “Preparation is the key to success”? In the case of speed reading, this is definitely true! You can learn all the speed reading strategies in the world, but if you aren’t finding time to read or setting yourself up for concentration success, you’re missing vital parts of the speed reading formula.

In this chapter, we look at the importance of setting yourself up for good concentration and how it affects your ability to read fast with good comprehension. How you “get in” to your reading is key for predicting how well you will read.

When Multi-Tasking Doesn’t Work

Do you feel you have good concentration while you read? If you do, great! If you don’t, you’re not alone!

In his book Crazy Busy, Edward Hallowell, M.D., talks about strategies for coping in “a world gone ADD.” It seems that since the mid-1990s, people have become compulsive multi-taskers (or even triple- or quadruple-taskers!) because of a desire or need to keep up with and respond to the many things that come at us every day—the phone calls, the e-mails, our colleagues, the media, and so on. According to Hallowell, “If none of what you are doing requires your full attention, it’s fine to multitask, even though you may make mistakes, miss important points, be impolite, or fail to produce your best work.”


ADD is the medical diagnosis for attention deficit disorder. Common symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. It could be diagnosed in an inattentive daydreamer or someone who just can’t keep still. There are cognitive and observation evaluations available by medical professionals who can diagnose this condition.

Multi-tasking might be fine for some activities, but not for reading. Reading—either speed reading or “regular” reading—is a mono-focus activity. You need full concentration to look at words and understand them. You need full concentration if you want to use any speed reading strategies and if you hope for solid comprehension or retention. The good news is that, when performed in the right mental and physical environments, speed reading strategies encourage mono-focusing and force you to concentrate on what you’re reading.

Evaluating Your Current Reading Habits

It takes conscious effort to set up your space, your body, and your mind for one and only one activity, especially when that activity is work—and reading is work! It’s not like watching television, where you can sit lazily and passively and be entertained without much, if any, effort on your part.

Over your reading years, you’ve probably created habits—some effective, some not so effective. Your effective habits enable you to read with concentration. Your ineffective habits distract you from concentrating while you’re reading. To see how effective or ineffective your current reading habits are, complete the following reading habits evaluation.

Reading Habits Self-Evaluation

To encourage you to think about your reading habits, respond to each of the following statements with either Y (yes, always), S (sometimes), or N (no, never):

Reading and Time Management:

1. I am good at finding time for reading. _____

2. I resist the temptation to pick up the phone while reading. _____

3. I resist the temptation to check my voicemail while reading. _____

4. I resist the temptation to check e-mail the moment it arrives. _____

5. I always carry reading material with me. _____

6. I listen to audiotapes/CDs for personal or professional development. _____

7. When I come across usable information, I immediately make note of it, either on the material, flag it with a sticky note, or write it down in a notebook. _____

8. When I am interrupted by my mental to-do list, I write it down and return to reading. _____

Reading Awareness:

9.I am aware of the eye movements used in the reading process. _____

10.My eyes “stop” on the more important words in text. _____

11.I understand the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension. _____

12.I read in a quiet, distraction-free environment. _____

13.I generally read without listening to music (with lyrics). _____

14.I do not read while the television is on. _____

15.I generally read work or study material at a desk or table. _____

16.I have good lighting where I read. _____

17.I am aware of and try to take care of mental and physical distractions before I read. _____

18.I am generally relaxed when I have a lot of reading to do. _____

19.I am aware of my reading speed and shift it depending on what I am reading for and what I already know. _____

20.I enjoy reading. _____

Reading Strategies:

21.I know how and am able to …

• Reduce daydreaming when I read. _____

• Avoid going back over material I already read. _____

• Avoid mentally whispering while reading. _____

• Stop moving my lips while reading. _____

22.My personal reading pile consists of quality material I have chosen to receive and read. _____

23.I know how to deliberately skim reading material, looking for the writer’s outline before reading it line by line. _____

24.I can find the writer’s outline in most nonfiction reading material. _____

25.I can quickly locate specific, useable information. _____

26.I use my hands, a pen, or a white card to help me read faster. _____

27.I continually question the author’s point of view. _____

28.I know how to reduce my to-read stack. _____

Now, count your number of Y’s, S’s and N’s. Write your totals here:

Y’s _____

S’s _____

N’s _____

The more Y’s you have, the better. Anything you mark as N or S are areas to work on.

Make a date with yourself in 6 to 8 weeks to respond to this evaluation again and see if anything has changed. Hopefully, you’ll see more Y’s than S’s and N’s!

Remembering the Why

The most important and useful question you can ask yourself before you start reading anything is “Why am I reading this?” This simple yet powerful question helps focus your mind on the reason(s) why you’re spending your time and energy reading what’s in front of you.

So why do you read? There are myriad possible reasons:

• Find a new idea

• Identify a practical solution to a problem

• Forecast trends

• Understand a concept

• Revisit something you already know about

• Share with colleagues

• Increase your knowledge base

• Find information you need for your job

• Keep current

• Help get ahead in your career

• Earn a promotion

• Ask smarter questions

• Prevent faulty thinking

• Become better at something

• Understand political points of view

• Do research

• Build your vocabulary

• Make better decisions

• Improve your parenting skills

• Enjoy reading more

Speed Tip

Some people rephrase the why question, asking, “What is my purpose?” or “What is my motivation?” Any of these work.

Keeping your reason why in mind when you read helps you determine where to spend your reading time. If you’re reading to understand political points of view and you come upon material about the history of a political party, you might want to read it. However, if you find a section about social scandals in government, you might decide it’s not worth your time. Always ask yourself why.

Carving Out Time to Read

If reading really is a mono-focus activity, then finding time for it can be quite challenging. How often do you have time to “just” read? Some people plan their reading time, while others think they’ll read when they have some “free time.”

Really, there’s no such thing as free time. When you have a day or evening with nothing planned, you always find things to do, usually activities you’ve wanted to do but haven’t had the time—until now. Reading may be one of those activities. If you wait to read until you have free time, you’ll always be frustrated with your reading workload. If you can plan some reading time on a regular basis, however, your reading workload will be more under control and reading will become a more enjoyable activity.

Speed Tip

You have to consciously make time for the important things. If reading is one of your “important things,” you’ll find time for it. I sometimes plan to go to bed an hour earlier so I can have some time to read a novel or magazine. If I’m working on a new training program and have a lot of research reading to do, I make several appointments with myself during the workday to get that reading done. Sometimes I get up an hour early to get caught up on my reading. I also limit my TV time. When there’s a will to read, there’s always a way!

What Can You Read Right Now?

When you do find yourself with moments of free time, ask yourself this simple question:

What can I read right now?

Asking this one question encourages you to think more frequently about fitting in more reading into your days. You might be surprised at when you can work in some reading time.

Finding More Reading Time

Sometimes extra reading time just happens. It’s when you least expect to have the time but find yourself with a few minutes with nothing to do. Consider these possibilities to work in some reading:

• Read during your wait time at doctor’s offices and other appointments.

• Read during your kids’ sports practices or play rehearsals (you really need to watch the games!).

• Arrive early for classes or appointments and use that time to read.

• Arrive early for work or stay late and read during this “extra” time.

• Get up an hour earlier to read.

• Read over breakfast or lunch.

• Cut your TV time to make more reading time.

• Reduce your web-surfing time to make more reading time.

• Read during your bus or train commute.

• Read during the last 10 minutes it takes for dinner to finish cooking.

• Read more during work hours.

Speed Tip

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day. That adds up to 28 hours a week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year! In a 65-year life, that’s 9 years glued to the tube! If you reduce your TV watching to even 3 hours per day, you’ll buy yourself 7 extra hours of “free time” per week you can spend on reading.

To make the most of these moments of reading time, remember to carry reading material with you everywhere you go. Put some in your briefcase, purse, or car so it will be there when you have the time.

Speed Tip

Read at work? Won’t you get in trouble for that? Not necessarily. Reading work-related materials at work helps you keep current with your profession’s trends, find nuggets of information that make your job easier, or teach you something new. You can even subscribe to your business reading online. (For ideas on how to read faster online, see Chapter 12.)

Reading When You’re Tired

Ask anyone you know if they’re well rested, and most likely they’ll laugh in response. What about you? Are you well rested? Okay, stop laughing for a minute and think about this: how are you supposed to read with concentration and understanding if you’re constantly tired? Without enough sleep, we tend to be cranky, our judgment is impaired, and our learning abilities are compromised—definitely not the time to expect good comprehension when reading!

Speed Secret

The average person requires 8 hours of sleep per night, and most people have a pretty good idea about how many hours of sleep they need to be their best every day. To help ensure that you get your necessary amount of sleep, it helps to establish a set bedtime for yourself—just like you might do for your children.

But what do you do if you’re tired when you finally find that elusive time to read? Maybe you’re one of the many people who seem to be tired all the time or you save your reading for the end of the day after everything else is done. If you’re using reading to lull you into sleep during these times, you’ll probably only read a few pages before you fall asleep. If, on the other hand, like many businesspeople and students, you’re reading for work or study, being tired and trying to read is a combination that just won’t work.

What to do? You can plan your reading time at your peak time(s) of day. If you’re a morning person, read in the morning when you’re fresh. If you’re a night owl, make time when you feel the most alert.

If you’re a morning person and have reading to do late at night, a short, 30-minute power nap might be the recharge you need. Or you could go to sleep and get up early to do your reading. Either way, you’ll get more done in less time with better concentration and comprehension.

If you have to read when you’re tired and sleeping is not an immediate option, here are a few ideas to help you be as alert as possible:

• Plan short, frequent breaks every 15 to 30 minutes.

• Drink ice-cold liquids.

• Do jumping jacks or stretch on breaks. Movement increases the blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

• Eat smart study snacks. Protein (like a cheese stick or hard-boiled egg), fruit, and veggies are good choices. This encourages a more balanced blood sugar level, which keeps your energy high.

• Avoid caffeinated beverages, foods made from white processed sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup), or white flour carbohydrates (like pizza and pasta). These foods and drinks cause your blood sugar levels to spike and plummet, making you more tired in the long run.

• Drink plenty of water.

Finding the Best Place(s) to Read

Think about where you read. What distracts you there? A ringing phone or dinging e-mail? Other people? Your own thoughts? You can’t read with concentration in an environment where overwhelming external or internal distractions exist.

Let’s look at some factors that are most conducive, and some that aren’t, for enhancing reading concentration. You may not agree with all of these, and that’s okay. The following list is generalized to get you thinking about how these factors affect you and your ability to concentrate when you read. Note that a positive factor helps your reading speed, concentration, and comprehension, while a negative factor tends to hinder all three areas.

State of Mind/State of Being:



Type of Reading:

External Environment:

If you make it a point to be aware of these things as you set yourself up for reading, you’re sure to make smart choices. Your increased concentration will be the prize!

For Businesspeople

As a self-employed business professional, I find reading in my home office hard to do. I read e-mail and other work documents there, but I find it difficult to concentrate on professional materials that I read for information. I’m so used to getting things done at my desk that when I read there, I’m constantly thinking of other things I could be doing. My phone is tempting, as is e-mail. To solve this problem, and so I can read with concentration, I move to a clean table in another room, either in the kitchen or dining room. If you work with others in an office building, consider moving yourself to an empty conference room, the cafeteria during off hours, or an empty office—and, ideally, tell no one where you’re going.

If you’re tied to your desk because you have to be there to answer the phone or for some other reason, find someone who could cover for you or swap phone coverage for a half-hour, so you can get some quiet, distraction-free reading time. If you have a door, close it. If you don’t have a door, try being creative with signs behind your chair saying something like “Working on a pressing project. Come back at 2:30 P.M.” One participant in a workshop says she uses police tape to gate off her cubicle to get some quiet time! Another swears by the use of earplugs to drown out her noisy neighbors’ conversations. Think creatively, put your ideas into action, and you’ll be getting your reading done in no time.

Speed Tip

Before reading, try my arm-swing test to clear the physical distractions away from under your reading material. Place your elbow (either one) on your desk or table. Lay your forearm down across the front of your body with your palm facing you. Anchoring your elbow, slowly push the back of your hand and forearm away from your body, creating a semi-circle of space in front of you. Clear away anything your hand or forearm touches, leaving a clear space for your reading material (and note paper, if applicable).

For College Students

When I work with college students and ask them where they think is the best place to read and study on campus, they inevitably respond with their dorm room, the lounge in the dorm basement, or the library.

In fact, these aren’t the best places on a college campus. The dorm room is the most distracting because a bed, the telephone, e-mail, other people, music, and possibly a TV are all nearby, waiting to distract you. The dorm lounge might have comfortable couches that call to you to take a nap, a TV, and other people around to distract you. The library sounds like a good place, but depending on the school and the study area setup, it can be a very busy social place with comfy couches in a usually too-warm environment. Again, not conducive for alert reading or studying.

Speed Tip

If you don’t feel comfortable being in an empty classroom by yourself at night, ask a friend to join you. You work in one corner of the room while he or she works in another. Make a plan to meet for short breaks at scheduled times.

So where is the best place for a college student to read on campus? An empty classroom! It’s the one place the body and mind know they need to work. The chairs aren’t too comfy, and there’s always a clean desk to work on. The lighting is typically adequate, and there are no distractions like in the dorm or library. Study cubicles are next best bet. They usually can be found all over campus. Find the ones most off the beaten path for best concentration results.

Calming the Body and Mind

Have you ever tried to read in a rush? As a student, have you ever realized, 10 minutes before class, that you were a chapter behind in your reading and frantically tried to catch up? At work, have you ever remembered, in a panic, that 60-page report you were supposed to read for a meeting that’s starting in just 30 minutes? In either case, you probably “sped read” what you could but found that you were doing more speed looking than speed reading. You probably didn’t get much out of it.

If this happened to you today, though, you could relax, knowing you have at your fingertips many proven speed reading strategies so you can get through more material with more comprehension. Let’s look at some things to help prepare your mind and body for reading.

The Effects of Music

For most regular reading you do, listening to music can greatly enhance your reading speed and your comprehension. But not just any music helps; classical music without words works the best. Jazz, hip hop, rock ’n’ roll, and other music genres have words and distracting rhythms that aren’t appropriate for reading and learning.

For optimal learning, Dr. Georgi Lozanov, the father of accelerated learning, suggests listening to slow baroque music, played quietly in the background. He specifically sites composers like Bach, Handel, Correli, and Telemann. New Age piano or guitar also works well. And don’t forget about Mozart.

Why classical music? The rhythm of classical music matches your heartbeat at rest, which is 60 beats per minute. When listening to this kind of music, your heartbeat slows down, causing your body to relax and be ready for maximum learning. Listening to this kind of music when reading reduces mental stress and anxiety, activates the body for learning, and improves memory or awareness.


Accelerated learning is a teaching approach designed to make learning happen faster. By taking a course based on an accelerated learning course design— which incorporates learning styles with interactivity, colors, music, frequent review, and more—you will find learning easier and more fun.

Speed Secret

The brain is composed of two hemispheres, the left and right. Processing words is mostly a left-brain activity, one that is logical and sequential. By adding music, you add more of the right side of the brain, which is more creative and expressive, so you’re learning with both sides of your brain, or whole-brain learning. Whole-brain learning makes the brain more active in the learning process, which enables you to read with enhanced concentration, comprehension, and retention.

At times, a few minutes of stimulating music that quickens the heartbeat and awakens the imagination can also be useful. Marches and upbeat songs work well. In my workshops, I have recently used Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” the Macarena party dance, and KT Tunstall’s rhythmic “Suddenly I See” to energize a group.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Just as you shouldn’t listen to music with words while you read, you shouldn’t have a television on while reading, either. With television, you not only have the words, but you also have the visual distraction on the screen. Remember, concentration requires monofocusing, and watching TV while reading is multi-tasking.

Other visual distractions can include people walking past your door, goings-on outside your window, pictures on the wall in front of you, or photos of friends and family on your desk. If any of these frequently distract you, be creative and look for ways to not be distracted by them.

Speed Tip

If you must read in front of a TV, make it your favorite magazine or newspaper or other unimportant material you don’t need to read for retention.

If you have visual distractions but think you can’t do anything about them, try these possible solutions:

• Keep one wall of your desk/office clear of photos and distractions so you can turn around to that side of your desk to read.

• Close the window blinds or angle them up so all you can see is the sky, not the goings-on on the ground.

• Close your door and put a “Please do not disturb—reading” sign out.

• If youre reading on a screen, remove anything taped to the periphery of your screen (like Post-it notes, photos, etc.) and any distractions in your visual field (like personal photos, clipped pictures, notes, etc.).

• Position your eyes away from a television screen or any movement in front of you. (You may need earplugs to block out the sound, too!)

Tune Out the Mental Distractions

You’ve set up your physical environment perfectly so no distractions will keep you from your reading. You’re ready to read—except for the fact that you’re hungry, you have a headache, you’re hot or cold, or you have to use the restroom. Taking care of your physiological needs before you sit down to read can greatly improve your chances of reading with good concentration. Otherwise, you’re going to half concentrate on your reading and still think about your stomach, your headache, your temperature, etc.

Learning to keep your mind relaxed will help keep your mental distractions at bay while reading. In addition to taking care of your physical needs and listening to appropriate music, try taking a series of long, slow, deep breaths in preparation for reading and during reading breaks. This helps relax your body and mind and sets it up for more focus and concentration.

Time and Page Goals

If your reading is a study or work activity, then setting time and page goals helps you stay on track. With a time goal, you decide how long you want to read, without interruption, until you take a break.

A page goal is a little more flexible. You can monitor either the time it takes you to read your material or how far you want to be in your reading by your first break. By placing a bookmark or Post-it note at the place you want to get to in the time you chose, it might motivate you to keep going and stay focused.

Both strategies are especially effective for reading that you aren’t very interested in but are required to read. It forces you to get it done, and quickly.

Take Frequent Short Breaks

There’s nothing valiant about sitting in one place and reading for hours on end without a break. Your body doesn’t appreciate it, and your brain certainly won’t work at top capacity this way.

A short break—3 to 5 minutes maximum— can rejuvenate your body and stimulate your brain. Generally speaking, it’s better to take a short break at least every hour when the reading material is somewhat familiar to you, or every 20 to 30 minutes when the reading material is unfamiliar.

Speed Tip

There’s evidence proving that most people remember the first things they read and the last things they read more than middle things. So if you take a short break every 20 to 30 minutes, you’ll remember two firsts and two lasts versus only one first and one last if you took a break every hour.

So what can you do on a short break? Here are a few ideas:

• Get a drink

• Use the restroom

• Do some aerobic exercise like jumping jacks or run around the block

• Splash cold water on your face or take a very quick shower

• Stretch your body

• Listen to a song that motivates you to move

• Change the laundry from the washer to the dryer

But remember these are short breaks just to rest your brain a little. You want a respite but not a distraction, so don’t do the following:

• Watch TV

• Check e-mail (unless you’re looking for one specific communication)

• Make a phone call

• Surf the web

• Start a conversation, especially with someone you don’t see often

• IM (instant message)

These activities draw your attention away from your reading for much longer than 3 to 5 minutes. Save these as rewards for finishing your work!

The Library

If you want motivation to read within a certain time frame, borrowing a book from your public library is just the ticket. When you check out a book from a library, you agree to return the book by its due date. Most times it’s 30 days, but sometimes it’s 14. There’s your motivation for making time to read and read fast!

Many libraries—public, corporate, and school—have state networks to find almost any book or magazine you want. Using library services prevents book clutter in your home (because you can’t keep it), and the best part is, if you don’t like the book you checked out, you can always return it and get another one—no charge!

Start with the End in Mind

When faced with a reading task, most people don’t know how long it will take. They just buckle down and start reading. If, instead, you set page goals with time frames attached, you’ll read with more concentration and purpose and complete the reading in less time.

Let’s say it’s 7 P.M. and you have to read a 30-page chapter. Most people would have no real idea how long that would take, but you can figure it out by one of a few options:

• Read one page and see how long it takes you. Let’s say for simplicity’s sake it took 1 minute. Based on that, your chapter will take about 30 minutes to read. If you try to read faster and get each page down to 30 to 45 seconds, it would take you less time to complete the chapter.

• Read the chapter for 10 minutes and see how many pages you got through. Multiply that number by 6 (there are six 10-minute periods in an hour) to figure out approximately how long it will take to read the chapter.

• Set your own page goals by creating 4 long strips of paper, each about 2 inches long, out of an 8½×11 piece of white paper. Write one each of these numbers on top of each strip of paper: 5, 10, 15, 20. Before starting to read, place the 5 strip in the material where you want to be in 5 minutes. Then place the 10 strip where you want to be in 10 minutes, and so on. See how close or far you are from your goal at these times.

Speed Secret

Great American thinker and philosopher Earl Nightingale said, “If you spend one extra hour each day in the study of your chosen field, you’ll be a national expert in five years or less.” What do you want to be an expert in?

Decide on Your Strategy

If you follow the advice in this chapter, you are on the way to setting yourself up for reading success by knowing why you are reading, securing a distraction-free environment, calming your body and mind, and setting time and page goals. The last piece of the concentration puzzle, and probably the most important one, is to decide on what speed strategy you want to use.

If you’ve read all the previous chapters, you know about how to read using a pacer (your hands or a card), reading key words, and reading thought chunks. You understand how to spread your peripheral vision to read more in a glance. And you have an understanding about what helps keep your comprehension when you’re trying out new speed strategies. Experiment with any or all of these strategies to keep your focus and concentration—and of course, speed!

And the Results Are …

If you’re the kind of person who believes you’ll always get distracted while you read, I wish I could have you in one of my training programs.

After spending the morning teaching you all the speed strategies, in the late afternoon, I give a scanning exercise that has a set, 3-minute time limit and a goal to see if you can quickly and accurately locate the information requested by a series of specific questions. I start the exercise with my stopwatch and then everyone focuses on the task.

During the test, I intentionally rip—and I mean rip!—a piece of paper off the flip-chart pad in the front of the room, tear it into little pieces, crumple up each piece, and throw them on the floor. Believe me, it’s not a quiet activity! I then take an empty chair from either the front or back of the room and drag it to the opposite end of the room. I then place it on top of an empty table. If drinks are available in the room, I loudly pour a cup of coffee or pop open a soda can. At this point, I stop intentionally making noise and wait to stop the exercise.

My first question to the class is not “How did you do on the exercise?” but rather “Who can tell me what I was doing during the exercise?” The looks I get are incredulous. “What do you mean what you were doing? I have no idea!”

I then tell them what I did and show them the torn and crumpled paper, point to the chair on the table, and show them the poured coffee or soda. They can’t believe it. They didn’t hear a thing! They were reading with a reason why(to find the answers to the questions) and they had a set time frame and strategies to use. They were sitting upright at a desk and ready to perform their task. These are the same ingredients required to read in a noisy place without being distracted.

Speed Tip

Some participants get quite competitive when doing this exercise. It’s clear that this sense of competition drives some readers to work quickly and in a focused manner. If you have that competitive streak, find ways to create it in your own reading load.

So your task now is to do a One-Minute Timing (or if you like, a 3-2-1 Drill) to check your speed and comprehension found in Appendix B. Remember to document your progress in Appendix C. See how well you can set yourself up for reading success using the information in this chapter. Good luck!

The Least You Need to Know

• Reading with concentration means mono-tasking, not multi-tasking.

• Answering the question “Why am I reading?” is the first step in getting the focus necessary for any reading task.

• Not much reading gets done unless you can find time—or make time—to do it!

• Some places are more conducive than others to read. For businesspeople, it may be away from their desk. For college students, it may be an empty classroom.

• Calming the body and mind includes reducing visual and mental distractions.

• Setting time and page goals—competing with yourself—keeps you on track to get your reading done with the most concentration and the least amount of time.