Saturday, October 16, 2021

Using Speed Reading Skimming

One of the techniques I've been using since I've been learning about speed reading is skimming. This is surprisingly effective.

There are several variations of it. The specific method I've been using is to skim a book's table of contents, then skim its actual contents:

  • For the table of contents, I read the chapter and top-level section headings.
  • For the actual contents, I read each heading and the first clause, line, or sentence of each paragraph.
The content skim depends a bit on the writing style and layout. Some paragraphs might be very short, or might be only a single long sentence consisting of multiple clauses. Others might be very long, just a couple per page.

In general, I'm trying to read roughly one out of every 5 lines, or 3-5 sentences per page.

That allows me to cover 100-300 pages per hour. Make no mistake, this is not a deep dive on information; it's a sampling method. I use the pomodoro technique with it, in 25 minute/5 minute cycles.

What's so surprising about this is that despite actually reading only 10-20% of the material, I'm able to pull a good amount of information out of it. That allows me to digest a complete book in an hour or three.

This takes advantage of the fact that paragraph structure is typically a topic sentence followed by supporting sentences. The high level information is there at the beginning. That's not uniformly the case, but it's consistent enough that the overall gist of the material can be extracted this way.

While I may not comprehend 100% of the book (since I didn't actually read it), before I skimmed it I comprehended zero percent of it. So it's definitely useful progress.

Skimming works equally well with short-form content such as articles or online posts, taking just a few minutes, and with medium-form content such as entire newspapers, magazines, and journals, taking 10 minutes to an hour.

Skimming has a number of benefits:

  • It acts as a first pass to prepare my mind for a more in-depth read, preloading a summary of the information.
  • It provides a gestalt and context to help grok the overall material.
  • It helps me quickly assess the quality of the material, for instance for a review.
  • It helps me prioritize the things I want to cover more deeply in a second pass, skipping the ones I don't need.
  • It allows me to quickly refresh, review, reassess, and reintegrate material I've read before.
  • If I'm going through multiple books and resources, I can do a first-pass digest of all of them, then a second pass on each one subject to what I got from the others.
The ability to take repeated passes through material is very helpful for increasing comprehension and retention, making use of the brain's reticular activating system (RAS). This is something Jim Kwik talks about in Limitless (see Review: Limitless, by Jim Kwik). Spaced repetition helps overcome the "forgetting curve."

The pomodoro technique takes advantage of the primacy and recency effects of memory by splitting the activity into multiple sessions with breaks that allow the brain to consolidate information: primacy means we remember what we learned at the beginning of a session, and recency means we remember what we learned most recently at the end of a session. It's the stuff in the middle that doesn't do well, which is part of why cramming for hours without breaks is not effective.

I don't use this for everything. It's not suitable as the first pass for all material. When I'm reading a novel for pleasure, I want to savor every detail (and not get hopelessly confused in the plot and character interactions).

But when I want to acquire information quickly, it really does work. It also works well for incremental, additive understanding and reinforcement, lighting up the memory. That even works for later passes over material that I read normally the first time.

Here are two videos on reading a book a day that talk about skimming, with some slight variations and applications of the method. The first is a great short overview of the speed reading techniques I'm practicing, including skimming. The second talks about using skimming to filter the material down to the really interesting parts worth focusing on.

I cannot overstate how mind-bogglingly effective this is. I wish I'd learned it 50 years ago! Now I'll use it for the next 50.

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