How To Read Faster

I promised my readers to share ways to read faster.   One key note up front – I read for pleasure slowly, but when I read to learn or for work, I read very quickly.  I only use these techniques when I’m reading non-fiction, to learn, or as part of the job.

I've learned to read faster out of necessity.  I get a lot of email, and I don't like to spend time in my email.  I do a lot of research while creating prescriptive guidance, and reading comes with the turf.  I regularly spend $200 - $300 a month on books as well.  If there's one thing I've learned at Microsoft, it's that extreme scenarios lead to the fastest growth, and necessity is often the mother of invention.

The Quick Answer to Reading Faster
Before we start, if you want the short answer to reading faster, simply use sticky notes.  As you read through pages, ask yourself, “How can I use this?” and turn the information into a one-liner insight or action, write it in the sticky note and stick it on the page.  You can turn a several hundred page book into a short-set of actionable sticky notes.  I wish somebody told me this years ago.

With the quick answer out of the way, let’s dive deeper and elaborate.  My approach is extremely effective, but It's not magic.  It’s simply a matter of know-how and learning little distinctions over time, that all add up.  I'll share the key bottlenecks, the core process, then follow up with some additional tips.

Key Bottlenecks to Reading Faster
Here are the key bottlenecks to reading faster:

  • Comprehension.   Reading faster doesn’t help if you don’t comprehend what you’re reading.  Your reading speed will always be gated by your comprehension.  The good news is that your comprehension is likely already faster than your current reading speed, and you can speed up your comprehension.  A quick way to speed up your comprehension is to focus on building mental models, and asking better questions as you go.  Once you have a mental model for something, it’s easy to incrementally render your knowledge.  When there’s nothing to hang the information off of, then you have to work harder to make sense of it or understand it.
  • Eye speed.   Don’t let your eyes limit you.  Unless you train your eyes to move faster, it’s likely that they slow you down.   I learned this when I had to dramatically increase my speed with email.  It’s not just scanning, it’s actually teaching your eyes to up the pace.    I used eyeQ by Infinite Mind to increate my eye speed.  I was amazed by just how much faster my eyes could move through some quick training.  Once I got used to moving my eyes faster and learned what that felt like, I didn’t rely on the training anymore.  I mostly used it to get over a hump and get to a new level.
  • Subvocalization.  Sounding out your words with your larynx, even inside your head, slows you down.  If you want to read faster, don’t subvocalize (as much.)  Just like your eyes, your voice can slow you down.  This video on how to read faster explains the process and how to reduce or eliminate it, to dramatically speed up your reading speed.
  • Mindset.    If your mind says “slow”, then your eyes won’t go.  Think sprint or series of sprints versus marathon.   To read faster, you need to both want to read faster, and your mindset needs to match.  It’s also about being fully engaged.  This reduces distractions, increases focus, and improves comprehension.  The simplest way to put this is be an active reader versus a passive reader.  Flipping the switch makes all the difference.
  • Distractions or tangents.   Whether it’s a shiny object or an interesting rabbit hole, or just your own wandering thoughts, there are lots of ways to get distracted while you read.  There is a quick fix.  You can change your focus by changing the question.  I’ll share some key questions you can use within the process.  One quick way to stay on track is ask, “What’s the point?” or “What’s the insight?” or “What’s the action?”

3 Steps to Reading Faster
These steps are optimized for reading paperbacks or printed books, but you can adjust the process to emails, articles, or whatever.  Here is a summary of the steps:

  • Step 1. Build a mental model of the material. 
  • Step 2. Read to answer your questions.
  • Step 3. Use sticky notes to capture and consolidate insights and actions.

Step 1. Build a mental model of the material. 
Before you start reading the material, you need to size it up.  By making a quick mental model or map of the material, you will make it easier to learn the information or read through it faster.  It’s always faster when you have a map, even if it’s just a simple, high-level idea.  The point is to simply frame it out.
To do this, skim the book (or email, or article) end to end.  This is your dry run.  Your goal is to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land (chapter names, key headings, key concepts).  Think of this as mapping the terrain.

A good outcome of this step is that you know how the information is mostly structured.  For example, if it’s a fat book, I flip from the back to the front to see if it’s the type of author that leads to all the best information in the back.  I want to get a sense of the density of value as well.  Does the author take one point and stretch it out for miles, or do they keep pivoting off the same point, or do they pack in a lot of points of information along the way.  This helps me pace, know what to skip, and where to drill deep.

Step 2. Read to answer your questions.
In this step, you identify questions and you use them to drive your reading.  This makes your reading actionable, relevant, and engaging.  Questions help you focus and they tell you when you're done.  You're done when you've answered your questions.

Drive from a a baseline set of questions.  Information is useful when it solves a problems, answers a question, or helps you perform a task.  The short-cut through any information is to jump to the question, and use the question as a lens for the information.  For example, is this email action or FYI?  If it’s action, then “who does what when?” … and if necessary, “why”?  Tip – You can quickly generate useful questions by skimming the back of the book or the inside cover, and from the chapter heading and paragraph headings.  This is also how you can quickly figure out whether the information is even relevant for you.

Step 3. Use sticky notes to capture and consolidate insights and actions.
I already gave this away, but this is gold.   Sticky notes are your friend.  As you answer your questions, turn them into insight or action and write a one-liner note down onto your sticky note and stick it on the page, so it sticks out beyond the page.  This way, when you put your book back on the shelf, you can quickly flip back through and pick up wherever you left off, or go back and refresh your mind on the key insights.  You can also type up your one-liner notes if you want to boil down your insights or lessons learned.

What’s important here is that you are creating little ticklers for your mind.  Simply jotting down notes can help remind you what’s important.   If it’s electronic information, such as email, or an article, or an e-Book, you can still jot the notes down on your sticky note, but you obviously won’t stick them to your screen.

Additional Considerations

  • Don't slow down for speed bumps.  If there's stuff you want to drill into more, just write it on a sticky and then revisit.  This way you don't slow down for speed bumps and then you can give your speed bumps more focused time.  Sometimes moving past a speed bump will help you understand it once you have more of the book under your belt.
  • Make multiple passes.   If you’re getting stuck on something, move on, then circle back.  Sometimes things are way easier to absorb on the second or third time through.  Of course, if other information depends on this as a building block, then make sure you get the foundation in place.  The key here is to make sure you don’t stop for every roadblock.
  • If you get tired or you're not engaged, stop.  if I get tired or distracted, I just stop.  Otherwise, I read a bunch of pages but miss all the points.  It's better to just take a break and come back when I'm ready.  Sometimes even just a 5 minute break is enough.
  • Switch gears before you start.  Switch out of passive mode up front, and start out as an active reader from the start.  Setting the stage here makes everything else easier.
  • Point the way.  Don’t make your eyes work too hard to figure out where they left off, each time you blink.  Use your index finger to point the way as you skim through.
  • Set a limit in time or quantity.   It’s hard to keep a fast pace indefinitely.  It’s easier to sprint if you can see the end in mind.  You can set simple limits either in terms of time, such as read in a burst for 20 minutes.  You can set limits in terms of quantity, such as read a chapter or 20 pages, etc.  The point here is that rather than read until you’re done, chunk it up into easy mini-milestones so you can stay engaged and keep your pace, and allow for breaks.

If you have a tip or trick for reading faster, I’d like to hear it.  I’m especially interested in speeding up comprehension.  I think I’ve pushed my main bottleneck to my comprehension speed.

Comments (3)

  1. Stefano says:

    About the last point (set a limit in time), it has been "formalized" in the

  2. Manoj Nair says:

    Awesome post. Thanks a whole heap for sharing this.

  3. Nick says:

    Great post. Do you have any tips for reading on a Kindle?

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