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Boost Your Comprehension By Reading Smarter

With all of the things out there to read on the internet — all of the blogs we want to keep up with and all of the news funneled to us every day — how can you make sure you read each item in a way that really enriches your life? The short answer: You can’t, not without help, anyway. Here’s how you can refocus and change the way you read so you’ll take more away from it.

Step 1: Reconsider What Reading Really Means To You

The video at the top of this post is from the comedy Portlandia, and like any great comedy, it speaks volumes about the world we live in. If you spend any time reading the web, you’re probably at least somewhat aware of the dysfunctional relationship many of us (and possibly yourself included) have with reading. Many of us are so quick to have our say on a topic that we fail to read the articles we’re commenting on. Or perhaps you’ve made the mistake of launching into a dissertation yourself when the issue you have has already been addressed. Conflicting articles, research that points in different directions, people being fooled by scams and websites that have their own bias, magazine subscriptions piling up on our coffee tables — it seems like even though there’s more information available to us, we’re absorbing less and less of it.

In fact, it’s really our relationship with reading and our ability to absorb information on a given topic that’s at issue. Do you read the magazines and blogs you do because you really love their content and appreciate what they have to say? Or do you have a love/hate relationship with what you read, where you find yourself more irritated than thrilled when you open your most-visited sites, or commenting only to say how much you dislike something instead of offering your own perspective or opinions? If reading seems like a chore to you, something you feel like you have to do to keep up, then your relationship with your media needs help. We’re going to tackle that relationship one step at a time, and hopefully help you build a more positive, proactive approach to reading what you do on the internet, form your own informed ideas and opinions, and come out the other side committed to truly comprehending the things you take the time to read and enjoy.

Photo by Kevin Dooley.

Step 2: Stop, Refocus And Build A Healthy Relationship With Reading

Stop and take stock of how you get your information. I asked Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, about where this plague of poor reading comprehension came from. He pointed out that the issue isn’t the amount of information available, or even the technology we have to bring it to our eyes; it’s that our relationship with reading needs re-evaluation. Here are three ways to stop and take stock of that relationship, and see whether what you read is really helping you think critically:

  • How much do you consume? Are you trying to read every popular tech blog on the web? How many do you really engage on, comment at, or share stories from? Perhaps you’re casting your net wide because you don’t want to miss anything, or because you feel like you have to read someone to stay informed. Let go of that perception, and consider trimming your feeds to the sites you really enjoy, communities you’re actively involved in, and voices that inform and challenge your perceptions.
  • Who do you read? Are your feeds full of voices that all sound the same? When was the last time you read an article you disliked, not because of a typo or because you didn’t like the topic, but because the subject matter made you uncomfortable and forced you to think about your opinion? Using politics as an example, Clay notes “If you’re wondering why Washington can’t get anything done, this model of information consumption is why: because one half of the country can choose to only hear what it wants to believe, they find the other side increasingly hard to get along with. This isn’t just political though — politics is just an obvious example. The breadth of information available, skimming or long-form, hurts our ability to dive deep into the answers to our questions if we don’t challenge ourselves to focus.” Instead, include different voices in your media consumption, and use those perspectives to inform your own.
  • Is reading really the best way for you to learn? Are you spending a lot of time reading things that you feel like you should be up to date on, but just aren’t absorbing? For example, for years I subscribed to a number of SecurityFocus mailing lists because I worked in IT, was interested in security, and felt like I should be up to speed on security news and part of a community of security-minded professionals. Unfortunately, I never read the messages, eventually switched to digests to cut down on the volume, and never read the digests either. I learned everything I needed to know about security from some of my favourite security blogs and my colleagues instead. If you’re spending time skimming or reading a site, mailing list, book, or journal because you feel like you should get something from it, when there’s a more effective option for your learning style available, put down the reading material now and don’t look back.

To that last point, reading the written word isn’t the only viable way to absorb information, and as long as we assume it is, the longer we do ourselves a disservice and make it more difficult to learn new things and expose ourselves to new ideas. Clay explains, “I think we have to let go of our dogmatic relationship with “reading.” In the face of new technologies, being attached to the written word is a bit like being attached to vinyl records. Now I’m sure I’ve irritated both avid readers and avid audiophiles with this statement, but I think what we’re really after here isn’t reading comprehension but subject matter understanding and critical thinking.”

“Reading is but one thing that helps us acquire and build those skills, and one one thing that requires those skills. But it isn’t the only thing that requires those skills – it’s just one way we consume information. We tend to attach some nostalgia to “reading” as the ultimate form of information intake, superior in some kind of intellectual way to all others, but can we really say that a kid can learn more out of a textbook than from the Khan Academy? I’m not so sure.”

Photo by Jayel Aheram.

Step 3: Choose The Things You Spend Your Time Reading Wisely, And Include Multiple Voices

Next, reconsider the sources of information you expose yourself to. Clay pointed out that while it’s easy to assume technology has a major role in how and where we absorb information, it doesn’t define what and how we read. It’s just a means to get the information in front of us.

Instead, he notes, we have the ability to be much more selective about what we read, which can lead to difficulty really understanding a topic. “Beneath the surface though, I think something else is changing our comprehension, and that’s choice.” He continues: “What’s different now than what used to be is selection and diversity, and I think that our ability to select only the information we want to hear has a really strong affect on our reading comprehension — it allows us to seek out information that confirms us more than information that informs us, making the synthesis of ideas very difficult.”

When you look through your feeds, check to see if you’re getting news from multiple trusted sources with differing viewpoints. Regardless of the topic you’re passionate about — whether it’s technology, politics, world news, economics, science or medicine — focus on the topics you want to read about. Discard the others that you skim or read because you feel like you have to (or that you get nothing out of), and then select a few trusted sources with differing viewpoints to help you stay on top of your preferred topics.

You’ll find that as you read and expose yourself to differing viewpoints, you’ll begin to build your own thoughts and opinions, form your own ideas, and even see the logic behind perspectives that differ from your own, even if you disagree. Plus, by eliminating the topics and feeds that cause you so much stress, you begin to transform your relationship with what you do read into something more positive, instead of an exercise in cleaning out an inbox.

The key here however is to make sure you pick trusted sources with different voices, and rein in your information fire hose to the topics you’re really interested in and communities you’re passionate about. Your goal at this stage is to go a mile deep and an inch wide — as in, stop trying to read every tech blog on the web and stick to the ones you really enjoy reading and challenge your opinions about the technology you love (and the technology you hate).

Step 4: Read Conscientiously, And Take Time To Absorb And Reflect On What You Read

Once you’ve whittled down the amount of information you absorb to the things you’re really passionate about and the things you really want to read and engage with, it’s time to actually read those things. Clay has some suggestions: “The number one piece of advice I have is to consume consciously and deliberately. Transform your relationship with information consumption into something that you do proactively, rather than something that happens to you. Once you do that, you can start applying frameworks – like the one I wrote about how to focus, and using tools like limiting your bandwidth.”

Trimming the amount of data coming through your feeds and bookmarks doesn’t mean that you should just spend less time reading, unless you plan to read less and learn more through other methods. Instead, the goal is to give you the freedom to really appreciate the things you do read about. For example, instead of reading an article and hammering out a knee-jerk reaction in the comments section so you can hurry up and move to the next unread item in your feed reader, this kind of conscious consumption allows you to stop, think over what you just read, seek out more information about topics mentioned that you don’t understand very well, think about the author’s viewpoint, and come to your own informed conclusion. Then you can engage in the discussion if you see fit, or even start your own conversation by writing an opposing or corroborating piece elsewhere, perhaps even on your own blog.

Conscientiously reading the topics you’re passionate about from a variety of voices gives you the room to think critically about what you just read. When you free yourself from feeling like opening your feed reader, inbox, or bookmarks folder is a chore to plow through, you’ll be in a better position to really appreciate what you read.

Step 5: Build A Flow Around Thoughtful Reading

Changing your relationship with the things you read isn’t a one-time process. It doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, but it does require some vigilance. After all, most of us didn’t consciously try to get to the point where we read more than we can absorb or think critically about, so it’s easy to slip back into old habits.

Before you add a new site to your feed reader, make sure you ask yourself whether you’re reading the site because you really think it’s useful and you really want to engage with the author(s) or the community. If you can’t honestly say yes, you’re probably adding it because you think it’s a site you should be reading, which is a no-no.

Also, if you do add new sites and feeds to your newsreader or aggregator and find you haven’t clicked on them once, haven’t read their articles in ages, or don’t get anything valuable from them, don’t be shy with the axe. Cut them off before they start to nip at the corners of your attention span. Don’t lose sight of your goal: to stay free enough to really comprehend and analyse the things you spend your time reading, and to spend your time reading things that enrich your life.

If you start to get overwhelmed, Clay has a number of suggestions on how you can manage the flow of information you consume that are easy to apply and will save you time in the long run.

Photo by artotem.

Extra Credit: Share Your Thoughts, Add Your Own Ideas

All of these steps can help you cut back on the volume of information you consume, target your reading to your interests as opposed to your responsibilities, and use the time you saved to think critically and come up with your own new ideas about the things you’ve read. The next step is to take those ideas and share them with others, if you see fit. Personally, one of the biggest benefits I derive from managing the flow of information in my life as strictly as I do is that in addition to being exposed to different ideas and having the time to really think them over, I also have the time to come up with my own viewpoints and perspectives and share them with others.

Sharing those ideas with other people does something transformative for your reading comprehension. Instead of simply being a content consumer, absorbing information where you can get it, you become a content creator, offering up your own unique opinions and ideas on a topic for others to read on their own. You’re suddenly in the same position as the people you read, wanting people to afford you the same courtesy of reading, thinking, absorbing, and then sharing their own ideas and alternatives (as opposed to rapid-fire reactions) and you’re dependant on those people for the same constructive reasoning and passionate engagement as you’re now involved in.

Even if you don’t decide to add writing to your reading and critical thinking flow, sharing your ideas and thoughts about what you’ve read with others is a great way to enrich your conversations, learn more about the people in your life, and grow based on their ideas and opinions as well.

Photo by aprilzosia.

Footnote: Don’t Hate The Internet, Hate The Game

It would be easy to blame the internet for what appears to be a trend in people with little information and a lot to say, and in fact, some people have tried to claim that it’s access to overwhelming amounts of information at our fingertips that’s making us less interested in reading and absorbing that information and applying it to our world view. We don’t agree, and we don’t even think that the volume of information available to us is the problem, either. A lot of people spend time and money to disconnect, retreating to resorts with no internet access and out of mobile range, in order to escape from their personal fire hoses of information, without realising that they have complete control over the flow of water from that hose at all times.

When I asked Clay Johnson about whether the internet has a role to play here, he pointed to a 2009 study by the University of California San Diego that says we’re actually reading three times more every day than we did in 1980, and actually argued that the internet saved reading as we know it. “I think we have to think carefully about this concept that somehow our reading comprehension is actually suffering because of the Internet, because it’s fairly clear that we’re reading a lot more,” he noted. One going theory is that we’re trying to do too much at once and it’s multi-tasking that’s killing our attention spans and ability to absorb what we read. Clay noted that there may be something to that theory, but if it holds water, it’s not the internet’s fault for presenting us with a lot of data to pay attention to — in reality, it’s the way we apply and prioritise that information that needs adjustment, not the source of the information.

If anything, the wealth of information on the internet and the discussion available in all corners on all topics simply brings us face-to-face with something that’s been happening for a long time: a lot of people have a lot to say on topics they may not know very much about. The internet just makes us aware of it because it’s everywhere and we’re engaged in more discussions on more topics than ever before. In a time where there’s more information at our fingertips than there ever has been, it’s not the internet’s fault that most of us have an unhealthy relationship with reading and interacting with the things that we read.

Photo by J Brew.

One of the best things you can do for your reading comprehension and for your own ability to think critically about the world around you is to recognise how valuable you time really is, and spend it reading the things that enrich your life. Take those lessons and topics, and learn to focus on them by looking for more information, building your own ideas off of them, and sharing those ideas with others.

These suggestions will help you get started, and once you start, you’ll find that your relationship with reading, both online and offline, is a much more positive, enjoyable one, as opposed to just another thing you have to check off your to-do list.

Clay Johnson is the author of the upcoming book The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. He graciously offered his help for this story, and we thank him.


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