Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Speed Reading; Legitimate personal development or just a gimmick?

A few years ago, I started to realize just how poor my reading skills were. It’s not that I can’t read, it’s just that I have a constant battle with staying focused as well as a rather slow words-per-minute reading rate.

I knew I was somewhat of a slow reader because it seemed that most people could read through a page or paragraph well before I was done. On top of that, people seemed to have better comprehension than me. “Faster reading and better comprehension? Is everyone I know some kind of genius?” I would think dejectedly.

I also have difficulty knitting together the sentences that I’m reading at the moment with the sentences that I read a few seconds ago. Stringing sentences together into a full comprehensive work can be difficult (if not impossible) for me. Instead of a full tapestry of thought, I see everything that I’ve read as a mostly disjointed series of vignettes.

Think of watching a two hour movie, but chunking it into 2 minute intervals or intervals that last only as long as each specific scene and only watching two or three of those intervals a day. That’s my reading experience.

Strangely, that’s also my movie watching experience. While watching movies, I focused on the scenes as individual units and never knit them together into fluid stories. At this moment, thinking back over all the movies I’ve watched prior to just a year or two ago, I only recollect them as a series of scenes, vignettes or segments devoid of any context. I did not know from whence a scene came, what it was doing or where it was going.

Now, with better insight into my comprehension issues, I have re-watched a few movies that I grew up with and used some newfound concentration techniques and am amazed! It’s like watching a movie for the first time. I actually understand what’s going on and see it as a story and not just a bunch of cool scenes that follow one after the other. My comprehension isn’t nearly as good as I’d like it to be, but I’m healing it little bit at a time… partly through my previous involvement in speed reading. More on that later.

I also tended to get lost in thinking about how I would personally react in the movie’s circumstances rather than enjoying the story itself, but I think that’s another, separate issue.

What’s worse is that I didn’t even know anything was wrong about my experience or that people experienced things in any other way. I suppose I did have an inkling that something was wrong. When people talked of things like character and plot development being too slow/fast/predictable, I looked at them in silent puzzlement, not knowing how one would even sense something like that. I felt stupid.

Now, imagine having these issues with learning and general information gathering… with your job title being “Systems Administrator”. Anyone remotely connected with IT knows how much info we have to wade through. If any job would expose my problems with learning, this would be it.

In fact it was the job’s mental workload that truly made me realize there was a problem and I needed to do something about it. One day I discussed my problems with my boss, particularly concerning my slow reading speed, and he mentioned a speed reading program that he had tried and had success with.

I was slightly skeptical, however this person’s track record of not getting sucked into gimmicks lent some instant credibility to the concept. In my limited exposure to speed reading, it all seemed murky and on the fringes of rationality.

I performed a reading speed test and found that I read at about 160 WPM with supposedly full comprehension. If I attempted to push it to 200, comprehension dropped sharply. 160 WPM reading speed isn’t too bad. However, cut that speed at least in half when you realize that I often need multiple passes to understand something. Further drop that number when you realize that I tended to force myself to slow my reading down in an effort to forcefully understand what I was reading.

I decided to look into this certain speed reading program to see what it was all about. This program is not photo reading, subconscious absorption, skimming or “schematic processing” system. According to Wikipedia, it would probably be classified as “Meta Guiding”.

The basic concept is very simple. You must first stop mentally vocalizing the words that you read in your head. I do this all the time… and I didn’t even know I was doing it. I have a friend who is studying to be a librarian who reads around 500 WPM (I tested his speed one day out of interest). I asked him if he pronounces the words in his head and he thought about it for a moment before answering “no”. Apparently, he had never thought about it. It was just natural to see the words without pronouncing them mentally.

After breaking that habit with some help from the program, you also are encouraged to expand your vision slightly (not the “peripheral absorption” that I think some systems may delve into) as well as keeping a rythmic flow of your eyes over the text.

I have settled on one speed reading course in particular that seems mostly devoid of mysticism and pseudo-science. I will not reveal it’s name publically just yet, if ever. If anyone is interested, I’ll tell them through email or IM (email and IM me through nonapeptide@gmail / live.com depending on your network of choice). I’ve attempted to go through this course late in 2009, but had other commitments get in the way as well as my own undisciplined time management habits.

During my attempt at working through the course, I made a few fascinating breakthroughs. I found it amazing that my comprehension seemed to go up and my ability to absorb information increased. What it seemed like was that my whole life my brain wants information fast, but my reading habits (pronouncing words in my head, for one) kept me back. My brain in frustration would wander off to other thoughts further thwarting my attempt at learning. As a result, I’d get even more frustrated and force myself to concentrate on the text, only I would then read more deliberately and more slowly which only served to compounded the problem.

Attempting to bump my reading speed up actually helped satiate my brain, helped it to stay focused and increased my learning ability (and decreased my frustration levels which in itself helps out quite a bit).

The plan is simple. I give a few minutes to my speed reading exercise twice a day for six days in a week. The lessons can be repeated for as many days as I think I need to. For example, one day does not necessarily equate to one lesson. I could spend 3 days or a whole week on a lesson. Whatever seems best.

I’ll go through all ten lessons (and not wander away from the course like I did last time), which I estimate might take a month, and see if I can put into practice the timing, vision and speed discipline into my everyday reading. From then, it’s a matter of maintenance to do an exercise or two a day at the speed level that I want to maintain.

My goal is to be at 600 to 700 WPM reading with close to 100% comprehension. Obviously, material that is complex or new will require slower times, however simply reading a ZDNet article of 500 words shouldn’t take more than 60 seconds. With all of the Google Reader blogs I’m subscribed to, I’d love to power through a few dozen of them in just 10 or 15 minutes since not many of them are deep dives into murky technical waters (Except for SysAdmin1138’s Storage Administration entries =) ).

I’ll record my progress here as well as delve a little deeper into the topic of speed reading over the coming weeks.

Any comments, debate, flames and etc. are welcomed. I don’t moderate my comments so as long as you don’t say too many bad words or try to sell R0lex watches, you’re comments will be accepted. =)

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