Defeating Info Overload: Read to Succeed

The average American adult reads about 150 words a minute. At that rate, a 500-page book would take 24 hours to finish. If you had two hours a day to devote to it, you could read a book every two weeks.

Twenty-six books a year. That’s just a fraction of the great business books that are published – books that can help you work smarter. And when you consider everything else you read – magazines, newspapers, business reports, e-mails, etc. – it’s obvious that you can’t gather enough of the information you need by going about it in a conventional way.

To read for success you need two things: (1) a way to select good stuff to read, and (2) a way to read that good stuff faster.

How to Select the Good Stuff to Read

Deciding what to read is by far the most important part of this. Your brain is fundamentally a sophisticated computer. If you put good stuff into it, you will get good stuff out of it. If you fill it with junk, your thinking will be junky.

When you read for success, you read with a purpose. You are looking for ideas that can inspire you, strategies that can inform you and facts and figures that can help you do a better job. But since you will never have time to read 95 percent of what is published in your field, you need to be sure that the 5 percent you can read is the best.

Unfortunately, most of what is out there is useless or banal or both. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.”

In other essays, I’ve pointed out that just about every experience in life – including reading – can be categorized as enriching, neutral, or negative. I have labeled these categories golden, vaporous, and acidic.

Some of what you choose to read will be acidic – downright bad for you. Most of it will be vaporous – neither hurting nor helping you. And only a small portion of it will be golden – changing you for the better.

Promise yourself that you will read only gold from now on. Make a deliberate decision to do that by creating a reading list

Your reading list should include books (both business books and works of fiction), magazines, and newspapers – in print and/or online. And it should have two parts: a must-read-this-year section and a wish list of everything you’d like to read but don’t have time for.

The must-read section has to be limited to what you can actually read. The wish list can be almost any length, and is useful as a resource to draw upon at the end of the year when you create the next year’s must-read list.

I keep my wish list on my computer. It includes such books as Harry Potter and War and Peace, such magazines as The Nation and Esquire, and such newspapers as The London Times and Le Monde. My must-read-this-year list is much longer. It includes three newspapers, four magazines, 24 e-zines, 52 business books, and 12 works of fiction.

I don’t read every issue of every magazine and e-zine on my “must” list. Nor do I read all three of those newspapers every day. I have developed a method of rotating through them each week so that I am constantly stimulated with good ideas. And when I read business books, I use a speed-reading technique that I’ll explain in a minute.

The point is that having a reading list allows me to make a conscious decision once a year about what I’m going to read. It’s not up to impulse. It’s not up to someone else. It is based on my own judgment about what will be good for me. I’m looking for the gold. I don’t have time to spend on anything else.

How to Read the Good Stuff Faster

When I was a teenager, I was taught how to speed-read. I tripled my reading speed, but soon lost much of that skill because I didn’t practice it.

As an adult, I’ve read a number of books and articles on speed-reading and have developed my own system. Using this method, I have read a 359-page book on marketing in 55 minutes, four weekly magazines in 31 minutes, and the Sunday New York Times in 16 minutes (a rate that even my high-school speed-reading teacher couldn’t match). More important, I still remember (and use) a million-dollar idea I learned from that book, a time-management technique I got from one of those magazines, and a handful of interesting facts from that issue of The Times.

Reading stuff fast, after all, is not what’s important. Retaining it… and using it… that’s how you change your life. “The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it,” as James Bryce once said.

Here is my system for reading business books and magazines:

• First, skim the table of contents. This will give you a quick idea of what the book or magazine has to offer.

• Next, highlight one or several items you want to read. Don’t be greedy. You don’t have time to read everything, and it would be foolish to try. Select the content that you think might have the greatest long-term impact on your career.

• Now review those highlighted items and see if there is a common thread. What you are looking for is a Useful Big Idea (UBI) – a principle or perspective that is new to you and that can make you smarter, happier, or more successful.

Your job is to find that UBI, to understand it and figure out how it fits in your life. With that limited objective in mind, you will be able to sprint through the material – ignoring everything that is tangential and/or irrelevant to your purpose.

• When you find what you are looking for – the UBI – highlight the sections of the book or article that help you understand it. Continue speed-reading until you have what you need. Then stop.

• Make it a point to bring up the UBI in a conversation or e-mail communication. Do that within 24 hours so it sinks in and begins to stimulate you. Do it again within the next 24 hours. And then do it one more time.

Studies show that we forget 80 percent of what we learn within 24 hours and most of the remaining 20 percent in the week that follows. By focusing your attention on one UBI and referencing it three times in 72 hours, you will find that it will stay with you and eventually find its way into your decision-making process.
Of course, some business books have more than one UBI. A good example would be the book MaryEllen Tribby and I co-wrote, Changing the Channel: 12 Easy Ways to Make Millions for Your Business.It is a goldmine of ideas. Each of its 12 chapters teaches you how to master one important marketing channel.

To speed-read a book like Changing the Channel, you would review the table of contents, looking for two or three chapters that you believed could have an immediate impact on you career. (Immediate is the key word here. You don’t want to spend your valuable time learning skills you can’t implement right away.) Of those two or three you would select one and look for its UBI.

You might, for example, decide that you wanted to learn about telemarketing, e-mail marketing, and print advertising… in that order. So you would start by reading the chapter on telemarketing, looking for its UBI and highlighting the paragraphs that best explained it to you. Then you would use what you learned in conversations over a three-day period. By that time, what you had learned would have sunk in. Then you would go on to the chapter on e-mail marketing and the next UBI.

This method works. I’ve been using it for just over a year, and I’m much better at applying the stuff I read than I was before. Phrases come to mind. Terminology. Titles and authors.

It makes my thinking more “linked.” I am starting to see how certain popular business and financial ideas correspond to ideas about art and literature. It also makes me speak more confidently. And I believe it makes my arguments more credible.

I’m convinced that this is the smart way to gather information:

1. Read less, learn more. Don’t feel you have to take in the entire content. Search for useful big ideas. Focus on one UBI at a time. Get it. Repeat it. Put it to work.

2. Learn to scan. When reading books, give prefaces and/or first chapters your greatest attention because they are likely to contain most of the useful big ideas. Then read the first paragraph of the rest of the chapters and the first sentence of each paragraph below the first one. This technique will help you locate the big ideas fast.

3. Make it fun. The purpose of learning is not necessarily to have a good time, but if you care about what you are doing, and do it seriously, it will be fun.

Read less. Read better. Read faster. Have fun and learn.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • I only wish I could spend more time doing what you recommend. Health issues must come first. I am 80 and Jim is 82. Major health issues have loomed since Jim retired. After taking care of my husband and myself my burning desire and passion is to get my writings and other information published.

    I know if I can think it, type it, figure out how to publish it and make money I really would be a success. And of course tithe and give to others.

    First, I plan on giving to our humane society. They are building a new building for our friends and I want to help complete it. Our animal friends need wonderful care.

    Thank you for the opportunity to let me speak.

    Sincerely,

    Beryl