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Reading Redux, plus a 501 Productivity Roundup

A while back Mark Shead over at his smashing Productivity501 asked a bunch of productivity/personal development bloggers our thoughts on some favorite topics. He's just published the reading-related replies in Personal Development: Reading Habits. There are some fine ideas there, so check it out. Thanks Mark!

I thought I'd use this as an excuse to share the other answers I gave him, plus an update on my current reading workflow.


I'm curious...

  • What's your top tip for staying on top of reading?
  • What's currently on your bookshelf?
  • How does your candidates library look?
  • How do you ensure learning via review?
  • What's the last title that had impact, i.e., changed how you see the world or how you behave in it?

Reading Workflow Update

  • For note-taking I've moved from handwritten notes -> using a voice recorder that I transcribe (see Notes On Using A Digital Voice Recorder For Taking Reading Notes) -> voice recorded notes that I outsourced (see The 4-hour Workweek Applied: How I Spent $100, Saved Hours, And Boosted My Reading Workflow) -> back again to handwritten notes. Advantages: Portable, durable, inexpensive, and require no electricity.
  • The note-taking system I'm using is "bookstrips" (my term). IMG_5385
    IMG_5382 For each book in progress I tear off a long strip of narrow adding machine paper, which works as a combined bookmark and note index. The index is a variation of the method I described in How To Read A Lot Of Books In A Short Time: Put a pencil dot in the margin next to each sentence that strikes you, and keep an index of page numbers with dots on the paper strip. You can jot a short note next to the indexed page number, if necessary. For example, if a passage generates a blog idea I'll write just enough to remind me when I process the final notes.
  • Queues: I use a loose adaptation of Leveen's workflow (see A Reading Workflow Based On Leveen's "Little Guide") with my Amazon wish list as my pre-candidates list, a large bookcase for my candidates library, with my currently reading stack in my briefcase and spread around the house.
  • Lest you think having a large candidates library is bad, consider this passage from Taleb's The Black Swan: "Read books are far less valuable than unread ones." (He attributes the "anti-library" to Umberto Eco.)
  • For Leveen's Apr├Ęs reading shelves I've substituted an opportunistic review method: I simply enter the bookstrips as text in my IdeaFile, tag them appropriately, and review/rediscover them when doing research for blog posts, products, or client work. This is the weakest link in my integrating the books' ideas; I could use a better review system.
  • I have a queue of "Bookstrips-To-Enter," which I work on semi-daily. This is effectively a daily checklist, along with "Read 15 minutes" and "Process Bookmarks." I try to balance inputs with outputs (books reading vs. bookstrip backlog (see The Productivity I/O Sweet Spot) but my eyes are usually bigger than my stomach. Compounding the problem is that entering the notes is tedious.
  • Scanning/skimming: Want to multiply your reading speed? Don't read the whole book! I talked about this in Reading Gone Wild! How To Read Five Books A Week (or Why Scott Ginsberg Is My Hero). Need ideas? Read the excellent comments on How To Read A Lot Of Books In A Short Time.
  • In the how to treat life as an experiment category, I've found it's much less threatening to read a book (and therefore to make solid reading progress) if you let curiosity drive. Instead of "I've got to work through this entire book," think "What the hell - I'll just look for the interesting bits." Permission is hereby given to not completely read a work.
  • For first-tier in-process articles, I put printed copies in my portable Action Support folder, and read them in my "between" moments.
  • My system for tracking electronic articles is developing, with an unclear split between bookmarks and a simple To Read text file. This needs cleaning. (Sidebar: I have clients who rave over Instapaper, esp. for the iPhone. Anyone using it?)

Productivity: What is your biggest challenge to productivity and how do you overcome it?

Good question! My current biggest roadblock is discipline (being able to maintain steady, productive behavior in spite of how I feel). The contributing factors? A bunch including unwillingness to defer gratification, succumbing to distractions (heading down the rabbit hole), working on comforting but low value tasks, and low energy/motivation.

How to fix it? Whew! The patented IdeaMatt Big Arse Text File shows over sixty resources on the topic, so I have no excuse not to make progress on this. The one that's helped so far is removing a major distraction by creating structure that makes it much harder to give in to (removing a program/account in this case).

Time-Management: Have you been able to outsource any of your work?

Yes, two things: Transcriptions of voice notes on books (see The 4-hour Workweek Applied: How I Spent $100, Saved Hours, And Boosted My Reading Workflow) and web site work (so far: design and transferring my blog).

Technology: How do you decide if a new technology is worth investing in or whether it is a waste of time?

This is a timely question as I've made some very large technology changes in the past few months. I switched from Windows to Macintosh (an excellent move overall), and I've switched from paper to digital tools for my self-management practice (see Tool Update: Matt Goes Digital! Plus A Few Mac Productivity Lessons). The biggest question to ask is whether the pay-off is worth the investment of your precious time and resources. Answer honestly, factor in the Gee Whiz factor (but don't weigh it too much), and go ahead only if there's a significant improvement. Any technology is guaranteed to involve headaches and unexpected problems, so tread lightly!

Organization: Describe your paper filing system along with your advice for someone starting a filing system from scratch

I recommend a basic alphabetical system, with a set of A-Z pressboard file guides to separate each letter. I've researched many more complex systems (including grouping, sub-categorization, and color coding), but simplest is best for starters. I'd avoid digital indexing systems (e.g., Paper tiger) until you have a compelling need. Other tips: Get a desktop labeler (I like the Dymo QX50), use 3-cut (or 3-tab) file folders, don't worry about tabs lining up (i.e., random is fine), and put files that start with numbers under the number's *letter*, not at the front (e.g., "6 thinking hats" would go under "S" for six). Read more tips at Five Secret Filing Hacks From The Masters (Note: All tools are listed in my Amazon Basic Processing Tools for Personal Productivity/Workflow list.)

Reader Comments (7)

I'm a voracious reader with insatiable curiosity, but I'm also a very high-level procrastinator, and I've had to accept the fact that at this point in my life, reading has become merely another tool that I use to avoid doing desperately important work. This has been a very hard reality to confront, and I still struggle with it daily. I'm also under the influence of Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, in which she talks about isolating herself from distractions -- including hanging out with friends, reading, watching movies -- while she's engaged in developing a project as a way of achieving the level of immersion that results in getting productive work done. This is a hard, ascetic philosophy that isn't for everyone, but considering it seriously brings one face to face with underlying issues that are standing between oneself and a happy, productive life.

Having said that, and with the understanding that I'm trying to LIMIT the time I spend reading, rather than making that time MORE PRODUCTIVE, I spend about 1 1/2 hrs a day reading feeds, the local paper, and the NY Times online. I fence this time off, with mixed success, by limiting it to about 45 minutes every morning, soon after I get up (at 5am), and about 45 minutes after dinner. I've reduced my print subscriptions to the basic four: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and Wired. I read these at odd times -- downtime between appointments, while having meals, and a half-hour or so before going to sleep at night. I barely keep up with them, and do a lot of skimming. I bookmark online material in a bookmark called "To Read," although I never read any of the stuff in this bookmark. I've forbidden myself to buy new books for the next 12 months, and get all books through the library. This serves a few functions, including breaking the train of thought that says "if it's new, it's more important to read immediately." Waiting four or five months to get a new book through the library because of high demand is a very effective way of reminding oneself that there really are more important things to pay attention to. (In this way I've managed to restrain myself from reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, which will be coming to me from the library in about a month.) Sometimes I treat myself and skim something new at Borders while having a latte.

I maintain a list of books to read on Excel. It's long, and it's unlikely I'll get to everything on it in my lifetime. I like knowing it's there.

I clip articles from magazines, and photocopy passages from books, and bookmark online material that I like and want to be able to reference for some unknown reason at some unknown point in the future. I'm in the process of scanning all of these clippings to make accessing them easier and to reduce the amount of stuff I have cluttering my life. I love going back and re-reading this stuff. This process of reviewing and re-reading is completely random, and I don't yet know whether being more rigorous about this is something I want to make an agreement with myself about or not; but I think not, at least for the forseeable future: right now I have so much critically important work to do on a daily basis, and pay such a high price in so many ways for not getting it done, that reviewing and thinking about things I've read in an organized way is really just a kind of pathological distraction for me, one that isn't benefitting me at all. Right now. That may change, and changing the circumstances around this is a major project in my life.

March 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreenman

As always, Much appreciated, Greenman.

March 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'm reading a lot but mostly it's online media like blogs, news websites, articles etc. At the moment I'm trying to move to reading more books that online. I've ready somewhere (think your blog) that books should be read in greater proportion that other reading material.
My little home library has few nice positions for me but my book list gets bigger and bigger.
Current read is "Made to Stick" and just finished "On writing well".
I manage my book list in Onenote which is a hub for all my work/lists/journalig/notes. I keep there everything.
Although I miss a easier way of tagging my notes. Folder/section structure is not very flexible and I'm trying to find a way to link related notes.

March 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

books should be read in greater proportion that other reading material

I totally buy it. My intuition (but just a hunch) is the most substantial content isn't online. That's not to say there isn't good work out there (naturally I have a bias here :-), but online seems to be biased toward info-bytes. Thoughts?

My little home library has few nice positions for me

I'm not sure what you mean by this.

Current read is "Made to Stick" and just finished "On writing well".

Good ones! [ Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400064287?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1400064287 ], [ On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060891548?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0060891548 ].

I manage my book list in Onenote

Neat. Anything special about that tool that you like for books?

link related notes

Bingo! This is lacking in 99% of the apps I've looked at over the years. I wish software companies would git it - "It's the links, silly!"

Thanks, Rafal.

March 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

"My little home library has few nice positions for me" - Ha! this shows that I need to work on clarity of my writing :) vide "On writing well". :-)
Just wanted to say that "Four hour work week" and "Do it tomorrow" are in the queue as next reads. Then I need to explore my local library. They have online catalogues and reservation system which is great.

In Onenote I like the fact that I can store my notes, web links, reviews and pictures of covers in one place. I like the visual associations that covers provide.
There is a greater chance that I will pick a book from my list if I'm in the bookstore.

Matt you say 99% of applications lack linking what's the 1%? Any clues?
I would love to try them.

Online is relatively new media source and books have been developing for centuries so they are much more refined/matured in form and structure. Also they provide much more in depth information and background. Even if book has only one idea it's usually covered by layers of supporting observations, examples, etc. Some people think it's only fluff and skim through but I usually try to read the whole book.
Perhaps that's not always best approach (timewise) but it pays off.
I like to repay the author for his work by reading it.

March 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

Thanks for sharing

March 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

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