“Know when to read at a pace of 100 words per second, 10 words per second, 1 word per second.” I wish I could remember the name of the person I’m quoting here. He was a professor at Michigan State University that I never took a class with, but I still remember the advice. This advice was given at a book study for my Freshman orientation as we discussed Frankenstein. The internet was still very unfamiliar to me. I didn’t even have my student email account yet. But this advice seemed important.
I was only starting my education in Biochemistry. All those textbooks to read and journal articles to analyze for relevance to what I was researching. It was going to be a time where I needed to go through so much information that it seemed obvious that I needed an efficient method to get to the relevant information and still have a life. Is this skill useful today?
Today the internet is much more matured and the amount of content that can be explored and analyzed has exploded to unfathomable proportions. Universities are digitizing their content, people are demanding e-books they can obtain without ever leaving their home, and every individual has the ability to create their own content to post it to the internet with a simple creation of a free user account on any number of blogging services.
How is anyone going to be able to get to the information they need? By knowing how to aggregate, skim, read, and analyze. (I’m using these three terms in place of reading at 100, 10, or 1 words per second because numbers are literal statements.) Let’s start with the goal in mind; How do you intend to use the content you will spend your valuable time finding? If you don’t have a plan at the beginning, you are going to be consuming a lot of information, but get nothing out of it. It is like cramming for an exam the night before. Sure you recall it all for the test, but will you remember it a week, month, or year from now?
Aggregate: To start with, we need a way to let the computer find sources that generally give good information at least some of the time. Though this process can be automated, it is important that some thought is put into setting it up. There are many aggregators and methods to using them out there. One that is often under appreciated is Twitter. There are several ways this can be done, however simply following people that share information relevant to your interestes is an amazing start. It is important though that you follow people that provide relevant information (for more on that, read my post: What Does Your Twitter Presence Say About You?). RSS feeds are another method to find information. Google reader is a powerful aggregator tool. Simply enter your search term in http://www.google.com/reader and it will find the RSS feeds for you.
Skim: Once you have information collected in whatever source you are using, then you need to weed out all but the most relevant information. This requires quick decision making. Read through the headlines, tweets, email subject lines quickly and make an instant decision on weather it is worth you time. You will likely throw out 10 or more information sources for every 1 good one. This process can be liberating, but you have to not worry about something getting lost in the process. It’s the internet… it will come back.
Read: Now that you have determined the information that may have potential, you need to actually read it. In this process you may discover that the content does not match what you thought the title/subject described. Or perhaps the writing isn’t easy to follow. Don’t worry, that article isn’t the only one you will ever see on the subject. You don’t have to torture yourself because your skimming wan’t perfect. In those cases, you throw more content out.
Analyze: Now with any luck you are less than an hour into your process and have a handfull of content sources that you have found relevant. Now is the hardest part. You need to analyze it. How are you going to use the content you have spent your valuable time finding? If you think about this question from the beginning, this process will be much easier.