A week ago, I was out of town, spending time with my mother, who was very ill. After her passing, I returned to work after about five days away. I was greeted by a stuffed mailbox, an overflowing in-box, 700+ emails, and numerous voicemail messages. If you’re like me, you’ve got some strategies to help hack through the backlog and get your desktop back under control — or almost under control. One task, however, seems to stifle some executives: Catching up on reading submitted letters, reports, professional journals, manuscripts, etc. “To Read” piles can become mountainous if one does not bulldoze periodically.
I tend to shy away from advice that says to start a “To Read” folder for use on airplanes, trains, and other locations when one has enough down time to read a few items. I find that I never have enough free time to plow through the darned things. So the file grows to outrageous proportions, where it becomes a visible reminder that I’m not “getting things done” when it comes to my required business reading. Instead, I use a simple, yet effective way to get through some of the professional reading that we all have to do. It’s not elegant; It’s quick and dirty, but it gets the job done for me.
The first thing that one has to realize is that all reading is not the same. Reports are written for a different purpose than articles. Articles are written for a different purpose than letters. Letters are written for a different purpose than proposals. Yet, most of us try to read all types of reading materials the same way. The first rule of plowing through reading materials is realizing that some material deserves a thorough and precise reading and some does not. Don’t feel guilty in not giving some material deep attention if it doesn’t deserve it.
The second presupposition is that within one body of writing, all words are not important. As a former teacher, I taught students that although their textbooks are important, it was impossible for any teacher to test them on every word that it contains. Some words are more important than others. The 80/20 Rule comes into effect here. This rule states that 80% of the benefit for something comes from 20% of the work. For sales forces, this rule says that 80% of one’s income comes from 20% of the customers. It means that 80% of the discipline issues that a school faces come from 20% of the students. The percentages may not be exact, but they’ll be close. For our purposes, in any given book, 80% of the value of the book comes from 20% of the words within it. So our first job in reading is simply to find and read the 20% of the words that contain the value that we need. Read those and no others — unless the particular value that we require lies within that last 80%. When that happens, we turn to deeper reading.
How To Find the Essential 20%
To get the most out of a book, report, review, etc., in the least amount of time, try this strategy:
- Read the title of the material.
- Read the introduction.
- Read the Table of Contents.
- Flip through the material, scanning the chapter titles and sub-headings. Note the words that stand out as bold, different colors, underlined, or italicized.
- Look at the illustrations and captions. Look at the charts and diagrams. Read the pull-quotes and sidebars.
- Scan through the index looking for your particular business’ buzz words.
- Now read the first chapter (or in a shorter work, the first paragraph).
- Flip through the book and read the first sentence of each paragraph. The 80/20 rule says that only 20% of each paragraph is essential. Each paragraph should contain a topic sentence (the 20%). The rest of the paragraph is simply support material to defend the topic sentence, examples, illustrations, etc. (the 80%). The topic sentence is often the first sentence of the paragraph — but not always.
- Read the last chapter (or paragraph in a shorter work). If there is an executive summary, read it.
- Read any other information on the cover or dust jacket.
There you have it. You now have 80% of the information that the material contains. You could possibly even carry on an intelligent conversation about the concepts in the book at this point. Now, one must consider if a deeper reading is called on. Your purpose for reading the material in the first place will determine if this strategy has given one all that one needs to know or if this was just a good introduction for a more deeper reading to mine for even more nuggets of information. For most reading material (yep, about 80%), this is as far as it goes. I find that about 20% of my reading requires additional deep reading.
Over the next few days, I’ll share some other strategies to help you get the best out of your business reading. Until then, give this strategy a whirl and see if it fits you.