III. Method Focus – Learning via Interval Reading
We’ve just explored the Eight Skills of foresight in Chapter 5 (The Do Loop). Let’s say a little more now about Learning, the first skill, the one that ideally begins each turn of the learn-see-do-review cycle. Constantly consuming useful new media relevant to the future is a core learning skill for foresight-oriented people. This practice is particularly important to folks in the Intelligence function, and is managed and promoted by folks running Learning and Development functions in the organization. Reading as a regular habit benefits all Eight Skills, but it is a particularly efficient way to learn and investigate the world.
If you want to learn like a superstar, in any field, nothing beats becoming a super reader. As reading can be so nonlinear, fast, information dense, and as it demands the most imagination, it is far and away a better vehicle for deep learning than viewing and audio, which have their places, but only as supplements to regular reading. Reading physical books and magazines is still better than ebooks, because of the superior annotation abilities, the easier tracking of one’s location, and the lack of distractions that come with the physical book. This is why serious students still prefer physical textbooks over ebooks today. They know they’ll do longer sessions with the material, and their retention will be higher. Ebooks have many advantages, including instant search. At some point in the future, ebooks will win out for serious study, but for now, they remain best used as backups, or supplements, to that book or magazine in your hand, in a place where you can do uninterrupted concentration.
Use your laptop for recording or summarizing elements of what you read, but close it and use a notepad instead if it starts distracting you. In today’s still primitive electronic world, laptops and ebooks aren’t smart enough to help you stay focused. They will be, but not this year. For now, physicality rules. Active reading, where you annotate an evaluative response to what you are reading, usually under time pressure (external or self-imposed), is an excellent way to improve your critical thinking, attention, summarization, prioritization, modeling, and memory skills. Peter Brown et al’s, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), also stresses self-testing (retrieval) and teaching others (demonstration) as key additional steps that help us master anything we learn.
Start with books. Just about everything we care about is now written up online somewhere, but quality of digital content varies widely. Books tend to be better, if only because the hurdle to write and publish them is higher. The best books can be particularly excellent. My home office has a small Foresight Library of some 2,500 books, taking up roughly thirty feet of wall space. I’ve also got a small collection of nonfiction videos, most on a hard drive attached to my TV. I find this a very manageable size for a personal library. For the first six years of Singularity University, as they were getting started, I loaned my library to them for their exponential thinking classes for ten weeks every Summer. I highly recommend you build your own foresight library, specialized to the kind of foresight work you do.
Great inputs promote great outputs (GIGO). As long as you’re reading some threshold level of excellent inputs, your thinking, modeling, speaking, writing, and actions will be also tend to be very good. If you aren’t regularly reading the best writing on what you care about, or getting exposed to it by working in a great professional environment, where you can be educated daily by the thoughts and actions of others, your thinking will slowly start to degrade, your models will become less accurate, and your actions will become less internally-directed and more based on outdated knowledge and random social influences. No matter what your prior education or work environment, active reading is almost always the easiest way to improve the density and value of your inputs, and put you in a position to make better contributions to the world. So read on, my friend!
Find great web content. See Appendix 2 (Leaders) for starter lists of individuals and organizations doing great foresight work. Many of these have good online sites. Make a good search of professional and trade associations, companies, university research centers, blogs, white papers, websites, and twitter posters that seem most relevant to your areas of interest. Bookmark the ones you need to visit regularly, and list and manage them in cloud-based document like a Google doc. Consider posting them to a public website, perhaps an editable wiki like a Google site. Your colleagues can easily use and update such documents. If you find a great foresight information source, please consider sharing it on GlobalForesight.org, our community-editable directory (a Google site) of global foresight resources.
Set aside regular reading time. It might be a hour or two every weeknight. Or a half day twice a week (Wednesday and Sunday nights). But set aside the time, and expect to read during it. For broad foresight information, try general forums and social networks. Our Global Foresight group on LinkedIn has 3,300 members, and there are many more good specialty groups there. Google+ and Facebook also have some interesting groups. For fun reading, Reddit’s r/Futurology section, with 722K subscribed “futurists,” is impressive. There are also loads of online databases worth visiting regularly, including Google Scholar, Web of Science, Amazon reviews, etc.
In general, try to pull topical content to you, rather than having it pushed by content providers. There are today few good pull technology apps at present, but we can expect many more in the future. For monitoring foresight topics, a nice free tool is Google Alerts. Its functionality is spartan at present, but it is an efficient way to “monitor the web for interesting new content”, as their tagline says, and pull it to all your digital devices. Set email alerts on search phrases that are very meaningful to you, including monitoring anything people may say about your company product, and set filters for topical emails to come to topical folders, where you can review the latest web news on any favorite topic during your reading time each day. There are a variety of ways to customize your alerts, and other power user techniques. For example, use a minus (-) sign to exclude information categories you don’t want (for example, if you want to monitor articles that talk about artificial intelligence, but don’t to read any more gee-whiz pop futures articles about the technological singularity, use (“artificial intelligence” –singularity) and the latter articles will be excluded. You can also exclude specific websites from your search. Be sure to use a lot of specialty language for alerts in topics you care about as well. For example, for artificial intelligence, alerts like “natural language processing”, “deep learning”, “intelligent virtual assistants” and “collaborative filtering” will each return different sets of targeted articles and posts as a result. Go in and change your alerts every month or so, to keep learning about new things that might be valuable to your work. Another good topically customized pull reading app for mobile devices is Zite, which was recently acquired by Flipboard. Talkwalker is another good for-pay alerts tool, with social media analytics, helpful for monitoring your personal or organizational brand.
Don’t forget top magazines. A great way to stay updated in your field is to subscribe to a few top magazines, online or in print. The better web content gets, the less people are willing to pay for good print content, and so many of these magazines are presently collapsing in print readership and moving online. See Appendix 3 (Resources) for some recommended reads in general and professional foresight. Rarely do you need to read a newspaper anymore, unless your business is local, and it helps with prospecting. Magazines offer the best news and analysis weekly to quarterly, usually a better use of your time.
There’s a lot to choose from, and the best stuff is often the new stuff. There are nearly 500,000 new books published annually by English-speaking countries today. Per Bowker, about 75% of these titles are nonfiction. Good nonfiction and evidence-based self-help, a genre that has grown greatly in popularity since the 1980s, can really help us with the world. We also would be wise to spend most of our time reading the best of the new stuff, because the smarter the web gets, the better our best writers use it to reference all the great work that came before, and build upon it. The top books in your field can be skimmed online at Amazon (use Look Inside this Book), and you can learn a lot of the basics about any book by reading Amazon reviews, and searching the book’s title in quotes and the word “review.”
Great nonfiction reading is a contact sport—annotate! When you are reading to get good ideas, strategy, action items, and life lessons, you want to be actively reading your books, which means annotating them. Don’t think of their resale value, that is usually a small fraction of your disposable income. Think instead of their mental value to you. If you jot your reactions and thoughts on the pages and in the margins as you read, you will remember and continue to use far more of what you read for the rest of your life. So annotate! The next time you revisit that book you will be able to rapidly review it as well, even years later. Your annotations say as much about you and what you value as they do about the book. Not only do they improve the book, they are also part of your journey to self-understanding and self-actualization.
Physical reading still beats digital at present, but use both. Because current annotation tools are so poor for digital books, physical books are likely to remain significantly faster and better for active reading, perhaps for the next decade, if not a little more. People can concentrate longer with physical books as well–they keep the reader focused on the task. A small set of studies have shown that students recall about 20% more of the content in physical books over ebooks, at present, and students still prefer physical books over ebooks for their textbooks, for serious classes. Try the Search Inside this Book on Amazon to find stuff quickly inside your physical book, as search and portability are among the ways digital beats physical. Use both. For a book you really care about, consider buying the audio version first, listening to it on commute or exercise, then reading the physical version next, a multimodal learning approach that will help you remember it a lot better. Consider buying a digital version if you travel or have very limited space, or want a portable version of your best physical books, but be aware that your learning while reading digital books will suffer compared to a physical book in 2014, because no one has added great annotations systems (pen and keyboard based) to e-books yet.
Interval Reading (IR) is my favorite technique for intense, focused, and short-duration interval learning, which we introduced in Chapter 6 (Methods and Frameworks). This method works great for books, for online text (for example, browser tabs of articles you’ve accumulated throughout the day, and have moved to one corner of your screen for reading later), and for great idea-dense magazines, like The Economist, BusinessWeek, The Atlantic, Science News, and others in our Appendix 3, Resources.
Think of IR like interval exercise. It is challenging, but it builds mental capacity, just like interval exercise increases your peak power, speed, VO2 max, and other aspects of physical capacity. A good coach knows that you should do physical intervals, including some high-intensity intervals, at least twice a week, if you want to get better at your physical performance. The same is true for reading intervals. You want to do IR at least twice a week, if you want to get better at learning (mental) performance.
In my multi-year experience teaching interval reading, you will increase your reading quantity by at least 3X, and for some categories of reading, by as much as 50X. For example, if you are motivated, you can use interval reading to read 50 books a year, when today you may read only one. If you typically 1 to 3 articles a month, you’ll end up reading at least 4 to 10, and so on.
Here’s how it works for books:
- Start by recognizing that there are now over 300,000 English-language books published every year. The best thing you can do to learn more in your areas of specialty is to find and read the best of those, every year. With the web as everyone’s reference library, the best books are now very, very good. So go to Amazon, check the best selling nonfiction books by category, in your categories of interest, go look over the reviews, look inside the book a bit, then buy something that looks fascinating. Get it in physical form so you can easily and quickly annotate it with a pen.
- Block out the same amount of time for reading that book as you would for a movie, one to three hours, per book. That’s it. The average Netflix subscriber spends about eight hours a week watching the service. You are going to replace some of that time entertaining yourself, with a movie you create in your mind, in the same time period. With new books every week, from your library or from the world.
- Find a favorite reading chair in your home, or if you can, go to another place to read, like a coffeeshop, where you won’t be interrupted.
- Just like a streaming movie, begin with some fun food and drink beside you, and whenever your brain is tired or your butt is sore, take short breaks to get more popcorn, munchies, and libations.
- When your reading time is done, your book is going to go on your shelf, even though you haven’t “finished” it. What you did instead is have an intense interval learning experience with that book. You raced through it, finding whatever was the most entertaining and interesting to you.
- To get over the desire we all have to “finish” our books, realize that you will never finish most things you do in your life. Finishing is often either a fiction we create in our minds, or it is a distraction from the goal. Your top goal, with interval reading, is to find the best stuff to read every week, and to have as intense and productive a reading session as you can, to strengthen your mind, grow your world view, and find cool new things you might do. You will serve that goal much better by giving up the goal of “finishing”, and instead reading pieces of a great diversity of great stuff.
Here’s the process in greater detail:
Treat each book or magazine like a movie, produced in your own mind. We give movies between 60 and 180 minutes (1 to 3 hours) of our focused attention, so make the decision in advance to give at least the same amount of time, preferably in one block, to any nonfiction book you buy. Start counting the time down mentally when you crack the cover. Know your stop time in advance, and try to sustain your concentration and energy till then, taking as many short and active breaks for refereshments and to stretch your legs as needed. Like movie intermissions, break time don’t count as reading time, so keep them short.
Unless you are a speed reader, which we’ll discuss next, you won’t read any book cover to cover in this time period, so experiment, play, have fun and learn how to create the most entertaining and useful mental movie you can in the reading time you have. Try starting with the covers, front and back, then the jacket flaps, then perhaps a few testimonials, then the table of contents, circling the names of the two or three chapters that seem most interesting or useful. Then skim the introduction or preface, and if either seem to offer a true summary of the books points, rather than just being small talk or egotism, read them all the way through. Then read the beginnings and endings (1-2 pages) of the two or three chapters you care most about. Are they still interesting, if not, read the beginnings and endings of several other chapters. Update your selection.
Then go to the index, and circle anything that jumps out, usually something you haven’t seen before. Quickly read just those pages, and jot down a few words in the margin summarizing your reactions. Do the same by rifling through the book looking for interesting pictures and figures.
Make lots of margin notes for the entire one to three hours. If you disagree with anything (a word, a paragraph, a page) in your book as you read it, slash it out, in a big bold stroke. If you like something, star it (one to five stars), or circle it, and give it some kudos in your margin notes. As soon as the book gets bad (wordy, digressive, less relevant) in any section start aggressively skimming those sections. Have confidence in what you already know, and look for just new and useful info instead. That is what speed readers do. They skim aggressively, mentally summarizing and looking primarily for anything surprising or new. The more you know about a subject, the more you’ll be able to skim and skip around. As you scan, pay attention to your biases as well. If you catch yourself dismissing something too hastily, or suddenly realize you don’t know that subject as well as you think, make yourself slow down and pay close attention to that topic, so you become less biased and plug the holes in your knowledge and attitudes.
Perhaps most importantly, create a Personal Index at the front of your book, with your best annotations of things you’ve learned and want to research, share or do. Anything that you particularly like as you read gets added to your Personal Index, which will be one of the blank pages at the front of each book, near the inside front cover. That means you need to bring a pen with your book no matter where you take it, perhaps clipped into the book itself. Put the page number in parentheses after any information nugget you add to your Personal Index, so that you can quickly find that topic if you return to the book later.
Develop some favorite annotation codes for your margin notes and your index. Codes will let you to place similar things together in your Personal Index, making it a bit neater and more useful. Here are my Top Eight codes at present. What are yours?
D: Do this thing (next Action, priority activity).
R: Review these info sources (books, videos, tools). Peek at them online for potential usefulness.
O: Orgs to know more about. Peek at their websites when you can.
P: People to look up on social media. To ask/share/do something with any, add a/s/d ideas after their name.
E: Evidence, statistics, or data that are helpful, clarifying, disturbing, or exciting.
C: Claims, assertions, models, ideas you find fascinating or important.
T: Tweet this (quote, claim, data, idea). Slotting one tweet a day (your fave find, on TweetDeck) is a great habit.
Q: Questions. Stuff you’d like to know. Someday/maybe ideas and actions go here as well.
Lay these codes out on the inside jacket, as in the picture at right. A good way to remember these eight is “DROP Everything and Create Total Quality” (in your reading and learning experience).
Annotating your books in this way, you will actively create your own record of the most useful information and next actions, for you. Later you can transfer the notes you continue to care about to your files in the cloud. But with the exception of one or two burning insights or next actions, don’t transfer too much of this information right away, or it won’t be fun. Instead, just put the book on the shelf when you are done. A few days or weeks later, after those thoughts have aged a bit, you can go back to your library, pull your book down, and copy whatever is still interesting from your personal index into your activity planner. You’ll find, if you come to the book a few weeks later, that only a fraction of those things still seem important. Aging your notes a bit before you act on them helps you be a better selector and planner, in a world of constantly changing priorities.
For your library, you may want to arrange your books in alpha order by exact title (with “The …” titles being placed in the “Ts” between Te and Ti, for example). That makes filing and finding them particularly easy. A quick search on the web will always get you the exact title. When you run out of room, as you eventually will, take time to re-select all your books, skimming their titles with the goal of eliminating a fixed number (say, 20 at a time). Give those less fun books away if you’ve marked them up, or just put them in the recycling bin, which is mentally the easiest. Make room regularly for new books.
If it was a really good or useful book, you may come back to it again later. One day you might even read it cover to cover. Alternatively, you may never return to it unless circumstances call “you back to it, perhaps years later. But because of your annotation, any time you pick up that book in the future, skimming your Index and margin notes will quickly remind you of the best things you learned, and give you memories of the place you were and other useful thoughts you had while reading it. You can reskim an annotated book in roughly half to a third of the time you originally spent with it, so any book you do reskim becomes ever better lodged in your memory.
Again, remember that you want these books off your chair and into library as soon as you can. Shelving the book declutters your personal space, freeing your mind for new productive activity, including being open to buying the next great new book next week. Shelving the book also makes the information have to pass a “remembrance test” before you’d be willing to read it further. Finally, the larger your library, the more good books you have to select from, when next making time to read again. Like great movies, rereading a great old book can be as fun and useful as reading new ones.
In all of your reading, your most important priority is to be mentally open to learning the best that is available at any time, continually learning like a child, and always able to jump ahead as new knowledge and opportunities develop. You can be rest assured that even better new books will continue to arrive at Amazon at an ever faster pace for the rest of your natural life. Many of the best of those deserve to be read, by you, in the future. Learning is the first of the Eight Skills, it starts you into Do loop, and it is one of the great joys of life!
For print magazines, I recommend around 20-40 minutes of initial reading time, per magazine. Again, try to find a few nuggets for your Cover Notes in the time you have. Since magazines don’t have blank sheets up front for Cover Notes, you can buy 500 half-sheet (8.5” x 5.5”) labels for $18.40 (just 3.6 cents for each magazine) on Amazon. Put the label on the outside back cover of the magazine when you are ready to read it. After the web, trade and general periodicals are a great way to stay up on your fields of interest, and are free (for many trade magazines) to nearly free for typical magazines, when bought on two or three year subscriptions. Once initial reading time is up, put the magazine in a Done Pile. When that pile gets too big you can review your Back Cover Notes in a batch, and transfer any you still find relevant to your digital files. If a particular magazine offered lots of insights and had several great four or five star articles, you might save it in a Magazine section of your Library (alpha by magazine title). Otherwise, recycle your Done Pile every so often to make space for the new magazines, as with your books.
For digital publications whether in PDF or eBook format, your commenting abilities will today be limited to just notes (for PDFs, yellow “sticky notes”) or highlighting. You might add at least one sticky note at the top of each PDF (a digital version of Cover Notes) or do notes in Notepad file or a Google Doc in a Reading Notes folder, as you prefer. If you’re reading a secure PDF that doesn’t allow commenting, you can usually crack it with free tool like Advanced PDF Password Remover. Eventually, serious readers will have OCR tools that give us back what I believe should be our sovereign right to annotate any document that we choose to read on our digital screens. Until then, Advanced PDF Password Remover and other tricks will have to do.
We wish you great inputs, and great outputs, for the rest of your career.