Last Updated: Nov 4, 2015
“But Erik!” I hear you protest. “Reading is good!” Yes, yes, worry not—I am not knocking reading. But if you don’t think you’re reading too little, you’re probably reading too much. For those of you who aren’t yet willing to pick up your textbook and hammer through it, I don’t intend for this to validate your decisions here. Go study.
But for those of you who spend a lot of time reading, I want to challenge you: you might be reading too much!
How can this be?
To sort this out, I want to assert a principle: everything you do should be in pursuit of a result. This result could be a grade, it could be a skill, it could be the pleasure of the story or the knowledge or the challenge. But it should be in pursuit of something. If you can’t identify the benefit to yourself of something you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Seems easy! But we tend to get very lazy when we’re answering this question. If we get a stack of reading for class, we can easily decide that this reading is important for us because the class demands it. If we have a research paper, we’re going to read books relevant to the research topic in order to write something clever or stack up a bunch of citations. Unless we really challenge ourselves about the value of every single article, every chapter, every paragraph, we’re going to end up reading far too much, drowning in notes, and having a few dozen citations that we waste (or worse, stick into the paper anyway to show that we did the reading).
Two examples of me reading too much and what I did about it
At MIT, I switched from mechanical engineering to political science as a junior. I wanted to get my master’s by the end of my senior year and had some catching up to do. This meant some extra classes and, thus, some extra reading. If I didn’t rationalize a bunch of it, I was going to be in trouble. Luckily, by challenging the value of each reading opportunity, I was able to cut down my reading by more than half without affecting my performance or (ultimately) my own learning. Let’s see how:
Handling a week of reading. I had some pretty ambitious professors. Often they’d assign a pretty thick book for a week of reading, and we’d be expected to show up on Monday ready to discuss it in depth. These were small classes (it’s a small department)—no hiding. Sometimes I’d have four of these books (or an equivalent mix of books and articles) to power through from week to week. I probably had the time to read every page, but it would have been crippling to a whole lot of other priorities. During the first few weeks, I was skipping out on social engagements and cutting into my precious sleep. What to do? Challenge and rationalize, my friends! Here’s how I did it:
a. Figure out what the expectations were in class. One can’t talk about a whole book in class every week. What details did the professors focus on? What kinds of questions did they want answered? In my case, it was generally, “What is the author arguing and how would you support/oppose it?”
b. Quickly analyze the book to read only what parts contribute to those expectations. Spend a few minutes in the table of contents before diving in the rest of it. There will be many parts of the book that are wholly irrelevant, for a lot of reasons—many books are articles that have been expanded to “book size” and add a bunch of parts that don’t cover the main point, or many chapters go very in depth to a certain argument or into the methodology. You might not need this.
c. Can you skim? Probably. For a one-time or two-time discussion of a book, you can likely skim some paragraphs to get the main idea, jot down the idea with the citation, and then move on. Nobody expects you to memorize it, and you’ll impress people rather than embarrass yourself if you’re going back to the right parts of the book to pull up the details in the class discussion because you took good, quick notes.
Doing this, I was able to cut reading for class by maybe 70%. If you’re paranoid that you’re going to show up and fumble, think of it is a low-risk experiment: if you totally flub it, you can fess up that you had an off day, and nobody will hold it against you. Remember that I’m not saying to not be prepared—I’m saying to use the book as a tool to prepare you, rather than blindly reading all the pages because they happen to be there!
Reading for a research paper. As a TA I graded lots of research papers, and the number of completely useless citations I saw was mind-boggling. It was irritating for me to try to even figure out what point was trying to be made with the citation. I learned in this time that students frequently put in loads of citations—either consciously or subconsciously—to prove that they did a lot of research and therefore put in effort. First important news flash for those of you that do this: nobody cares how much effort you put in. The only question your TA or professor is asking is whether your paper answers the question compellingly and clearly. Remember: results!
Getting the most out of the time you spend reading
To be fair, I was guilty of this too. In my first political science research paper (25 pages), I must have read close to 1,000 pages of material and had a bibliography of more than 20 pieces of literature. Boy, was that a lot of work! I was very proud of myself and got a B- for the effort. I’d spent all my time reading and didn’t actually take a half-hour to sit back with a clear mind and come up with a strong argument. Let’s briefly cover what changed into the future:
Pick your thesis early. When you know what you want to say, you’ll cut out a whole lot of reading that’s ultimately irrelevant to your final point. As soon as you can (hopefully within about half an hour of the paper announcement), pick what you want to say, and stick to it. Not comfortable picking a thesis before mulling over all possibilities? Remember there are many sides to any issue, and unless this paper is going to be your magnum opus, you should see it as an exercise in skills, rather than a global declaration of your moral self to the world.
Start with Wikipedia. There is probably some professor out there reading this who’s grinding their teeth right now, but hear me out: Wikipedia is actually as accurate as Encyclopedia Brittanica. Can you and should you cite it? Heck no. But it gives you a great starting place to get some of the key points, know which specific questions to answer or facts to get, and even has some citations that could send you down the right rabbit hole. I always start here.
Pick your reading based on questions. Build your outline quickly based on your thesis and your skimming of Wikipedia or other wide field literature. For this thesis, identify the facts or answers you’ll need to flesh it out, and each of those will be an article, or a part of an article, or a chapter of a book, etc. When you shop around for reading, match it to these needs.
Challenge every reading. Before you pick up an article or book, ask yourself, “How is this contributing directly to my paper?”
Skim first. Know where everything in the book or article is, and the main points. Take notes, and then come back later. Citations are pulled most efficiently when you pull them the moment you need them to back up an argument—this way you only mine for the citations you need, rather than collecting a few hundred and deciding what to do with them later.
This helped me crank out great papers in record time. I wasn’t “doing less” as far as building understanding and evidence—I was just doing less wasted reading that didn’t apply directly to the paper itself. I was able to spend more time thinking about the key message and more time crafting it, rather than doing dubiously-helpful reading.
I want this concept to dovetail into an important step in my book, How to Crush College. When you’re in Part II, “Ruthlessly Eliminating Waste,” you’re probably going to come across a whole lot of reading in your Time Study Pareto. If you don’t gut-check, you might skim over this huge opportunity to recover wasted time, and leave hours every week on the table. So challenge yourself! For all of your academic pursuits, what do you really need to do in order to learn and succeed? What work are you doing because it’s in front of you, and you didn’t think about how it would help you . . . or not?