We all have to do plenty of reading and we do it for a variety of reasons.  These can be for pleasure, work, study, or to build up our general knowledge.  But most of us will soon find that there is far too much to read and the way we go about deciding what to read is often haphazard, usually on a first-come first-served basis.  This is even more the case in the Internet age in which there has been an explosion of content and the magic of the hyperlink allows us to reach it whether or not we have any real interest in it. 

 We know that we do not have the time to look at everything, so we tend to scan the first few lines and hop on to the next thing, rarely taking the time to settle down to read anything properly.  E-mailers which inform you of the arrival of each new e-mail create regular distractions and make things even worse.

So the more we have to read, the less well we read it, drifting along passively in the current.  Life is too short for this, and it is important to get things under control.  You will find the steps below instructive as a one-off discipline to regain control; going through them once a year will help to restore that control.

Step 1- Define Your Time For Reading

Whenever you are trying to do the fundamentally impossible without being full conscious of it you need to understand the nature of the problem.  To do that you will need to list its parts and their relationship to each other.  With reading there are many contexts for what, when and how you can read.  Of these the two key ones are Work and Home, but you will need to make four lists – one for work and three for home.

What you read at work is determined by what is relevant to your job.  It will consist of e-mails, reports, and documents in which you research new avenues.  So, over a reasonable time window, say three months, make a list of what you know is coming – for example projects and the reports they will generate, whether you have just to read them or comment on them as well, how many e-mails you will receive to go with them and how much time you have to spend on other things such as meetings, supervising, writing and estimating.   How much time does that give you for the actual reading?  What must you fit into it?  Is that reasonable?  Remember to allow for interruptions; in the average workplace there will be plenty of them.

What you read at home has entirely different constraints.  You are your own master there, so if you commute on public transport and the conditions allow, “at-home” covers the time you may want to spend reading on transport.  What time do you have to do any reading?  What sort of reading will you be able to do, given that you may well be tired in the evening and less able to concentrate?  Are you a morning or a night person?  What interruptions will you have to contend with?

Having compiled your list for everyday home reading, do a list for the weekend when you should theoretically have more time.  You will need to ask the same questions as for the daily list, but the time you have and the way you feel during that time will be different.

Your third home list should repeat the exercise for the time you have and want to read on holiday.


Step 2 – Define Your “Must-Read” List

Answer the question “If I were a free agent, what would I want to have read in the next year?”  Compile a list of things to read in order of preference, with the most desired at the top.  Against each entry put your estimate of how long it will take you to read it and why you want to read it (pleasure, study, etc.) and grade it for the amount of concentration you will have to give it.  You will need two such lists, one for home and one for work.

Step 3 – Compare Lists

Now you know what you have and would like to read (step 2) and what time and resources you have to read it (step 1) you should be able to see whether the two are compatible.  Odds are that you will have far too much on the “must-read” list and therefore some entries will have to go.  Since the “must-read” list is in order of preference you will be keeping entries at the top and losing entries at the bottom.  There is no point in regretting anything you have to lose; comfort yourself with the knowledge that they have been displaced by something more important.

Reviewing for compatibility means not only reviewing time you have to read against time consumed by what you want to read, but also matching the quality of the time you have to the material.  Putting something which requires concentration into a slot in which you are very tired simply wastes time and is likely to bore you, creating a vicious circle.  So some entries remaining on the list may therefore be below those that you have taken off, because the type of reading does not match the demands it makes.

Since you will have to take things off your wish list, it is useful to have some rational criteria for what you take off.  Taking a lesson from time management is helpful here.  You can classify demands on your time (and other resources) as being urgent and important.  Urgent means it must be done soon because immediate demands are being made, even if it is not important.  By important, we mean that by doing it we gain – unimportant things can be left undone without penalty, even if they are emotionally preferred.

This creates four quadrants thus:

Urgent versus Important

You can plot each item on these axes and the ones you will benefit most by retaining are those in the lower right-hand corner.  Those in the upper right are things that must be done now – review how much time they will take and get them out of the way.  Those things on the left half of the diagram are things to find ways to do without so try to find other ways to satisfy the urgent ones.  The more you can get into the bottom right hand quadrant the sounder your reading plan will be.

Step 4 – Maintain Momentum

Things are never static and new material and demands will be coming in all the time.  The steps above will give you the framework to classify new material and decide whether it merits getting on to the must-read list or if it will not and other ways must be found to deal with it.  In that way what you have to read and the ability you have to read it do not get out of line.

Step 5 – Manage the Lists

Having defined the sort of material you have and matched it up with the time and energy you can give it, you can start to consider whether the balance of the various types (easy reading, needs concentration, studying, entertainment) is the balance that you would ideally like it to be in your lifestyle.  If it is not, you can at least see what you need to do to alter it and start taking any necessary steps.  This can be simple preference, or it can be due to a life-change, for example, if you have to study for a course and need to work out what will have to go to give you the time to study.

Step 6 – Optimise your Reading Time

Particularly for the time you have earmarked for serious reading – the reading that requires concentration, you need to make the most out of it.  To do this you will need to create an environment in which distractions are kept to a minimum. 

Find yourself an area in which you will not be disturbed and you can keep the important reading you have to do even if you run out of time and have to pick it up later.  Make sure it is comfortable and well lit.  Turn off your mobile telephone and make sure somebody else can take calls on your land-line. 

If your quality reading time is limited, for example, you have 20 minutes of quality time before having to go out for an appointment have an alarm clock which you set for the time you have to get ready to leave.  That way you do not have to keep distracting yourself by looking at your watch as the alarm clock takes that responsibility from you.  If your mobile telephone has an alarm feature, test that you can set it and turn the phone off – many handsets will still sound the alarm even though they are off.

Having been through these steps you should find your reading less pressure, more pleasurable and more rewarding.  It will make the effort you have invested worthwhile.