How to Read, and other methods for assimilating information16 Sep 2015
In our small sphere of the world, we are tasked with the ever daunting task of keeping up. Keeping up with the tools, processes, techniques, thought processes, and technologies of our craft. Each of these is changing at an ever accelerating pace, and keeping up can end up being a full time job. What follows are some thoughts on how to use the various mediums at our disposal to quickly assimilate large quantities of new information. Additionally, some techniques for acquiring levels of depth, as needed.
Knowledge Acquisition Process
As one’s career progresses you find that the requirement for breadth in your knowledge does as well. That is, you will be rapidly, and a times violently, drawn from one subject to another, with very little time or warning. Other times, you will need to get extremely deep. For me a three pass method seems to work best.
- Targeted Depth
- ‘Real’ Depth
Each step has it’s own benefits. Skimming will get you up to speed quickly. Targeted depth lets you pull out parts relevant to the tasks on hand, and gain additional depth, as needed. ‘Real’ depth, is akin to the 10,000 hours phenomenon. That is, at step 3, there is a level of deliberate, ongoing practice.
It should be noted, that often times, one doesn’t get past the first two steps. Business needs change, your level of interest changes, squirrel, and then some.
It should be noted that acquiring worthwhile sources is an endeavor all it’s own. That is, this post assumes you have already selected a topic or topics and some of the source materials you will need to power through.
Depending on how bad or how often you squirrel, skimming is where you will spend most of your time. So, it’s important to know how to do it properly. First, let’s start with a definition, and then move into how to apply it to both written materials and audio / video.
Skimming, in this context, is the rapid consumption and partial assimilation of a data source, or bit of content. Specifically, skimming in this context is meant to serve as a first pass on materials, allow you to gain a general familiarity, and to highlight any areas of interest for later consumption.
Update: On Skimming vs Speed Reading. Remembering our goal for assimilating information, is comprehension and retention, rather than speed.
Most technical books, blog posts, and the like all follow a very familiar format. That format is amazingly similar to an outline. That is:
- First heading
- Some words
- Second heading
- Some words
- possible subsection
- and a call out
- or two
- Other words
- possible subsection
- and so forth
- Some words
- First heading
These landmarks provide a roadmap for both finding and consuming information.
The Procedure: Note: For more depth on skimming.
As a general rule, keep a notepad, post-its, or something of the like nearby to take note of interesting areas and what to come back to. Another point, if you do happen on a super interesting paragraph or three, go ahead and read them. Just recall that this first pass is to help build out a generalized familiarity, and plan for later.
- Read the Table of Contents. This will give you a high level overview. It will also let you pick and choose the most relevant chapters and decide a reading order.
- Read the headers. Passing over the headers will help build a quick reference in your mind, of what is available, what you can come back to, etc.
- Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Whilst this one seems a bit odd, do it. This will let you take a note if the section needs to be come back to when in the targeted phase.
- Read the call out boxes. There is something in these call-outs that the author wants you to pay attention to. Often times, this is where said authors real-world experience shines through. I’ve picked up may a time saver in call out boxes.
- Do the same thing for figure captions.
- Finally, read over the code examples if relevant.
Audio / Video
Audio / Video material is a bit harder. Things like podcasts, YouTube, Computer Based Training, and the like don’t often lend them selves to skipping around. In this case the strategy that works best for me is keeping a notebook handy, and playing said source back at 1.5 - 2x speed. Often times in the background. As you are listening, your ears will perk up when something interesting comes up. At that point, pause, write it down, rewind, and watch that spot at normal speed.
This is where things get interesting. That is, now that you have skimmed the material and have written down a number of spots to come back to, it’s time to gather some targeted depth. At this point, you should have a passing familiarity with the topic at hand, and a good understanding of what areas you need to go deeper on first. In the targeted depth phase, in addition to reading, we begin to add hands on exercises. This process isn’t as well defined, but generally goes something like this:
- Go back and read the entire section (section, chapter, etc.)
- Setup a ‘lab’ and do any examples presented in the material.
- Failing that, or in addition to, attempt to come up with your own labs.
- Find additional resources, blogs, forum posts, community experts, consume their materials. Do the labs.
- Repeat for each section and item you wrote down.
Even more than targeted knowledge in a subject area, ‘real’ depth begins once you have progressed through passing or even deep knowledge in a few areas into the “Trough of Disillusionment”:
Once you’ve hit the trough, you begin to get an idea of how much more there is to know before you reach a true level of expertise.
Note: One can be called and expert, and many are, well before you get to the end of this path. However, as someone who pursues learning, you will know there is a big difference between ‘expertise’ and Expertise. That is what I’m talking about here. More on this concept here.
This phase, will encompass all of the prior phases. That is new source materials, skimming, depth, repeat, repeat, repeat. Along the way, some teaching will be done. Some skilled work, etc.
This post has been wordy. Very, Very wordy. Having read it over a number of times, I think it puts some methodology behind the madness that is the lifelong learning you signed up for when you jumped into IT. A lot of this won’t be new, but mayhaps there is a tidbit here or there that will help make your processes more efficient. If you have questions, comments, or want to add your own experiences & processes, drop me a line on twitter.