Skimming Your Way to ‘Extreme Productivity’

Robert C. Pozen

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a stack of reading materials sitting on your desk. It can take hours to read a long academic paper or a dense government report—hours that you can’t spare.

Some professionals address this challenge by trying to read as many words per minute as possible, in the style of Evelyn Wood. But even if you successfully increase your reading speed, you probably aren’t digesting much of the material.

So if you want to read faster, you shouldn’t try to read more words per minute. Instead, you should read fewer words per minute—those words most relevant to your work.

When I was mentoring a few students in high school, I gave them an exercise to help them read faster. After they read a chapter from their chemistry textbook, I asked them to write out the main points that they would need to remember for their final exam two months later. Then I told them to look back through the chapter and see how quickly they could have read the chapter if they were focused on finding those main points. Before long, they were reading chapters in half the time—and still doing well on their exams.

Here’s how to apply this lesson to your professional reading. First, before you even pick up a text, you should ask yourself why you’re reading that particular text. Are you trying to understand the main ideas? Are you trying to find one specific fact or detailed example? Are you trying to judge the rigor of the author’s argument? Don’t start reading until you’re satisfied that you know your purpose for reading.

Next, read the introduction (or executive summary). Pay special attention to the “thesis statement” or “theme paragraph.” That sentence or paragraph can effectively unlock the structure and ideas of the entire text. After reading the introduction, skip directly to the conclusion. The conclusion tells you where the author is headed. If the introduction poses a question, the conclusion often answers it and provides the key takeaways.

In fact, depending on your reading purpose, the introduction and conclusion may have given you all you need to know. If not, you can move on the body of the text to help you clarify key points or explain confusing concepts.

To quickly read the body of a text, start by taking a look at its structure. Many articles have “roadmap” paragraphs at the end of the introduction, which describe how the article is organized. Most likely, the text has headings that separate the various sections. Pay close attention to the roadmap paragraph and the headings. Ruthlessly skip those sections that don’t appear to be relevant to your purpose.

If a section is relevant to your reading purpose, you still don’t have to read it word for word. Instead, you should actively skim those sections: read the topic sentence of every paragraph and then decide whether the rest of that paragraph is worth reading.

This decision, of course, will depend on your reading purpose: certain paragraphs are important for finding examples and unimportant for understanding the main points, and vice versa. I usually skip the rest of a paragraph if I can tell that it will just recite the conventional wisdom. I pay close attention to material that appears to challenge the commonly accepted worldview.

Unfortunately, “skimming” often gets a bad rap. Many people think that someone who skims is just being lazy. Sometimes, they’re right: if you’re just passively moving your eyes across the page, you probably aren’t learning anything. But my strategy isn’t passive at all: after reading every topic sentence, I actively decide whether the rest of that paragraph is worth the 20-30 seconds of my time that it would take to read it. When reading a long article, that answer, quite often, is “no.”

So don’t read the full text of every article, paper, or memo that is handed to you. Probably, most of the text won’t help you achieve your goals: either you’ll already understand some of the material or a large portion of the text will cover a topic only tangential to your work. Instead, decide on your reading purpose, and actively skim the text to satisfy that purpose.