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A large portion of my work deals with reading research papers and textbooks which run for hundreds of pages.

However, with all the pomodoros going on, its frustrating to be reading redundant or unrelated sentences. At times, it is frustrating that the author couldn't have conveyed the whole book in a page. (How I wish!) I have discovered that me (& most of my friends) are stuck with the TLDR syndrome. We persistently:

  1. Try to avoid reading long paragraphs and only read bold points or figures. (Which spells disaster later)

  2. We chose papers/textbooks which are concise with the hope that we won't have to grind through a million pages.

Further, this habit is not limited to research papers or textbooks but also to internet and SE. I notice this is a problem with many people on SE.

How do I overcome this habit?

Ideally, I wish to be able to (patiently) read all the material that is given to me without frantically searching for a TLDR version.

Tangential: I was at a conference recently and the presenter displayed a slide containing a joke. It was about 100 words or so. At the same time, he got a phone call and requested the audience to read till he returned. It was only when he came back 5 minutes later & read the joke out load that the people laughed. Surprising?

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I think your tangent may be more of a social phenomena. Surely some read it, but chose to wait to laugh out loud until they could with the group. –  eflat Mar 4 '12 at 22:37
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This is probably an interesting question. I think I'll read it later. –  Renan Mar 5 '12 at 2:45
    
TLDR, title says it all ;) –  shufler Apr 2 '12 at 20:49
    
one way for me was reading the last pages, or last chapter, then go backwards till the first page or until i felt i extracted enough information from the book. –  smitsy Apr 18 at 19:19
    
Is this really a bad thing? Rarely should anyone be reading every single word. In fact, many people who read a lot - liberal arts majors - will tell you that you should look for a summary first. That's why many books come with a table of contents and introduction. And many research papers start with an abstract and have a conclusion. –  Muz Apr 24 at 14:06

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

You are reading research, not fiction. Research by other people are the building blocks of your own work. It doesn’t matter that much what is written in the (whole) paper/book -- what is really important is what conclusions you draw from it, how it helps your work, your argument. Facts and thoughts in articles are the Lego building blocks for you work (which you have to cite correctly).

So, much of the work is done prior to reading by narrowing down what you must read/is useful for your work (which no book completely is). Once you have defined your topic, this usually goes smoothly as you can (more) easily estimate the usefulness of the source (or of its parts).

Regarding dealing with books, Paul Edwards did write an interesting text about "How to read a book" ( http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf ), arguing that "Using the methods described here, you should be able to read a 300-­‐page book in six to eight hours.". Perhaps the subtasks he specifies are more amendable to Pomodoro. You probably have to change the times a little.

And of course, if you are reading a longer text, make notes. Otherwise it will be hard to find the points again. Personally I like to read texts in Sente and there are scripts with which you can export the notes to DEVONthink ( http://web.mac.com/robinfrancistrew/Site/Sente_6_Notes_to_DEVONthink.html ) or as RTF-files ( https://sente.tenderapp.com/discussions/suggestions/205-new-script-to-export-notes-to-rtf-or-opml#comment_13077098 ).

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Really good PDF document! Do you have any more references on similar lines? –  user2498 Mar 6 '12 at 16:40
    
Regarding reading literature? I'd do a search for articles that deal with reading literature in the domain/field you are working in (e.g., there are articles about how to read a paper in social psychology). Regarding academic work, I've got a literature list on my blog: organizingcreativity.com/2011/10/… (part of a presentation about organizing an academic work) –  Daniel Wessel Mar 7 '12 at 11:40
    
I can already read a 300-page book in 6-8 hours by just... You know, reading it. –  Superbest Mar 31 '12 at 11:57
    
@superbest Out of curiosity, does this apply to, say, a technical programming book? When it comes to fiction (ie, a lightweght book in terms of information you need to remember), I'd bet 905 –  Liz May 7 '12 at 6:55

I think your main question should be why am I reading all these papers and textbooks? What do I want from a particular paper? What kind of information am I looking for and what do I expect to learn from it?

I read somewhere that the amount of information that is generated currently doubles about every 10 years. I'm not entirely sure that this number is correct, but my point is that information is generated much faster than you'll ever be able to process. You simply cannot read everything that is interesting and that's why you have to be selective. The following tips may help you with this:

  1. Before you start selecting information sources or reading something, ask yourself what you expect to learn from it. Having a goal will help you in being selective and in finding the "good parts" of an information source.

  2. Always start by scanning an information source quickly. This will give you an idea its main concepts and ideas and whether it will be useful to read or not. Write down any question on the subject that comes to mind (your study goals). If needed, quickly re-scan the document to see where your questions will probably be answered. Then decide which parts you will read thoroughly (if any), which parts you'll just skim and which parts you'll skip. If you can't read everything in one go (pomodoro) then either decide to skip more parts or write down what you'll want to read later.

  3. Most often the interesting bits of a chapter or section are at the start (the problem description or introduction of an idea or concept) and at the end (the conclusion). Often you won't miss anything important if you skip the "filler" stuff that's in the middle.

  4. Learn speed reading, it will save you a lot of time. A good speed reading course will also teach you my previous points.

  5. Learn mind mapping. This will help you in getting a good overview of a topic and force you to identify the discussed concepts and ideas and the relationships between them. It will also help you remember what you've read and a mind map is very useful as a learning aid if you need that.

  6. Don't start reading something or browse the internet to see if there's "something interesting". If you feel you'll be missing stuff if you don't, strictly limit your browsing time (e.g. maximum 1 hour a day). If you write down the interesting stuff you've learnt during this time you'll start noticing that this time is nowhere near as effective as your time spent while using the "selecting, scanning, skimming, skipping" techniques I described.

  7. Accept that it's impossible to read everything and there will always be something that you didn't read.

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I am slightly skeptical about some points: 1. Speed Reading: I'm not sure its an effective way of reading research papers and math textbooks. There is absolutely no way of spreeding math as far as I know. Also, for most of the time, I have no choice but to read the entire content. I can browse and skim but at the end when I need to write a summary, I should have read every detail. –  user2498 Mar 5 '12 at 12:34
    
Speed reading doesn't mean that you understand less. You can increase your reading speed and still have the same level of understanding. Also, writing a summary doesn't require you to read everything. You can skip introductions (if you already know the topic), examples, references, skim through experiment setups. Now, if you want to check the correctness of everything that's written that's an entirely different matter. I can imagine that you may want to check if a math formula is correct and that this can't be done much faster. However, even then speed reading the rest of the text will help. –  THelper Mar 5 '12 at 13:32

I overcame my TLDR (its nice to know that a formal name to such thing exists) , by wearing colored shades (in my case, Pink) whenever I was to read something which I had to but didn't want to , because I subconsciously considered it boring, but using colored shades specifically to perform that reading task regularly, and mostly at the same time, worked wonders for me.

{For me the work was read texts from a chemistry book (subject I don't much celebrate) every day right after I woke up, so as to make my chemistry as par with my expertise in maths and physics, and it came as a flash of inspiration to use goggles to do so}

It might sound real silly, and total hipster science, but it works, it really does!! Advice: use those particular shades only for reading purpose, and not for anything else.

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I think what you are describing is an advantage in research. I am a researcher too, and had similar misgivings, but on reflection this is a highly evolved skill that comes with practice. What is really happening (IMO) is not that I'm not reading the long text, but that I've already read many portions of it. There are recurring features to articles, often the context is unnecessary if you're familiar with it, you might be familiar with other work by the author letting you quickly place it. Sometimes you read the title and know the gist, an excellent example being a book I saw "Time travellers from the future: An explanation of alien abduction". TLDR is an obvious blessing in such cases.

There is a negative side to it of course. I used to love reading fiction, but now I just can't, because I have often intuited the plot and often just don't have the patience to read to the end, unless it is brilliantly written. Worried by this, I forced myself to read Jeffrey Eugenides' book The marriage plot from beginning to end. After reading the back-page I knew the central plot element, after the first 30 pagesI could see the parallels with Pride and prejudice. Once the characters were predictable, it was left to see how they had been translated to the present day (they hadn't, only brought up to the 70s). Forcing myself to read to the end was like reading last weeks newspaper, not much fun, I knew how it ended, and the world had moved on.

What you identify as the TL;DR syndrom I would relabel as X-ray vision syndrome or perhaps the Dr. Manhattan dilemma. Research skills give one the ability to look deep into things and intuit structural elements quickly, but destroys the patience and innocence necessary to appreciate outer beauty.

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A very interesting take at the question. –  user2498 Mar 7 '12 at 11:20

If you’re going to read every single word in every single document you’re going to read very few documents. There is an 80/20 aspect at work here. Books and papers often repeat the same thing again and again so you’re getting diminishing returns by reading the whole thing meticulously.

I don’t avoid long paragraphs, but I also don’t read every word. I scan for key points and create spaced repetition questions on these key points for later analysis. That allows me to read a lot while still retaining a high proportion of the knowledge. Even if you did pore over those long paragraphs, I would question how much of it you actually retained a few days, let alone months later.

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Even I was stuck with this problem. I had to read loads of research papers for work and then I couldn't. My "To Read" folder kept on growing. I did 2 things :

  • Switched to e-ink or paper. I don't know why, but I somehow couldn't read anything on laptop or tablet. Somehow I will close it in 10 min and switch to less/non-productive works like browsing, playing simple games. With my kindle, I have now very less features in hand (compared to laptop/tablets) and have zero stress while reading. Ensure you convert your pdf's to mobi format before transferring to kindle. Some small 10-12 page research papers, I print them, read them middle-school type, underlining and all.
  • Start with most interesting novels you read to research papers. Hear me out. I loved Dan Brown and Sidney Sheldon as a teen. Now I started reading books by these writers which I have never read before. Now why I am saying novels is because they have minute details. You miss one and you will regret later. So this helped me overcome the habit of avoiding reading long paragraphs. After 2-3 books, I shifted to newspapers, read normal news, then switched to technology magazines. Then here is the tough part. Then switched to some basic physics books I loved in my undergrad, and then voila, I started reading (and understanding) research papers nicely.

I hope it helped. If not keep trying (and searching)

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First, ask yourself if this is really a problem. I studied microbiology in college, and I too had to read a lot of research papers and other heavy material. One of my professors gave me an excellent tip for reading technical and scientific literature. He told me to focus on the diagrams. If something is important, the author will make a diagram explaining it. Just read those and the captions under the diagram. At that point, if you don't understand something, read the text for clarification.

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