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I am finding that my list of papers to read ends up growing over time, never actually decreasing in size. I happily file something from my inbox into a folder, then proceed to immediately forget about it and almost never read it.

How can I make sure I actually read these items?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

First, I'd avoid thoughts like "clear up," "catch up," or "finish." The actual problem is not really about the pile growing; it's about no reading is happening. Even the pile grows by 50 pages a day, as long as you can read 10 pages a day, you're still gaining some new knowledge or information. This is what I usually do with my reading tasks:

  • When a journal/magazine arrives, skim through the contents page and mark down the articles that interest me. Read those, thumb through the rest, then either archive the parts I like or give it away/recycle.
  • I started a habit to read at least 50 pages a day, regardless what the materials are. If you just focus on a publication, 50 pages a day can usually allow you to finish it in 1-2 weeks.
  • Every month or so, I revisit my "to read" pile and weed out things that are no longer interesting (e.g. the relevant project was completed) or outdated (e.g. a new monthly report has come out, or preparatory readings for some meetings that had already happened.)
  • Realize that most of the time, only about 10-15% of a publication is actually useful. Most other parts are just to set the stage or elaborate on the main points with examples. Once we can sense the density of the paragraph, we can speed up by a lot.
  • I love to read with a pen and mark things down. That way I don't tune out as easily.
  • Take a break every 20 minutes.
  • Share the readings. If a piece seems to be interesting to a friend/colleague, forward it to them and then catch up with the contents later over lunch or conversation. You should probably bounce off the ideas gathered from some of your readings as well.
  • Digitize or archive information type of publication. I have a lot of those (reports, tips, tricks) and it's hard just to read them. In that case I usually just PDF them and save them up somewhere with an easily searchable file name.
  • Scatter the readings. Don't make one single pile. Have some at office, some at home, some inside your bag, some loaded to e-reader etc. so that whenever situation allows, you can grab something to read instead of checking cell phone.
  • Know where to trace the source of the article and keep a good paper trail, especially if you are doing research.
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Don't forget that not reading your read/review pile results in more time that you can spend elsewhere.

Before, you were probably reading reading those documents as they came in. Now, you are making the conscious decision that the document is not important enough to read now. By not reading them later, you are making the subconscious decision that they are not important enough to read ever.

In fact, you probably do read the things that something or someone depends on, right? You're not missing anything crucial, you're just not reading the nice-to-read things.

So I'd say there's no problem. You're handling information overdose in a sane way. If anything, I'd get even more strict about putting reading material on the pile. The more potentially interesting material you have on there, the more chance that you will rifle through that pile again.

Next up: throwing away things from the pile when they become >1 month old.

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Simple - have as your first daily to do item:

  • Read a chapter of current file (top of to-read list)
  • If at end of file, select new file, and place that one in a reading-completed list
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I would suggest you take the opportunity to schedule some time on your calendar to process your reading lists.

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I actually use an online to-do list to hold all of my reading that I want to do - then I break the various reading material down into bite-size chunks - with the goal being that if I only have to invest 15 minuets at a time, and I can check something off, I'm much more likely to get reading (vs. thinking I have to read the whole thing at once). I like getting "credit" for checking things off....makes me feel like I'm making progress even if it's just a little sometimes.

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