How to read efficiently and overcome mental block

I have recently been asked by good friends “how do you read so quickly” and “does skim reading really work”.

Well the truth is that efficient and effective reading for research does not come from concentrating on speed, and skim reading is only efficient when you are looking for something very small and particular, which means that you can ignore other things.

I used to read large number of sources with an open mind, just hoping that I would come across information and evidence that I would find helpful. Instead I would end up confused, side-tracked, and often defeated by mental block. The mental block that comes from reading lots of sources is facilitated by a lack of understanding of what you want to obtain from sources and how you will build on your existing knowledge.


What does efficient reading depend on?

From my experience of success and failure, I have concluded that efficient reading depends on 2 things:


  1. The order of the sources that you read:

The order of the sources matters because it allows you to develop your core knowledge with less disruption, and also build upon that core knowledge more easily. As I have written previously, it is always best to start with the most recent secondary source, because it will contain the most up-to-date outline of the schools of thought on the central debates. If the most recent text is not sufficiently thorough, then find the most recent text which describes the main debates and schools of thought on a topic.

After reading the most recent source, read the most important text which it has referenced to represent the different schools of thought. Then you can branch out into sources that provide supplementary analysis.


  1. What you want to obtain from reading a source:

Once you have read two or three core texts in-depth I would then read my remaining texts with a clear aim in mind. Ask yourself – what am I looking to find out from this text? If it in one of the prominent publications from one of the schools of thought, then look for what evidence has made them reach these conclusions.

Also, if it is a journal article, then look at the summary paragraph and the specific working of the title at the beginning. They will be able to tell you about the specific focus and theory in the article so that you can develop a clear aim about what you want to find out from this text and how it will most likely fit in to your own assessment.


Some Extra Practical Tips

  • Read the Introduction Chapter of books:

This is especially important for literature reviews, but it was also very useful for me when I worked on essays.

If you really want to understand the perspective of the authors then the Introduction is an ideal place to start. The author will outline how they have been influenced by previous research and how their research deviated from their predecessors.


  • Colour coding:

Colour coding was a genuine life-saver for me when reading and making notes.

There are a vast number of ways to use colour-coding. For example, when I was trying to separate something from the rest of my notes, such as a cross-reference with another source of evidence, then colour-coding would make it very easy to find a piece of evidence when you are tired or in a hurry.

Also, if you are looking through a large source of evidence, then you can use a few colours to identify your core categories.

However, do not be tempted to colour code anything that you think might be relevant. I found that there were few things more overwhelming and de-motivating that staring at a wall of colour on a page, with no more idea of what specific item was important than if there were no more colours that black and white on the page.


Preview of tomorrow’s article



Overcoming writer’s block


To add to yesterday’s article on efficient reading, today I will talk to you all about efficient writing…

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