Tips for Reading Long Articles

As a doctoral student, I often have to read long academic articles in a single sitting. This type of reading stands in sharp contrast to the type of reading I do online, which consists mostly of short news articles, Twitter messages, and emails.

The traditional advice – pace yourself, take a break every so often, put on your favorite music, get comfortable, etc. – tends to leave me unfocused and unfinished at the end of the day. I’ve been trying to expand my repertoire of strategies for increasing my reading stamina to ensure that I finish all of my reading each week. Here are some tips that I’m trying out today:

Use temperature variations – hot tea and ice-cold water help stimulate the senses and keep you alert. I filled my water bottle with ice and held it to keep cool in the stuffy hospital lounge where I was reading this morning.

Find endless beverages – I drink lots of ice water and decaffeinated tea when reading. You can only drink so much coffee without upsetting your stomach or overdosing on caffeine, but it can help pace your reading to drink water or tea.

Stand, squat, or sit in a different place – I can’t read on the couch without getting sleepy, so I always choose a hard chair at a table. When I get tired of sitting at the table, I stand up or try another position to keep myself focused.

Hold the article or book, rather than leave it on the table. I find that this physical connection with the text keeps me focused.

Underline or highlight – this one’s obvious, but the more your mind is engaged with evaluating the text, the more you’ll stay focused.

Set short-term goals – when reading dense academic articles, I often find my thoughts wandering, and I’ll realize I’ve spent 15 or 20 minutes without finishing the page. Today I tried setting a goal that I’d reach the end of a given section within 5 minutes, then 5 minutes for the next section, and so on. I didn’t read any faster – I kept up my normal pace – but I was far more focused and didn’t let my mind wander.

How do you stay focused when reading a long, dense article?

Following Up on Emailed Requests

When you email someone to ask them to do something, how can you make sure they do it?

Ideally, the person you’re emailing is reliable and will do what you ask without you having to confirm. But in the shuffle of activity in schools and districts, this isn’t always the reality.

To ensure that you can easily follow up, it’s important to keep track of the sent message, separating it from all of your other sent messages (e.g. simple replies) that do not need follow-up. You can do this easily with a mail processing rule. If you use Microsoft Outlook, you can use the directions below step-by-step.

  1. Create a new folder (File -> New -> Folder) in Outlook (within your inbox). I’ll call this folder “Followup.”
  2. Create a new rule (Tools -> Rules & Alerts) as follows:
    From myself, applied to all messages except where my name is in the To or CC box. Here’s what this looks like at the end of the rules wizard:
    Outlook rule screenshot
  3. Save the rule and exit the wizard (don’t run the rule to old messages)

This will give you a to-do item, dated tomorrow, each time you BCC yourself on a message. Depending on your Outlook settings, this should give you a popup reminder to follow up the next day, which you can then postpone or check on, depending on whether you think enough time has passed.

To use the rule, just remember to BCC yourself whenever you are sending a message to someone that you want to track for follow-up, and remember to check the Followup folder regularly (or check your flagged actions), and delete/mark as complete when the items are complete.

Footnotes:

  • Regular readers will recall that I’m a Mac user, so I use Entourage rather than Outlook. I had to use a school computer to configure these rules, since Entourage 2008 is a somewhat anemic product. However, once the rules are set, they work fine in Entourage.
  • (Note that the last rule isn’t really necessary, but if you want to separate follow-up from things you are just emailing yourself, this is a good idea. I email myself non-follow up items all the time, e.g. from iPad apps, so I included the rule that ensures that only when I BCC myself does the message go in this folder.)
  • If you don’t use action flags in Outlook, you can leave out the “flag message for Follow Up Tomorrow” rule, and just check the folder manually, deleting messages when you’re satisfied that the action is complete.

Essential Email Tips for School Leaders

Essential Email Tips for School Leaders
Here’s my latest article: Essential Email Tips for School Leaders (PDF)

Quick Tips (Summary):

  1. Cut down on email by unsubscribing from mailing lists and setting expectations with others.
  2. Use your mobile phone to keep up with “FYI” messages that require no action or that you can deal with while out and about in your school; keep others marked as unread and deal with them on your computer.
  3. On your computer, read a message once and deal with it; if necessary, add a task to your to-do list rather than repeatedly marking it as unread.
  4. Use a text shortcut program to write commonly used phrases more quickly.
  5. Learn the keyboard shortcuts for your email application, and work on your typing speed.
  6. Only process your email once or twice a day; close your email program or turn off automatic downloading to avoid distractions.
  7. Don’t answer email immediately when it comes in; it’s meant to be asynchronous. Strive to answer within a day, but at a time that works for you.
  8. Save your email to your computer, and make it search-friendly by adding keywords to messages you think you might need to locate later.
  9. Don’t over-file or create elaborate rules – they only slow you down.
  10. Set the example in your school by using email to communicate more efficiently.

Read the full article

Image credit: Esparta Palma

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