How I Learned to Speed Read

At the beginning of 2013, I set a lofty goal for myself: to read 100 books through the course of the year. When August rolled around and I had just crossed the 52  book mark, it became apparent that I needed to step up my game. I could have chosen simpler books (cheated) or abandoned my other pursuits (not something I wanted to do). Instead, I decided to learn how to speed read.

 

How to Speed Read

I decided to use the technique published by Tim Ferriss on his blog. I used a simple tap-counter iPhone application (which recorded each time I pressed the screen, and the overall time per session) to keep track of how many pages per minute I read, and then converted the pages per minute into words per minute. First, I took a baseline of my words per minute for both reading a casual book (novel) and a denser book (science-heavy book).

Then, I worked with the speed reading techniques for 2 weeks.

Speed Reading

Speed Reading

 

My speeds for both science went up 2.5x (from 400 WPM to 1,000 WPM) and novels went up 2.2x (from 550 WPM to 1,200 WPM).

 

What About Comprehension?

My biggest fear was that I would have decreased comprehension. Much of the time spent learning to speed read is extraordinarily uncomfortable: it requires pushing beyond the ability to comprehend for the sake of training the mind to take in more information. This discomfort was a natural part of the learning process, but thankfully it disappeared after I finished my training.

In an attempt to ensure that I was not  losing any comprehension, I kept track of the average number of passages which I highlighted on my Kindle, and found that it did not decrease – indicating that my attention was still focused enough to select the same quantity of relevant content.

 

Results

The typical paperback novel is about 100,000 words long. At 1,200 WPM, this means it theoretically takes me a mere 1 hour 20 minutes to read the average novel.

To be sure, my speed has dropped a little since first employing these techniques. I try to do a 10 minute training session every week or two, to keep my speeds up. Even at a 2x speed improvement, though, this makes my 100-book-goal far more achievable; I’m now on track to meet the goal easily. I am able to read an average sized book on a 3 hour plane flight, or over the course of a weekend while doing other things.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    KarolGajda -  October 9, 2013 - 3:31 pm 1150

    I spent much of my life trying to learn to speed read. I bought and consumed the Kevin Trudeau infomercial course (when I was ~13), books like the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Program, and articles on the web. I could never truly got much faster with reading *and* comprehension. With focus and a pen/finger guide I can do ~700WPM, but it’s exhausting and not possible long term.

    Then I read this http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4229 and felt better.

    I don’t think the fact that you highlight the same amount of stuff now as before is any indicator of comprehension. It’s simply an indicator that you highlight the same amount of stuff now as before. The way I used to complete assignments in high school was to skim my textbooks to find relevant info. It doesn’t mean I was reading or immediately comprehending. It’s fairly easy to find “highlightable” material if that’s your goal.

    • Avatar
      Zane Claes -  October 9, 2013 - 4:44 pm 1151

      Thanks for the comment, Karol. I agree with some of your points, to an extent: high-end speed reading is not really sustainable for long durations. I don’t use this technique for more than a few hours at a time, tops. However, even my “casual” reading speed has improved drastically. As for the article you linked, I would counter with this piece from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2012/06/04/do-you-read-fast-enough-to-be-successful/

      As for the bit about comprehension… the amount of content highlighted is, certainly, no “proof” of comprehension. That said, the best I can reply is to assure you that I do not skimp on the quality of my highlighting. 2/3 of the books I read are scientific in nature, and the main purpose of my reading is to comprehend the ideas and create good notes for later usage (such as on this blog). If you can think of a better way to measure comprehension, though, I’m all ears 🙂

      • Avatar
        KarolGajda -  October 9, 2013 - 5:16 pm 1152

        There’s nothing scientific about that Forbes/Staples link. It’s an opinion piece.

        Highlights: like I stated, it’s easy to skim and find good bits of info. That doesn’t mean it’s reading. I’m not saying it’s wrong, of course. Many books are better skimmed for their few bits of good info than read thoroughly for the same few bits of info.

        As for measuring comprehension, it’s difficult to do by yourself. Though I guess you could “speed read” and write about what you “read” without looking over – or even taking – notes. Been trying this unsuccessfully for 19 years.

        Maybe it comes down to the fact that I’m not intelligent enough or my brain is “broken.” So my lack of results doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but there’s no proof that it works, except usually from people selling a book or course. (And Tim’s “scientific” blog post is anything but scientific. It is a great way to get visitors though.)

        • Avatar
          Zane Claes -  October 9, 2013 - 5:35 pm 1153

          Interesting. I have to admit I read that Forbes link several months ago, and the main thing that stuck with me is “it contains a test illustrating that smart people, like professors, read faster, as do successful people.” In a classic example of some interesting heuristics at work, I didn’t recall the source of that data (Staples).

          For what it’s worth, I do summarize every book I read, and revisit each one of my highlights & annotations after I finish book. To me, the content that comes out of reading a book is just as valuable than the book itself 😉

  2. Avatar
    YsoSerious? -  November 14, 2015 - 12:27 pm 1510

    Hi, Zane!
    Thanks for this report. It’s a good thing to realize how the Tim’s method works.
    I think it’s too late, but I’d like to know something about the Tim Ferriss technique! I’ve read a lot of people who reached to 600-700 WPM in just one session of 20 minutes! But I’ve been trying this exercises for 2 weeks and I can read at least at 300 WPM….
    Where am i wrong?

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