In John Medina’s awesome book, Brain Rules, the chapter on attention caught my attention. Medina, a professor, would ask new students each semester the following: Given a lecture that’s not too dull or too interesting, how long would it take for them to stop paying attention to the instructor and start looking at the clock? The near-universal answer: 10 minutes. That answer comports with many studies that find that attention drops out in the first quarter hour.
So the good professor started redesigning his lectures by breaking them up with anecdotes that illustrated the previous 10 minutes’ worth of content. In other words, every 10 minutes would have a story interlude. The effect on student retention was so profound that Mendina won a Teacher of the Year award out of it.
While reading the chapter I felt like testing the hypothesis. So I set my alarm for 10 minutes, during which I would continue reading the book uninterrupted, then take a break for roughly two minutes (untimed) to review the previous 10 minutes of reading or do something else — drink a beverage, stretch, whatever. The I would repeat this cycle for as long as desired.
Even before the first 30 minutes of this segmented reading, the effect it had on my ability to concentrate and retain information was obvious. Reading like this was slower, but effortless in a way that I’ve never experienced.
Taking a load off
I’m used to reading in long stretches, usually a couple of hours at a time. Up until now I’ve always assumed that long intervals of uninterrupted reading was the most efficient way to process text. Well, it is the most efficient way, but not necessarily the most effective.
The longer I read, the more material I had to retain in working memory (mental RAM). As the cognitive load from previous reading increases, the ability to focus on current reading decreases. Put simply, the more you try to remember, the less you’re able to concentrate. This might explain why instructional videos on YouTube, with its 10-minute maximum, are so effective.
I’ve never been good at taking notes while reading, since I tend to go “in the zone.” Writing breaks the flow of my reading. Normally what I do — for instance, when working on a book review — is spend a few days reading the book from start to finish, then go through it again taking notes. This was a pretty painful way to work. Now I take notes during the break periods. 10 minutes of reading feels like just the right amount of material to summarize without feeling overwhelmed, at least for me.
By switching to ten minute segments, I knew while I was reading that I would have a chance to review any difficult material I came across, so I know longer felt the need to stare a certain passages before moving on. It’s a very liberating feeling. Three hours of segmented reading doesn’t feel like three hours. It only feels like the last 10 minutes.
Slowing down to human scale learning
The biggest “disadvantage” of segmented reading is that getting through a book takes much longer — four or five times as long, it seems. Having just gone through a low information diet, I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. Both segmented reading and the low information diet seem to be teaching the same lesson: don’t consume information at a rate faster than you can digest or use it. Knowing how much longer it’s going to take to get through a book now, I have to be much more selective about my reading.
I’ve notice that I’ve intuitively applied the concept to my blog writing for some time. I format my posts in ways that I would never think of doing if I were writing a book. I split up long paragraphs, even when they’re technically one thought; I use bulleted lists, bold sentences and subheadings liberally. I would normally consider these elements “bad” copywriting. But readers seem to zone out on long blocks of onscreen text (usually read two or three feet away, suggesting that a blog post is closer in format to a poster than to a page in a book).
Breaking up feed reading
After completing the low-information diet, I’ve been reluctant to add feeds back into my RSS reader. Most of the feeds I subscribed to no longer seem to offer enough value for the time I invested in them. But now I realize that it wasn’t the time they consumed, but the attention. I want to try adding some feeds back into the reader and apply segmented reading to see how it changes the experience.
Trying it out
Again, the concept and technique are simple. Set a timer for ten minutes and read without interruption. Then take a break, reviewing the material just read as needed. Technical and nonfiction reading benefit most from this. Rinse and repeat.
(Photo credit: dabdiputs)
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