Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Freeing up Mental RAM with Segmented Reading

by Andre · 10 Comments

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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  • J.J.No Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Coincidentally, Brain Rules is listed in my book wish list. What’s the rating of this book?

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 11:50 am

    I’ll be writing up a review of it soon (I’m almost finished reading it, but my segmented approach makes it slower). In Amazon terms, I’m inclined to give it five stars.

  • derykNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    I like the concept, and it makes intuitive sense.

    I don’t understand why you say that it will take 4 – 5 times as long to get through a book. 10 minutes reading/2 minute rests seems like it should add 20% at most, plus I would assume a more rested mind will actually cover more ground in those 10 minutes. I’ll give it a try & see what my own metrics are.

  • DuffNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Great suggestion. I’ll try it tonight!

  • Jarrod - Warrior DevelopmentNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Thanks Andre, this is something really interesting. I’ve always found that writing summaries is very useful but I’ve never done them at 10 minute intervals.

    Should be great to try, specially seems I’m trying to learn Japanese… ^_^

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    @deryk: I don’t understand why you say that it will take 4 – 5 times as long to get through a book. 10 minutes reading/2 minute rests seems like it should add 20% at most, plus I would assume a more rested mind will actually cover more ground in those 10 minutes.

    Your math is right, but my exposition was wrong. I should have been clearer. First, when I said it takes longer, I was referring to my own reading, counted in days rather than cumulative hours. Normally I would’ve read a book like Brain Rules in a two or three days, whereas I’ll probably finish this book on the tenth day.

    Second, the “two-minute” breaks were untimed. I didn’t feel the need to be so rigid about the break sessions, but there are some variables I want to test in the near future, and that’s one of them. So some of those breaks were off by 2-3x.

    Third, I’ve done of couple of longer sessions comprised of 10-minute segments, but for the most part it’s been 20 minutes here (2 segments), 50 minutes there (5 segments) slotted in odd windows of time. I think that my previous having of long reading sessions effectively put me in a trance where I lost my awareness of how much time I spent reading. Now that I’m snapping out of that trance at regular intervals, I’m less inclined to spend so much time reading unless it’s necessary. But again, I want to test longer chains of reading sessions versus shorter ones to see if there’s an optimum. I haven’t been very scientific about it so far.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    @Duff: You have your homework assignment. Be sure to report back.

    @Jarrod: Hmm . . . applying it to language learning. Sounds like a great idea.

  • Ulla HennigNo Gravatar // Nov 6, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Interesting approach, Andre! I will sure give it a try!

  • Leaving Space for Thinking | Tools for Thought // Nov 7, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    [...] blocks — ideally a couple of hours at a time. Since I’ve been experimenting with segmented reading, I’m starting to doubt that longer is better — not the amount of overall time per se, [...]

  • Nuclear RainbowNo Gravatar // Apr 16, 2010 at 10:29 am

    A very late reply, but I want to give it nonetheless: how does speed off reading interfere with this? I know I read twice as quick as a average person (no special technique, just been reading a lot since I learned how to read), so would then 10 minutes of information not be too much? Of course, I’ll know if I try (which I’ll do, when there is scientific stuff to read), but maybe you have some thoughts on the matter?