Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Leaving Space for Thinking

by Andre · 7 Comments

Time for some backpedaling. For years I’ve been a proponent of studying in long, uninterrupted 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, but the length of uninterrupted time.

The television model of reading

For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve always viscerally disliked the experience of watching television, but it wasn’t until I read Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television that I understood why. Mander contrasted the difference between absorbing information through reading and through television.

When you read a paragraph, it’s easy to stop and start at will. You can pick up where you left off without missing anything. You can pause to reflect on your agreement or disagreement with the author’s statement. You can take notes or verbally relay what you’ve just read to someone else in the room.

When you watch something on television, you can still do any of the above, but the nature of the medium makes in inherently more difficult, assuming you don’t have the remote control of your DVR in hand. Any time you pause to reflect on what you’re watching, new information is streaming by. You have to choose between watching and thinking. If your attending is directed toward thinking, it’s not directed toward watching. Video is a succession of events that make the brain predisposed to pay attention to what happens next rather than reflect.

Long reading sessions of firewalled attention have a roughly equivalent effect. By continuously reading new material for longer periods that working memory can hold, there isn’t much left at the end of the session for the brain to process. I’ve noticed that when I sit down to write a book review, it’s almost as if I have to read the book all over again to recover the details.

Lean thinking with the low information diet

Just as eating more calories than we burn through work or exercise leads to obesity, consuming more information than we can use creates analysis paralysis. Just-in-time information is more agile that just-in-case information.

It’s easy to assume that anything requiring mental activity is “thinking,” but information and thinking are not synonymous. Information that’s relevant to a current or imminent project is raw material for thinking, but without an action-oriented focus, it has no value. There’s a point of diminishing returns where more input interferes with more output.

But how to we figure out what information is relevant unless we first take it in? There’s no way I know of to avoid this conundrum entirely, but spending a week on the low information diet can help reset your standards for what content is and isn’t relevant. At the end of the week of avoiding news, RSS feeds, nonfiction and websites, you’ll probably find that once you give yourself permission to add those sources back to your daily intake, only a fraction of them will remain compelling. To use a term that was fashionable in the Seventies, the low information diet is a form of “deprogramming.”

Segmented reading

As mentioned in a recent post, the concept behind segmented reading is to split reading sessions up into 10-minute fragments, then take a break to review what you’ve just read if necessary (I chose a break of around two minutes, which may or may not be optimal), then repeat the cycle. The break gives your brain time and space to think before your short-term memory loses the material it just covered.

Even if you do hours of segmented reading, it will feel as though you’ve only been reading a few minutes, in contrast to single spans of long reading, where the brain is trying to hold on to old information while taking in new information. The effect is similar to GTD, where one’s entire inventory of work is offloaded to an external system of lists, files and calendar entries.

It’ll be interesting to test the concept on writing and other forms of work to see if pattern interrupts are as effective with output as input. Time to find out . . .

(Photo credit: christopherblizzard)

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Tags: Productivity · Thinking Operations


  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Nov 7, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Can’t you achieve the same effect by taking notes while reading (which would free your brain from thinking about what you’ve already read and enable you to fully focus on the new material), or do you consider taking notes as a taking a break?

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 7, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    That’s a personal problem I have that I mentioned in the first linked post. I’m no good at taking notes while I read. Writing breaks the flow of my reading, since I normally read at a pretty fast pace. Stopping to write something down in the middle of each paragraph would drive me nuts. Other people do it all the time with no problem, though.

    So I guess the answer is yes, I consider taking notes as taking a break.

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Nov 7, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Got it.

    I do take notes. All the time. I even scribble thoughts and observations while reading fiction. I guess our reading styles/ habits are very different. :)

  • DuffNo Gravatar // Nov 8, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Thanks for this series on segmented reading. I tried it the other night and realized that it’s actually what I often do naturally.

    In my 2-minute breaks, I alternated between taking notes on 3×5 cards, staring off into space, and allowing my thinking to wander and make connections.

    I got the sense that there is something valuable about that kind of scheduled wandering, allowing the unconscious to make new connections and insights based on the material.

    I felt that the breaks were especially valuable given the fact that I was reading something very challenging. Back when I mostly read easy self-help stuff, I found speed-reading useful. Lately, however, I’ve been aiming to digest more “nutritious” reading material.

  • Andre KibbeNo Gravatar // Nov 9, 2008 at 9:54 am

    @Vered: I’m impressed. You’re a natural parallel processor :) I’m starting to think that my habit of maintaining long flow states is a drug, and scheduling interventions keeps me from going too deep.

    @Duff: I got the sense that there is something valuable about that kind of scheduled wandering, allowing the unconscious to make new connections and insights based on the material.

    In Brain Rules, there’s a section on sleep theorizing that one of the purposes of sleep is to allow the brain to integrate new things that were learned during the day.In one experiment, the pattern of neural activation in a mouse trained to walk through a maze repeated itself during sleep. I think play, daydreaming and wandering (I love your term, “scheduled wandering”) give us the space to manipulate and integrate what we learn from the outside world.

  • IanNo Gravatar // Nov 9, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    I have to agree with Vered that taking notes as you read can be a similar approach. Since you wrote about reading in 10 minute chunks, I have been giving it a try. It’s not bad, but I do need to become better accustomed to it. It’s a stilted feel, but I think if I do a couple minutes of sit-ups in between, I can process the information and get some rock-hard abs. :) Of course, I’m not sure if exercise will negatively impact the thought process or help it along. We shall see.

  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Nov 12, 2008 at 9:45 am

    This was a great, great post. I cannot TELL you how much your blog has helped me learn to assess/reassess all that I do from day to day. I really feel my work habits are improving. I cannot thank you enough!

    I find this does, indeed, work best. I am so glad I stopped paying for television. Now, we control what information we take in in our home, not the other way around, and my brain feels so much sharper for it!

    We watch DVDs, but of course, only at particular times.