I am a faculty member in a research-oriented university. I teach and I do research in social sciences. Similarly to most academics, a big part of my job involves reading.

A portion of my "reading list" requires accuracy. When I review papers, grade exams, or work on my own research, my attention needs to be 100% focused on the task at hand. The main reason is that reading these documents usually leads to an output (e.g. a grade, a review, a paragraph in a paper, etc.).

However, a large portion of my "reading list" requires digesting fast large amounts of textual data. I monitor several journals to stay up to date, I investigate new literatures, I read books in my field, I read every year the papers assigned to students in my syllabi, etc. This does not require accuracy. The main goal is to have a big picture vision, a broad idea.

The main trick I found to digest large amounts of textual data pretty fast is to use a text-to-speech software that I use on my phone. I found it makes me more productive than sitting at my desk and helps me claim additional reading hours (e.g. gym, errands, commute, cleaning, etc.)

What techniques would you recommend to "digest" large amounts of text?

Note: I asked a related question this morning but was told that it was too "tech" oriented. I deleted the former question and posted this one.

  • 4
    +1 because I am always interested in increasing my productivity, but as a counterpoint: I think it is possible to gather a tremendous amount of knowledge from a small number of carefully studied sources. Sometimes devoting more energy to less content can be beneficial.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 17:24

1 Answer 1


Speed reading techniques can, for some people, greatly increase the amount of text that you can cover in a given amount of time. If I am reading for a big picture vision in a not-extremely-technical subject, I can routinely read at 500-1000 words per minute, far faster than speaking. It is, however, very important to know when you're reading something that requires time for reflection; you have only the most immediate reactions to work with at such rates.

Anyway, there are a variety of speed-reading books out there--I have one by Tony Buzan that seems decent as long as you don't believe too fervently that he always knows what he's talking about. (Peter Kump's book is better with exercises.)

There's also a speed-reading app by Spritz, which I have not tried. Other fast readers I've talked to have given mixed reports: it's definitely fast (it forces you to be!) but since going back is difficult it tends to limit comprehension in those spots where you need a little extra focus.

Also, you don't necessarily even need to read everything you're supposed to read. Various sorts of skimming can let you pick off the key ideas and decide whether you need to go into more detail: look at chapter headings, read the first couple and last couple sentences in each chapter, glance through for any graphs or tables or sidebars. You might take an extra 10% time doing this sort of thing, but more than 1/6th of the time you'll find that you don't need to do any more at all, saving you time overall. And if you do have to read the whole thing, it's easier to remember when you've already had an overview.

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