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The extraordinary way to eliminate overload: Clive Lewis reveals a new reading strategy that will get you the knowledge you need, fast.

We have met the enemy and he is us is the great title of a new report into information overload by the techwatch company Basex. But should we be surprised? Of course we shouldn't. We are the creators of our own data smog. It's we who are addicted to information, to 24/7 contact and to our BlackBerries and iPhones. We are the ones who spend most of the day texting and emailing and podcasting. There is nobody to blame but ourselves.

You only have to think about current-day driving habits to understand just how technology can have an impact on us. Many drivers are not only on hands-free, they have their SatNav speaking to them and their Road Angels looking out for speed cameras. And on top of this they have hi-fi systems picking up music from their MP3 players and DVD players in the headrests for any passengers that might get bored. Addicted to information? Who can doubt it?

Of course some people love all this. They don't want down-time. They even sleep with their mobiles tucked under their pillows so they can check in at night for messages. These are people for whom gadget magazines and shops are made; people for whom technology and the access it provides is an umbilical cord.

But not all people see technology as such a blessing. For many harried employees, technology has opened an unwelcome floodgate and they are drowning in data. Far from providing them with freedom, the 24/7 knowledge economy leaves such people overworked, under-resourced and with a fear of going under.

If you are in the first of these categories, the information-hungry version of a petrol head that can never get enough, this article isn't for you. Stop reading and go download another file or do some social networking on Bebo or Facebook. If, however, you are looking for a way to tackle information overload because you recognise that you sometimes get swamped by data smog, I have some practical insights for you that could just change your life.

Becoming an extraordinary reader

There are two distinct responses that people have to information overload. On the one hand, some people experience anxiety and stress as a result of the constant stream of information that they get sent and they want skills and techniques to help them rebalance their lives.

However, other people recognise that it's not about balance. It's about their personal effectiveness. For these people, the issue is about how to become more agile so that they can navigate through the sea of information and pick up the essential knowledge they need. Such people want to lead from the front. And in this article I'm going to explain how this can be achieved.

First of all, however, let's agree that there is a huge amount of data smog out there, characterised by the constant stream of low value information that gets pumped out to us every day. Such smog comes in every form, through written and spoken word and through electronic, broadcast and traditional paper format. It's there when we shop, it's there when we drive, it's there when we sit at our desks and, if you have children, you'll be aware that it's ever present. It never stops! So how do you find your way through it? And how do you evaluate it along the way so that you can take what you need and ditch what you don't?

At Illumine we ran a programme for the Common Services Agency in Scotland not so long ago and their issues were typical of an organisation suffering from information overload. People there were facing constant change and were being compelled to take on board new ideas and information at a ferocious rate. Simply expecting staff to work harder or longer to deal with their workload issues wasn't a viable solution. Management recognised that its people needed to learn to work smarter. And that meant providing them with leading edge thinking and productivity tools that would help them to take control of their lives.


I've now brought some of these tools together into a single approach. I've written about it in a book The Extraordinary Reader and I'm now going to outline the strategy which sits at the heart of this approach, and which promises to help you eliminate information overload, work smarter and stay ahead of the game.

INSEAK: a way to harvest knowledge

The 'three state' reading strategy is called INSEAK--the Intelligent Strategy for the Effective Acquisition of Knowledge.

INSEAK recognises that, whenever we are faced with new documents, we need sorting strategies and reading techniques that can help us determine their relevance. These techniques are well known but when combined they add extraordinary value to people who want to harvest knowledge.

The three states are as follows:

State 1: A document arrives and assessment is required

In this first state, you, the recipient, are in receiving mode. But you do not know whether the document, report, book, magazine or email that you have been sent requires cursory or detailed attention. So your first objective is to find out whether it needs to be read, delegated or ditched.

To help with this assessment you will need to use some specific tools. These include knowing how to make a fast initial evaluation, how to conduct a rapid pre-read and how to draft a skeleton Mind Map. By using these techniques you will be able to establish what the documents are about and whether you need to give them further consideration.

Here's an outline of how to make an initial assessment:

* Take a book or magazine and look at the front cover. What does the title suggest? If there is a front cover picture or graphic, what does it convey?

* Now look at the back cover. Is there any useful information there? Is there a book flap which provides a summary of the main themes involved or a reviewer's comment?

* Read the Table of Contents to understand the structure of the book or magazine. What do the chapter titles or headlines tell you?

* And finally read the introduction and the final paragraph of the book or the editor's comment if it's a magazine. This should give you a good idea of the scope of the material and where you are heading.

So is the book or magazine interesting or relevant? If it's not, do you need to pass it on to someone else or can you bin it?

State 2: You now have preliminary understanding of the document

Following this assessment you now have preliminary understanding. You know whether the document is relevant and, broadly, what it covers. You are still in assessment mode, however, and this will help you decide whether you need to read further and, if so, at what speed and depth.

Your strategies in the next part of the INSEAK process are skimming, scanning and speed-reading as well as working up a detailed Mind Map. The critical understanding here is that, while some documents may just need a skim read, you may also choose to go through others multiple times, building up greater knowledge each time. This process of multi-layering is a key characteristic in becoming an extraordinary reader.

State 3: New knowledge is assimilated

Your state when you have completed the process above is now one of knowledge assimilated. And, importantly, you will have generated, as part of this state, a robust review strategy (your detailed Mind Map) which will have clarified and coded all the key information you need for easy recall. The drafting of your Mind Map is also a signal that you have met your knowledge assessment objectives and have completed the task in hand.

The focus with INSEAK is specifically on assessment and evaluation of information and this is critical for managing overload. You have to remember that, while knowledge and information is the fuel for career success, the prerequisite for executives is to be able to seek out the gold among all the dross. In this context just consider for a moment ... when you pick up a document or read an email what are you looking for--factual information, learning, other people's insights? You need clear objectives and a fast way to assess the value of the documents you have been sent. And you can be much more effective when you make this a conscious process.

Managing your state

So far, so good but, unfortunately, you can't become an extraordinary reader just by understanding the skills involved. You have to be prepared to practice and change your habits.

This is an investment that is well worth the effort. To become an extraordinary reader, you need to be clear that you never want to fall victim again to information overload. This has to be worth your while because it won't only relieve pressure, it will give you a competitive advantage. I have always been fired by the belief that, if I can teach people simple and effective thinking techniques, they will become far more productive and successful. But whatever techniques I may have to offer, it is up to you to make them work.

The issue of state management is key to this process and the following six factors are vital in helping you learn the INSEAK skills.

1. Know what you want and make sure it's worth the time and investment you are making

For some people, this point will be self-evident. They will want the pain of overload to stop or they will want to be more successful or productive. For others, their motivation might be less clear. But don't under-estimate the need for a powerful vision. You need to be really clear about both what you want to get out of the process and what the benefits are that will accrue. Being clear about what you are up to will strengthen your resolve and set you up in a way that is aligned with your focus.

2. Choose a resourceful attitude

In addition to being clear about your outcome, you also need to consider the way in which you are approaching the task of building your skills.

Before you sit down, check that you are fully and positively engaged. If you sit down thinking that what you are about to do is going to be dull and time-consuming, so it is likely to be. The attitude that you bring to your endeavour will reinforce your beliefs. So generate an open-minded and positive attitude towards your extraordinary reading capacity before you start.

3. Believe in possibility

Everyone will have a set of beliefs about information overload and the sheer quantity of information they have to get through. If you are going to start using INSEAK and the various Mind Mapping and speed-reading techniques which it incorporates, it's critical that you believe that it will work.

The interesting finding about beliefs is that they tend to act as filters that pre-determine success. Start by examining what you believe about your ability to manage information overload and, if you find that you are holding a disempowering belief, suspend it and choose another belief which, for this task, would be more helpful.

4. Concentrate: work with the grain

Get to know how you work and learn best. For example, during which part of the day do you do your best work and what helps you to be alert? These questions are directly relevant to your concentration and your success in building the skills of an extraordinary reader. Also make sure you take breaks while you are practising because all the studies about how people learn show that, when we take breaks, we are better able to take in new information.

5. Develop relaxed attentiveness

Think about engaging the logical 'left brain' and the more creative 'right brain' to boost your learning capacity and access the so-called 'alpha state' in which you have relaxed attentiveness. Practices that can help you access the alpha state include meditation, brain gym (physical exercises designed to coordinate the brain), Yoga and listening to non-choral music of the same tempo as brain waves.

6. Manage your environment

Finally, the conditions in which you are trying to learn will have an impact on your learning state. So think about, and manage, the lighting, the temperature, your access to fresh air, the noise levels around you, the comfort of the chair you are in and any other resources that you may need while you are learning the INSEAK techniques.



At the core of being an extraordinary reader is knowing how to speed-read but I hope that I have helped you to recognise that, under this broad heading, there are a whole range of techniques at your disposal. Indeed, you won't need to do any speed-reading if, for example, you apply an initial evaluation or a rapid pre-read and determine that the material you've been sent isn't relevant. On the other hand, if what you have assessed does look interesting or valuable, you now know exactly what you need to pay attention to.

Remember, the goal here is both to eliminate information overload and harvest knowledge. You can have both. You simply need to build and flex your INSEAK muscles, speed up or slow down depending on your need and garner the rewards.

Skimming: an outline

The technique of skimming is designed to help you catch the headlines, identify specific areas of interest and/or get a sense of the story being told.

When you skim read you are flicking through the book or document in front of you fast--looking for those devices put into the text by authors as signposts for their readers. These include chapter headings, sub-headings, illustrations, summaries and conclusions. They also include pull-out boxes or panels, case studies, quotes and bullet points.

Order The Extraordinary Reader (quote TJ1) before July 31st 2008 and you will receive your copy for 5.99 [pounds sterling] (RRP 9.99 [pounds sterling]). It is published by Vale Press ISBN 978-1-90607003-8 and is available from illumine on + 44 (0) 1753 866633 or www.

Mind Mapping[R] is a registered trademark of the Buzan organisation.

Clive Lewis is MD of Illumine Training. He can be contacted on +44(0) 1753 866633 or via
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Article Details
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Author:Lewis, Clive
Publication:Training Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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