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focused reading and research

4: focused reading and research

“A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.”
– Chinese Proverb

Focused reading is something that’s becoming a rarer and rarer animal these days. We have a hard time reading even a single blog post if it’s not a simple list or longer than a couple hundred words — we’ll skim, and then move on to the next post or email.

Our reading habits have changed because of the persistence and ubiquity of online distractions. We read shorter, faster, more frequently, but longer reading is dwindling. Focused reading is harder.

One effect is that we’re reading fewer books and longer articles, and more blogs and shorter articles. Another effect is that any research we need to do is filled with distractions — landmines when it comes to getting work done.

However, it’s not impossible to read or do research with focus. Just harder.

How to read longer pieces without distractions

There are two keys to reading longer pieces or books: 1) clearing away everything else, and 2) shutting off the Internet.

Without those two things, you’ll always have distractions. Even if you do manage to do those two things, the siren’s call of messages and other updates are still tempting.

For reading longer articles or blog posts, I’ll put the article/post in a separate window, without other tabs to distract me. I’ll expand that window to cover my entire screen. And then I’ll turn off the Internet, so nothing else calls while I read.

Then I just read, until I get to the end (or until I realize this article isn’t worth my time). I don’t switch to another window or program until I’m done.

There’s something peaceful about this process. It’s saying: I have nothing else to do but read this one thing. Nothing is going to interrupt me, and I can just focus on enjoying this reading.

Book reading is the same way. If you’re reading a physical book, you need to put away your laptop and mobile devices, and shut everything off. Find a quiet place, and just read. If you’re reading an ebook, clear away everything else but your ebook reader.

Then you settle into the reading, and enjoy it. Bask in the luxury of reading without distractions.

How to do the research necessary for focused creation

Research can be more of a challenge, because you need to be connected to find information, usually. You’ll want to do Google searches and then follow links within the first batch of articles you find, and so on. The nature of research tends to require link-following.

Here’s the method I suggest for more focused research:

  1. Close email/IM/social networks and other distractions.
  2. Do your initial search, and open up your initial batch of articles/pages.
  3. Skim these articles/pages, looking for links to other articles you might need to read. Open those links.
  4. Repeat with the new articles, skimming and opening links as necessary. Do this until you have all the articles open you need to read.
  5. Read one article at a time, using the method in the previous section — opening that article in its own window and hiding everything else. Read through the article, and take any notes necessary. Bookmark the article if necessary for later reference.
  6. Repeat, taking notes and bookmarking one article at a time. When your research is done, you can do the actual work, using the focus techniques for work in the other chapters of this book.

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