Stretching your Time

An exploration of speed reading, learning and memory

A simple google search on how to add more time to your day will yield millions of results. They’ll all have tips urging you to use various time management techniques, planning and staying organized, saying no to certain things, avoiding interruptions and distractions, etc.

Let’s say you’re already a productivity machine, do all of the above, and not a second of your day is going to waste. What could you do next?

As knowledge workers, we’re constantly consuming and processing new information, and thus we spend a major portion of our workday on such tasks.

The average adult reading speed is around 200 WPM (words per minute) with a 60% comprehension rate. By skimming, the average reader may reach 400 WPM but their comprehension will drop as low as 20%. For comparison, top speed readers reach 1,000–2,000 WPM while maintaining 50% comprehension.

Lets say you currently spend 2 hours on average reading every day. That’s over 700 hours or a month and a half of waking hours a year. By doubling your reading speed you’d save nearly a month of waking hours! By tripling it to 600 WPM, which is well within reach after a few months of training, you can save almost 500 hours a year.

While these time savings may not be as much as the time you can save via better time management, it certainly is a meaningful amount. In addition, being able to consume and retain information more quickly is a skill that you will be able to take advantage of for your entire life, and is not prone to the ebbs and flows of productivity.

Let’s say you want to learn about a new subject. Instead of the 3 or 4 months it may normally take, you could learn about it in just a month or two. The beauty of speed reading is such that with a larger base of knowledge, it will be even easier/faster to add more knowledge on top of it.

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.” — Albert Einstein
“Compounding growth on your knowledge is the ninth wonder of the world” — Josh Click

So how do we double or triple our current reading speed? The general idea behind how speed reading works is based on the types of reading:

  1. Subvocalization: You’re mentally sounding out each word in your head, which other than reading out loud, is the slowest at around 250 WPM.
  2. Auditory: At this stage, you are no longer subvocalizing the words to yourself but are still hearing the words as you read, allowing you to reach speeds of 450 WPM. I believe most educated adults are at the border of being a subvocalizer and auditory reader.
  3. Visual: This is the type of reading trained speed readers are able to do, and tends to remain a skill exclusive to speed readers and others who intentionally seek it out because it’s not taught in schools. At this level you simply see a word and understand its meaning without having to hear it, allowing you to reach 700 WPM and beyond.

Even without reaching the third type of reading and overturning the reading techniques we’ve learned since childhood, we’re able to reap a lot of benefits just by optimizing our reading at the auditory level.

The mechanism by which we’re able to break through certain WPM barriers is determined by two bottlenecks. The first is the rate that we’re able to feed our brain information. The second is the rate that we’re able to process and store information.

For nearly all of us, the bottleneck is often in that second stage. Anybody can do Tim Ferriss’s exercise and “read” over 1000 WPM, but our second stage of information processing will be completely overwhelmed and fail to process anything.

Thus, the main focus for most of us, until we reach the 450 WPM threshold at which auditory reading can feed our second stage, is to improve that second stage and improve our brain’s processing and storage speed.

How we can do that I’ll go over in the next post in this series.

Note: WPM facts come from both cited and uncited parts of Wikipedia articles