Six bad reading habits that could be holding you back

‘There is an art of reading, as well as an art of thinking, and an art of writing’

Isaac d’Israeli

Many academics spend their entire careers perfecting their writing style. But the art of reading is often overlooked, despite its pivotal role in academic life.

Whatever stage you’re currently at in your academic career, it’s likely that you’ve already spent thousands of hours reading a variety of highly demanding texts. When faced with reams of reading material it can be tempting simply to plough your way through, giving little thought to your technical reading skills/ability.

You may be surprised to learn that you’re guilty of one or two bad reading habits that could be holding you back. Now is the time to take a moment to identify and tackle any bad practices that are hampering your reading progress, effectiveness and enjoyment. Here are the six most common mistakes that people often fail to address:

  1. Failing to prepare

Sometimes it’s only when you’re well into a book or paper that you realise it’s not as relevant or reliable as you’d hoped. Your time is limited but investing properly in the groundwork will pay off. Identify key sources or authors and move outwards through their bibliographies. Ask your network of colleagues and collaborators for recommendations – their insight can be invaluable and help to save you many potentially wasted hours.

Once you’ve identified the key texts, read at least two academic reviews of your chosen sources to alert you to the strengths and weaknesses, and highlight where best to focus.

  1. Putting up with a poor reading environment

While it might not be much of a spectator sport, reading is still a physical activity. For that reason, it’s a good idea to take a fresh look at your reading environment. Sound, lighting, even temperature can all make a space particularly conducive to reading – or not. Preferences in this area are wholly personal: perhaps you read best in total silence, or need the comforting buzz of white noise? Reflect on what creates friction for you – harsh lighting, desk clutter, the proximity of your phone – and eliminate it. Find a comfortable, well-lit space, free from distractions where you can lose yourself in your reading.

  1. Trying to read everything

Resist perfectionism: to meet high standards you need to be realistic about what you can achieve. Expecting to read and process every word leads to overload. Suggestions for reading more strategically include using the structure of a text to signpost the most relevant content. Consider reading the abstract and introduction carefully, followed by the conclusion, and then the table of contents; by now you should have a good idea of what each chapter contains and how relevant it is. Orientate yourself by reading the sub-headings and key phrases such as ‘This paper argues that…’. Speed down the page until you find something useful and then zoom in. Reading digitally allows you to search for key terms. If a chapter isn’t relevant, ditch it. However, a word of caution – too much screen time can result in early fatigue. Once you have your sources, printing hard-copies is a good way to prevent tiring your eyes, and also allows you to annotate as you go. Alternatively, read on a Kindle or other eReader device, which are specifically designed to reduce the harmful ‘blue light‘ exposure, that emanates from computer monitors, smartphones and LED bulbs.

  1. Ignoring tried and tested tools

A variety of effective speed-reading techniques have been developed and refined over the last few years. Use this free tool to find your reading speed and put into practice the tips it gives you. Try skimming, meta guiding, expanding your peripheral vision and Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) – and adopt what works for you.

  1. Reading for too long in one sitting

Taking time off in order to get more done can seem counter-intuitive. With a vast amount of material to get through, you may be tempted to skip breaks. But a growing body of research suggests that strategic renewal – such as daytime workouts and short naps – boosts memory, productivity and performance. K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, studied high achievers such as chess players and found that the most successful performers practised in sessions of no more than 90 minutes without a break. The same 90-minute rhythms which govern our sleep also shape our day, as we move from higher to lower alertness. By renewing your energy and focus through regular breaks rather than relying on the temporary kick of caffeine, sugar or stress hormones, you’re more likely to reach an optimum rate of processing and retention in your reading.

  1. Forcing yourself to focus

Attempting to remain focused for long stretches of time also means avoiding the switch to diffuse (daydreaming/relaxed) mode. But by resisting relaxation it’s possible you’re missing out on another potential key benefit. It’s in diffuse mode – traditionally seen as less productive – that breakthroughs often happen. Brain activity increases when your mind wanders, and it’s then that you’re most likely to spot patterns, make connections and solve complex problems.

For more academic reading tips and reflections, check out:

Katherine Firth’s ‘So here are the 5 biggest reading mistakes I see – and how to avoid them

Andrew Prescott’s ‘My acts of reading

Farnam Street series on reading

John Rampton’s ‘25 Expert Tips to Reading WAY More Books This Year

Pat Thomson on ‘How much should doctoral researchers read?’

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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