Monday, October 11, 2010

Learning to Read

I've spent a large amount of my free time the last few weeks re-watching episodes of House and Star Trek: The Next Generation. As fun and geeky as that is, it's such a huge gods damned waste of time, especially when one considers the large list of to-read books in my Goodreads catalog. I actually really do like reading, but I'm so used to multitasking all the time I prefer to just have something on to watch that I don't have to pay any attention to if I don't want to (leaving aside the facts that multitasking is impossible and very probably not so good for the brain).

Reading more is something I profess that I want to do, but am clearly not doing. Instead I do things that entertain me without really having to do anything at all except sit there. The good part about this problem is it's fairly easy to solve using the user research methods I know and love. The above paragraphs right away indicate a few mental barriers:

  • Watching movies/TV has a lower effort/entertainment ratio (perceived)
  • Just sitting and reading a book feels like it's not productive
  • I have a natural tendency to (pretend to) multi-task, and so I feel like my mind wanders easily when I'm reading
  • I tend to get distracted by the TV/Computer when they're around

After thinking about the problem a little more (hey, there's not much else to do on an airplane sometimes), I realized that another thing standing in my way was that I was always fighting with myself about what I should read. I tend to read non-fiction more than fiction since part of me feels like reading fiction is frivolous. Of course, another part of me realizes how inane that is, since fiction is art and enriching oneself with art is a very important form of education, not to mention the myriad of classics I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read. Yet another genre vying for my attention is technical books - especially ones on IA/UX stuff or transit planning or some of my old math textbooks. Distilling these down to bullet points gives us:

  • All the possibilities of what to read at any given moment lead to cognitive overload
  • Cognitive overload leads to crippling indecision
  • Indecision creates a perfect excuse to not read

Ok, good. We've got a good list of mental barriers/problems to solve. Were I solving this for a client I'd do some ethnographic interviews, subject-matter expert reviews, literature reviews, surveys, and lots of other stuff to round out the problem and then boil all that down to personas and functional specifications, etc. etc. But the reason why we do all that stuff is that we usually don't have direct access to a user's brain - in this case, I don't have that limitation so I'm going to shortcut the process (also: I'm feeling lazy). I'm just going to go for the first thing that I think might work, go with it until there's proof that it doesn't, rising and repeating as necessary.

The reality is that no solution is going to make up for a lack of willpower. However, a clever solution will require less willpower to implement. All I have to do is lower the perceived "work" (or raise the perceived "fun") value enough that I read often enough for the effect to snowball, thus turning reading from a chore to an enjoyable habit. So what did I come up with? I'm going to read three books at once. 

Basically, I pick one book from each of the three categories I talked about above - fiction, non-fiction, and technical - and I just rotate through a chapter at a time. The chunks are big enough that I get a sufficient amount of story/content for me to remember the continuities correctly, I'm context switching often enough that my mind doesn't get too restless, and I don't have to put any though into balancing pleasure reading and learning because I'm doing them all at once. An added bonus to this is the chance for happy associative accidents, from which inspiration and eurekas are often born.

At first, that sounds insane, I know, but I tried it on the plane this weekend and I think it's going to work well. It nullifies most of those bullet points easily, at least in theory. The one item left unresolved is the problem of distractions/mind wandering. Mind-wandering is very common and, as it turns out, can be very healthy, so I have neither the ability nor desire to eliminate that completely. But I can eliminate distractions (like, say, Facebook) by picking up shop and heading to a local coffee shop. Hopefully by the time I get to grad school the habit will be ingrained enough that I'll have the wherewithal to be able to read for hours at a time anywhere I am.

I'll let you know how it goes - whether you want me to or not! ;)

P.S. All hail the return of the blog!

 P.P.S. Want to know what I'm reading? Right now:

Friend me on Goodreads if you want to be kept abreast of all my reading habits.

1 comment:

Lianne said...

That was incredibly nerdy. But also interesting! I look forward to hearing how it goes. :)

P.S. I'm reading two books right now, one fiction and one non-fiction -- The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (well, that one's a re-read).

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