From WhatsApp to War and Peace: Getting On Top of Your Reading - Next Action Associates

I’ve found myself in a number of conversations recently with people who seem seriously unhappy with how little they are reading these days.

In certain cases, I know this is not even close to being true because I’m party to what is hitting their inboxes on a daily basis, and I know they are hoovering up gigabytes of written material each day. I think what they really mean is that they don’t feel they are reading enough of the things they really want to read.

It is becoming clear to me that ‘reading’ as a word is a bit unwieldy, a bit like ‘love’, or ‘trust’. Great words, all of them, but they are simply too big as ideas. They are more like umbrella concepts, under which there are many different things thrown together as one. To act more effectively with such concepts, it will be worth making some distinctions under the umbrella, a bit like the Greeks once did with love (

We need, for instance, a way to distinguish reading WhatsApp messages and clickbait from books that require sustained focus over longer periods of time.

I think we also need to make hard decisions on the front end about what we really want to even reach our brains, what channels of information we block or stop, and how to make provision for getting challenging texts read too.

As a means of differentiating our reading material, one could for instance plot different types of reading on two axes: x for how much attention is required, and y for how much value is added from the reading. Each of us would plot things on the resulting matrix differently of course, but some general themes would emerge.

For me – if I was listing things from low attention/low value to high attention/high value-add – it would look something like this:

Instagram posts
Celebrity tweets
Daily news
Nice to read – work
Must read – work
For fun – comic novels
For pleasure – literature
Self-help/personal development
Spiritual texts

All of these involve ‘reading’, of course, but even a cursory glance at them tells us that they are very different things. At one end one is simply grokking info and perhaps punching out a reply – efficiency and speed are key. At the other end one really wants to be slowing down, savouring, reflecting, re-reading and allowing meaning to surface.

Trying to do both at the same time doesn’t tend to favour the more challenging texts. Have you noticed that if you follow the clickbait on your screen, the internet seems to slope inexorably mentally and morally downwards? One gets presented with all manner of interesting but unenriching slops, and eventually the algorithms drop you out onto the Daily Mail website. To Shakespeare or the Vedas, not so much.

So, to preserve your sanity, I think you want to think long and hard about what you even let near your brain. Our process for clarifying ‘stuff’ is really helpful, but it begins to break down if you are allowing too much stuff into your world in the first place.

So you might want to make some conscious choices about blocking some channels to your brain. Not all of these choices will be easy. A while back, I realised that creating a WhatsApp account for a friend on the other side of the planet had led to my being added to a number of groups – and all of their associated messages – without my even knowing about it. I liked all of the people concerned, but for my own sanity I just had to zap that app. All of those concerned know where to find me if they need me.

Even the BBC news app got torched recently, once I realised how often I was checking it, and how little it was adding to the enjoyment of my life. In this day and age you really need to engage the internet with your elbows high, otherwise it will literally chew through days of your life each year.

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At this stage you are still working out ‘what is it?’, and you need to read enough to know if you need to read on. Answering those two questions can take some time, but without answering them you are basically stuck.

When coaching, I’ve often challenged people on leaving things in their inbox that they ‘just need to read later’. Much of the time, when they took the 30-60 seconds necessary to scan the document in question, they realised they just needed to file or delete it. Now, rather than being another unmade decision they just moved it off their radar entirely. A small win, but when those easy wins consistently don’t get won and instead get piled up for later, they become a source of misshapen guilt/shame/resentment (take your pick).

But let’s say you do want to read on, and you’re clear from your scan that that isn’t going to happen in the next couple of minutes. You need more time to do the document justice.

If the document made it through the above filters, then we are essentially looking at two categories: ‘I’d like to read it’ or ‘I have to read it’. They are distinct, and confusing them creates a lot of mischief.

What I’ve seen a lot of people do is create two different places in their system. First, a pile – or folder – called ‘To Read’, which is essentially a bucket for ‘Someday Maybe Read’ material. Then, for things they actually have to read – so that no one loses their job or gets injured – they put a next action on their action lists, with the location of the document to read noted along with the trigger for action.

So far, so good. Now you’ve got things to where they belong in your system, but unfortunately they are still a long way from being read.

The final piece of the puzzle is working out where reading either or both of those types of reading can fit in your day. Some of the low attention/low value-add reading (near the top end of the list above) can happen pretty much anywhere, at any time. It is lower down the list where I think many of us are now struggling.

I know that I need a quiet mind to tackle challenging texts, so I’ve taken to blocking out time at the beginning and end of my day, when my brain is not in email mode. I’m sure that many of you have developed other useful strategies. If you are not one of those unsatisfied with the quality of what you are getting read these days, I’d love to hear what you are doing to get on top of your reading.

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