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How to get better at everything

by Nathan Pilkenton

January 2023

Summary: I believe that learning to read and write faster can improve the quality of your work beyond what most people would expect.

Getting better by getting faster

Imagine you could become more productive—the same amount of work that used to take you 4 hours would only take you 3 and a half hours instead. What could you do with an extra 30 minutes every day?

One obvious answer is "whatever you want". You could go read a book, watch TV, play video games, work out, enjoy your life. Another clear answer is "more work"—you could use that time to write more code, reply to more emails, close more tickets, or do more of whatever your job entails.

But there's another, subtler benefit from this increase in productivity: you could use that time to do better work. You could revise something one extra time than others; you could spend more time drafting a memo; you could read more background documentation; you could focus on learning and improving your skills.

Based on my own experience, I think more of the benefits of productivity fall into this third category than most people expect. Getting faster doesn't just lead to more output, but also better output.

Getting faster by reading faster

If getting faster means getting better, what’s the best way to get faster? It’s to get faster at the things you do the most. For most knowledge workers, that’s reading, followed in a distant second by writing.

Reading and writing are like the input and output speeds of your brain—so speeding them up is like upgrading from an old hard disk drive to a new solid state drive.

Reading faster at work

Reading is a fundamental part of my corporate job. I get hundreds of emails a month and dozens of Slack messages every day. I read documents, comments, and PowerPoint slides. I do research online and skim websites to find answers or useful links. I read various things that people flash up on the screen in virtual meetings.

Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than 80% of the time I spend on work-related tasks is spent reading. So learning to read 20% faster (without a meaningful loss in comprehension) would mean I could finish the same amount of work in 16% less time. If I spend 4 hours a day working
My workday is 8 hours, but much of that time gets eaten up by meetings or is otherwise unproductive. Four hours is a conservatively assumption for "actual time spent working".

, that’s almost 40 minutes a day of time saved every day!

As discussed above, that 40 minutes is time I will likely end up using either for more work, or to do better work.

Reading everything faster

But faster reading doesn't just help at work—it helps with other things, too. Let’s say I’m on Reddit, or Hacker News, or scrolling through Twitter. The faster I read through that content, the more ideas I’m exposed to and the more I learn.
This is still assuming reading comprehension stays constant as speed increases.

I’ll have more context to reference in conversations, and I’ll find more interesting posts to share with friends or new ideas to apply at work. Reading faster makes me a more “productive” user of social media, even if I still spend the same amount of time online—for the same hour spent, I’m getting more value than others.

Writing faster

All of the above is true, to a lesser extent, with writing—and these days, writing typically means typing.

I personally think that creative work (like writing code or drafting a presentation) is generally not limited by typing speed, but by "speed of thought" or something similar. For example, I can type well over 100 WPM, but writing this post still took me several hours toal of drafting, revising, polishing, re-reading, and reflecting. I'd estimate that less than 20% of that time was spent typing. Others, like Dan Luu, disagree and argue that typing takes up more time than most of us think—Dan says he spends roughly half of his writing time typing.
Search for "typing" in this post for the relevant section.

In either case, faster typing speeds will undoubtedly have a positive effect on productivity. Sending a quick Slack reply in 5 seconds instead of 10 seconds may not seem like much, but it can add up over time, especially since the same principle applies to things like emails and presentations. (Again, this ‘saved’ time might still be spent on work—but can either be used to do more or better work.)

Another more specific benefit here is that faster typing dramatically improves my note-taking ability. I’m able to take a large volume of notes while still following the conversation, instead of missing a point because I’m trying to write down the last thing that was said (which is what tends to happen when I take notes by hand). So in this case, faster typing may not necessarily speed up my work, but better notes make me more effective.

How to improve

If writing and (especially) reading faster is so critical, how can one improve?

There are plenty of options to improve typing, especially if you're not a touch typist or type below ~60 words per minute (WPM) today. Typeracer is a fun way to estimate your current typing speed or practice your skills, and classics like Mavis Beacon or Mario Teaches Typing to help train fundamentals.

Reading faster is a murkier proposition. There are plenty of solutions out there marketed as helping you increase your reading speed: things like Beeline, Spreeder, Spritz and more. I believe these tools generally do work to improve speed, but it's hard to apply them in all the places you might need to read (your email inbox, PDFs, IDEs, actual pieces of paper, etc).

Instead, I would focus on skimming. I suspect many people underestimate how good their comprehension would be if they simply moved their eyes from word to word faster. If you think you're a slow reader, try forcing yourself to read through a long passage in half the time you would normally (Spreeder might be helpful to get a sense of what this feels like). You might be surprised how much you retain.

Skimming isn't always the right tool for the job, of course; sometimes careful attention is needed. But in my experience, skimming can often provide the same amount of value as careful close reading in a fraction of the time.

Ultimately, it's probably too late for most readers to pursue what I imagine is the most effective speed-reading intervention: reading as much as possible from a very young age. 

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