You have 6 hours to invest. Do you read one book slowly and deeply or do you browse and skim through various articles, books, and videos? In other words, do you go deep or broad? Before you jump to any conclusion for one or the other, you have to think about goals first. What do you want to achieve? Or going about it backwards, which of the two is useful for which goals?

Going Deep

Farnam Street has an excellent post about reading for retention. Recently, Tyler Cowen blogged about how to watch movies. What both have in common, is the intensity with which they advise to engage with the materials. Here are some points they advise going deep:

  • Don’t read summaries or reviews before engaging with the book. Make up your own mind first.
  • Connect what you already know with the material. Draw parallels, inferences, and conclusions based on what you’ve learned in the past. Going broad in the past actually helps you with this.
  • Fully engage. No distractions. Go for that deep focus.
  • Repeat. Engage with quality material multiple times, and do it slowly. No speed increases of any kind are allowed.
  • Apply what you’ve learned. Discuss with other people. Apply it to your own life. Going deep is for retention, learning and understanding. Here, you have the time to question the material, to compare it with what you already know or have experienced. It is about ingraining the knowledge you find valuable and making it a part of yourself.

Going Broad

On the other side we have dabbling, we have quantity, speed reading/watching/listening, and associations. The fights about if it makes sense to speed read or increase the speed of your podcasts is still ongoing. Some people, like Ryan Holiday or Farnam, say it doesn’t work. Others like Jonathan Levi claim it works and doesn’t even hurt retention (although to be fair, he combines it with additional visualization techniques). Well, what is it now? Without going into the studies, I think it’s highly unlikely that we retain the same amount of information with increased speed. We are used to a slower cadence all our lives and suddenly, one Tim Ferriss video later, you read faster and retain more? I don’t think so. With practice, maybe over time. However, investing the time to skim across many resources has its very valid place. Multiple ones, in fact:

  1. You’re looking for specific information. You want to learn a specific skill, apply a technique, or just get an answer for a question. Such targeted research is best served by going broad.
  2. You want to fill your RAM for associative thinking. Gathering various inputs to find new associations, connections, and potentially produce creative ideas or solutions.
  3. You want to get an overview. Priming yourself before engaging with a topic is a useful speed reading technique. You’re basically going through table of contents, titles, and start and finish paragraphs to get a feel for the content. More concretely, you can quickly bring light into a topic by figuring out what the main sub-topics and concepts are. This is especially useful if you know little about a topic. This post is essentially a variation of the age-old question of exploitation vs. exploration. Which one to chose depends (like almost always) highly on your circumstances and goals. Know which tool is good for what and use your 6 hours wisely.