The Advantage of Skimming

Sometimes I think skimming gets a bad rap. We’re worried that people in the future won’t be able to focus long enough to comprehend anything of real value. While there’s likely some truth to that, I also see huge opportunity and huge value in skimming…especially for business owners.

Half of the battle when it comes to making business decisions in our current landscape is knowing what’s possible. Whether we’re talking specifically web development (HTML5, CSS3, responsive design, etc), or any other aspect of running a business – marketing, customer service, human resources, legal, accounting, strategy, and the like – it’s impossible to be even close to an expert in all of them. Things are changing too fast. The best that I can hope for is to have an idea of what’s going on, of what’s possible if we need to improve something in one of those areas. I need to do this in a relatively short amount of time. And so I skim. I skim my Google Reader, I skim magazines, I skim Twitter. Most of the time I just read a headline plus maybe a few sentences, and then move on to the next piece of news. My goal isn’t full comprehension, it’s getting a gist of what the article was about in 15 or 30 seconds, and then to move on to the next.

When I do this, I’m creating a “mental database” of what’s going on in the world. Often times when we encounter a problem, the first thing I do is think “I remember hearing about xyz company that had the same problem” or “there’s this cool new website/software/technology that might solve our problem”. From there, I usually only remember a small part of where I saw the article. Maybe I remember how I read it (say Twitter) or where I read it (say Wired.com) or who shared it with me, but I’ll start to dig backwards and usually find what I’m looking for in a matter of minutes.

Only then do I start reading more traditionally, aiming for full comprehension. I’ll send an article to my Kindle, buy a book, find other online resources, or whatever makes the most sense for the particular situation. So, to me, skimming is a great enabler. It’s a highly efficient path to more knowledge. I can consume vast amounts of incredibly resourceful material in extremely short periods of time, and then circle back and dig deeper if and when I find it necessary.

7 comments on The Advantage of Skimming

  1. Rob says:

    There was a study a few years ago that ties in quite neatly with this – it concluded that the internet generation don’t retain knowledge if we know where we can retreive it again easily. For instance, I don’t know lots of peoples phone numbers, but my phone does so that’s okay. I don’t know who the monarch was in 1576, but I bet with 2 minutes on the internet I could find it out. I know exactly where in my filing system many documents are, but I sure as hell don’t know the content inside out.
    It’s great to be able to offload things like this, things you can find out at short notice if need be but don’t actually need to memorise. not much use in quizzes though…

    • Adam McFarland says:

      The cell phone analogy is spot on, and “offloading” is a perfect term. Why waste my brain power on stuff I don’t need to?

      When it comes to quizzes, I wonder if/when/how schools will adapt. If implemented properly, you could spend less time memorizing facts that you can Google, and more time on higher level thinking and analysis.

  2. Neville says:

    Human brain knowledge = pretty finite.

    Amount of knowledge retained in computers = unlimited.

    (at least in this era) it’s better to know HOW to process information….rather than know it all.

    Except me. I know everything 🙂

  3. Mark W. says:

    Adam, your comment –
    “When it comes to quizzes, I wonder if/when/how schools will adapt. If implemented properly, you could spend less time memorizing facts that you can Google, and more time on higher level thinking and analysis.” is so true.
    Here’s a TED talk by Conrad Wolfram ( http://computerbasedmath.org/resources/reforming-math-curriculum-with-computers.html ) titled ‘Stop Teaching Calculating;Start Teaching Math’ that I think you’ll be interested in – either viewing the video or skimming the transcript or both.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks for the link Mark! Just watched it now. Very thought provoking. Wolfram Alpha is certainly a step in the right direction. I know the few times I’ve used it to solve a problem I’ve been blown away. It would have literally changed my engineering education if we had it available to us…and I graduated only 8 years ago!

  4. […] important for my/our success, but I aggressively curate that with Google Reader and Twitter, and I tend to skim rather than sit down and read for hours.  I listen to podcasts while I drive to fill in the […]

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