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Never read something cover to cover, except for pleasure

“80 per cent of the value of any work will come from 20 per cent of its activities; and the other 80 per cent of activities will arise because of needless complexity.” – Richard Koch (The 80:20 Principle)

Based on the main idea in the book (described above), I found some useful advice about reading when looking back through The 80:20 Principle. In this except Richard Koch describes what he was told by a University of Oxford tutor.

“…never read a book cover to cover, except for pleasure. When you are working, find out what the book is saying much faster than you would by reading it through. Read the conclusion, then the introduction, then the conclusion again, then dip lightly into any interesting bits.”

He then goes on to explain:

“What he was really saying was that 80 per cent of the value of a book can be found on 20 percent or fewer of its pages, and absorbed in 20 per cent of the time most people would take to read it through.”

I read a lot for work, mostly things I’m interested in or topics I want to learn more about. I also have to read a lot of materials related to projects, proposals, reports etc.

This is about giving yourself permission to not read anything beyond its usefulness. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of things I want to read, combined with all the other information I need to work through each day as part of my job.

I’ve started applying this principle to some of the backlog of books I’ve bought in the last 6 months. It’s helping me to feel less pressure to find time to read, but without feeling like I’m missing out on what those books are saying. Building on this, I like to have more than one book on the go at a time, sometimes up to 4 or 5 books. I find that reading in this way, and switching between books, is an interesting way of thinking about and combining different ideas and perspectives, staying interested or curious in order to read and learn more. Not putting pressure on myself to read each book cover to cover helps me to do this.

I’ve also started doing the same with work materials. To an extent I think I was already doing this. There’s an enormous pressure to read back through every tab or blog post you have open, catch up on links from Twitter, and to read everything you get sent as a manager or senior person in a team.

The 80:20 principle really does work for reading. What I like about this is it mirrors how we all consume information in the internet age. We scan, we curate, we switch between different streams of information, and we treat information more as a flow of ideas. You would never try to read Twitter cover to cover, especially not for pleasure. The best and most interesting blog posts, presentations, or reports aren’t written to be read cover to cover or word for word either (or, at least they shouldn’t be). You can easily skim most things, reading the introduction and conclusion and following the main narrative if heading and paragraphs, or a deck is well structured and set out clearly. If what you’re reading isn’t clearly written or doesn’t frame ideas or thinking in a useful way it’s okay to move on, and many of us should do this more often. 

80:20 is a useful principle because it makes us look harder for the value in everything we read. It should also make us work harder to write and present information more clearly. You shouldn’t expect anyone to read your 164 page report or slide deck cover to cover. The clarity of the introduction, conclusion and then your narrative structure matters. It’s even better if you can make the same points and share your most useful ideas in the 5 page summary upfront (a much more meaningful introduction section in and of itself). This is always what I’m looking for when I get sent presentations or reports to read.

There is a balance to be found. Information is more than just something that we consume. Ideas and the things we learn are only as valuable as how we use them, and how these shape new perspectives, changing how we think and respond through the work that we are are doing.

The point main is that 20% of the value is always buried somewhere in most of what we read and in what we write. This last paragraph should have been the entire blog post!

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.