As a self-confessed “printaholic”, who has been known to read the back of cereal packets when no other printed matter is to hand, I realise that a recent lack of spare time means that I have been missing the pleasure of reading for its own sake.

Are you a fiction or non-fiction aficionado? Do you find yourself always gravitating to the same stacks in the library or the bookshop, or finding your way to the same area on a certain well-known book publishing website? Do you hoard your books jealously or are you keen to share or recommend those you have read and enjoyed with friends and colleagues. Avid readers are a funny lot and no two have the same “habits” but most will tell you that there is an emphatic difference in the way they treat “at work” and “off duty” reading. Neither environment will guarantee a good read but you cannot always predict which route will offer the pain of excruciating boredom or the pleasure derived from absorbing a well-written thought process or storyline. There are even rumoured to exist those who enjoy reading long, involved reports, whether they are critical for the next day’s meeting or not!

Reading is an often overlooked and certainly undervalued method of enhancing your professional development. It is also a painless and unobtrusive way of extending your range into areas which may not be on offer as part of the day-to-day work environment. However, the problem of allocating time to such a potentially enjoyable enterprise could be construed as frivolous – if it weren’t so absolutely essential to everyone’s professional wellbeing. In essence, this is the very nature of continuing professional development. In this context, the balance between time, workload and potential future benefit looks more like a tightrope than a well laid out path to enlightenment.

Reading at and for work is, of course, an entirely different enterprise when your mission (should you wish to accept it) is often to extract as much information from documents in the shortest possible time. Few of us will have the time available to dedicate to the total of reading matter that comes across our desks. However, the pitfalls of skim reading versus the time required to read and fully digest the nuances contained in the full text of even the most mundane report, are fairly obvious.

Do you distinguish between items, knowing instinctively that you must read every word or do you feel obliged to read every word in every document every time? When faced with a 40-page report do you heave a big sigh, shut the office door and begin at page one; do you put it in your briefcase to read on the journey home or, indeed, when you arrive home or do you hope that the author has been helpful and offered you a 3-page executive summary. If you are pressed you will read the summary, meaning to come back to the full text later, but will you? Will you accept the author´s given interpretation or will you find the time to read and digest what is on offer and come to your own conclusions, or will you pick holes in the argument presented? Circumstances will dictate your options but perhaps a short search for detectable patterns in your reading habits might offer up some benefit. Over the course of an average week, how many types of printed/text material come your way? To start with the blindingly obvious, it seems that recently emails are longer and more complex than the short, punchy communications they used to be, with acres of attachments to be saved / downloaded / perused / avoided / deleted.

Should we then add meeting minutes? These must be read, or at least skimmed, as it is just possible that you are responsible for a follow-up action which may not have been obvious at the time – because you were asleep / distracted / catching up on some key reading for later in the meeting!

Next we come to reports in their infinite variety – internal, sector, professional, government. Then we have journals – text or electronic – in-house, sector, professional organisation. Then there are the textbooks and professional titles which are recommended by colleagues and which you know you should read if only you had the time. And let us not forget the manuals which arrive with your new IT gadgets. The manual for my new car sound system is the size of War and Peace and about as easy to get through.

By now you have arrived at your intray, containing assorted advertising literature which will need skimming so that you can categorise each item for file 13 (the rubbish bin) or later consumption or perhaps immediate action. You may find information about courses / seminars / conferences for which booking might be time limited so you can’t leave it sitting around for too long without action.

And then there are the websites which often offer the most relevant and timely information. A few moments spent browsing now might save a great deal of time and effort later. Are you becoming aware that you always select the same website because it is most appropriate for your professional needs and stick with it because it is easy to navigate (perhaps your professional association) or do you dip in and out of several to provide a balanced range of views?

The list goes on.

Are you aware that you have a coping strategy or does it just evolve at need? Do you believe that you absorb sufficient of the printed word as part of your everyday work pattern or will you need a little help from some time management tips in order to get through a little more?

So there it is, the necessary versus the added extras, the documents you must read in order to do your job properly versus the items which might just help you to excel or, at the very least, offer you options you did not know you had; staying up to date or being ahead in the ideas market.

On any day you will need to distinguish between those items which you must get through and make a judgement about whether to skim read versus absorbing information as a whole – will the benefit or the total allow you to make better decisions or will it be sufficient to retain only the top-level detail?

Just one further thought on the subject of journals from your professional association. Having signed up to receive them, do you value them as you should? They arrive in the mail without any extra effort on your part. How long do they sit there before you open them or do they, in fact, go straight in the bin without scrutiny?

How much information can you gain from the magazine while it remains in its wrapper?
1.The address label will tell you who you are – handy when you have a blinding hangover or are suffering from sleep deprivation
2.Where it came from – useful if you need reminding which organisations you belong to or if you want to return to sender
3.The name of the magazine / journal – if it is packed in clear plastic and the address label doesn’t obscure the title
4.The colour of the front page and thickness of the magazine, ie how many pages of unread content there are for you to ignore

What you cannot know, unless you open it, is whether any of the content is of any use to you, either as a professional or in your private life. Seems a shame, doesn’t it, to let all that potentially useful “stuff” go to waste without making any effort to penetrate the outer shell. You don’t necessarily have to read it from cover to cover, a quick scan should tell you if there is anything worth reading or retaining for future reference. There is also the possibility that you may read something which will be extremely useful or has the potential to have a profound effect on you or even change the course of your life! You absolutely will never know unless you open it and take a look.

There is always the possibility at the end of a hard day, or stored up as a treat for very good behaviour, that you might have the opportunity to curl up with a fabulous novel to take you away from it all and to remember the pleasure of reading for its own sake – to take you away to a better place where emails don´t arrive by the dozen, where the phones don´t ring incessantly and where there is always another document to be read before the next meeting starts…”

Susie Kay is Founder of The Professionalism Group, an advice and consultancy organisation working with individuals, students, businesses and professional institutes, focusing on the benefits of professionalism. She is a speaker and writer and is happy to ... (Read More)

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