How can I learn to read technical documents?
October 21, 2009 5:56 AM   Subscribe

When I read technical documents or books, my mind fuzzes over and I get easily distracted. It's hard for me to get a deep understanding of technical subjects. This is starting to become an issue professionally. What can I do?

For as long as I can remember, I've had a hard time reading technical documents or books. This sucks, because I'm a sysadmin and have been working with computers for as long as I can remember and don't want to do anything else. I made it through my computer science degree largely by learning through doing and labs. Lectures and required reading, however, both had the same effect: about 10 minutes in, as soon as the technical details surfaced, my mind glossed over and it became extremely hard to pay attention. The same thing happens today: I get past the background information in a whitepaper or a design document from a coworker and I find myself not having understood the last five paragraphs I just read. Or, just as frequently, I end up following background links and never making it back to the original document in question.

I do not have this issue when I'm engaged in a one-on-one conversation.

To be clear: I'm quite capable of reading long books on my own; I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's 3000+ page Baroque Cycle and have started on another, equally as long series which I'm happily reading. There is no issue when there's a compelling plot, just when there are a lot of technical details.

I'm looking, in particular, for advice from other people who have had this issue and have done something positive to work around it.
posted by anonymous to Education (10 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Use a piece of card to mask the body of the text and take it one line at a time. Do not move the card to reveal any more text until you have read and digested the line you're on. Tough, but it'll save you being overwhelmed.
posted by fire&wings at 6:18 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

The concept of active reading sprang to mind. When you read a novel you're doing some work to imagine the scene etc. If you just let the words of the techie stuff pass by your eyes, no wonder you fall asleep. It will take a little discipline, but try writing out a little template before you start reading, with gaps for the major questions you want to answer, take notes as you write, make it active!
posted by KMH at 6:34 AM on October 21, 2009

As I said here, this happens to me, too. I've licked it. My approach might not work for you, but maybe it will.

I've learned to STOP reading BEFORE my brain starts fogging over. If that tends to happen after ten minutes, I stop reading after eight minutes. If I keep reading into the fog -- or, worse, try to push through it -- the fog gets even thicker the next time. In fact, there may not be a next time. I probably won't return to the book because I associate it with fog and frustration.

I use a similar technique when I write prose and program code. I quit when I'm still alert, and I quit in the middle of a

...sentence or statement. That makes it easier to jump back in next time. It leaves me with a cliffhanger. My brain WANTS to resolve it. And I don't associate writing or programming with fog. I associate it with something that I always have to quit too soon.

I've found that the fog is a very reliable message from my brain telling me to STOP. Actually, it's telling me that I should have stopped earlier, and that I'm now doing damage. It sucks if I "have to" get a chapter read that night. Too bad. I need to quit anyway. Continuing is counter-productive. Whether I "need" to keep reading or not, I simply can't force my brain to work beyond its limits. Similarly, you may "need" to carry a heavy box up the stairs, but if your muscles are completely fatigued, you won't be able to. And you'll probably injure yourself if you try. And you'll definitely associate heavy boxes with pain from then on.

The good news is that if you quit while you're ahead, you'll find that you can gradually read for longer and longer periods. Your brain starts trusting you not to fatigue it.

I think it also helps to have various materials at easy reach. There are about five subjects I want to learn over the next year. One of them is Functional Programming. It's tough, and the fog descends pretty fast. But I have about ten different books lying around my apartment. Every once in a while, I pick one up and read a couple of pages. No pressure. Then I quit for a week or two. I find that my brain gradually warms up to the subject.
posted by grumblebee at 6:46 AM on October 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

Straight backed chair, good light, book on desk/table in front of you.

Every sentence you read, pause and try to restate what it meant. Once you are quick with sentence comprehension move on to paragraphs, etc.

Since you seem to learn best by doing, once you have read about a concept, imagine an application. If there is anything you failed to comprehend you will be unable to imagine the application completely and will have to go back and re-read.

You may also want to break from the book periodically to fully apply what you've read in a "Hello World" fashion.

It will take you longer to read the books this way, but at least you will understand and it will only get faster with time.
posted by rocketpup at 6:49 AM on October 21, 2009

I have this problem too, and I think it's a result of slipping into fiction-reading mode instead of study mode. The two bear no relationship to each other at all, and I suspect that part of your problem is that you're thinking of them as similar tasks; really they're almost opposites. In fiction you can skim the boring bits; your eyes will flick ahead to the next block of dialogue without you even being aware of it. For technical documents this is worse than useless.

My strategy, which works pretty well for me: as you're reading, write down a one-sentence summary of each paragraph. This will have the dual benefit of forcing you not to skim and to comprehend what you're reading, and of giving you a condensed reference to look back at later.

For simple documents you can get away with highlighter + margin notes, which is somewhat faster, but for anything dense or complex that won't be enough.
posted by ook at 6:51 AM on October 21, 2009

Nthing note-taking. Seriously, this saved me too many times to count in college. Don't write down the meaning of every single sentence or even paragraph. But every time you come to the end of a page, make sure you have completely understood and noted at least one or two of main themes on that page.

The only way to truly incorporate dense technical data is to go over it repeatedly -- you are never going to fully absorb all the material in one reading. Don't try to, because it will just make you frustrated (which is a real motivation-killer, as grumblebee pointed out). Instead, take notes the first time through on the major/medium themes (making sure you understood at least those), and then you will find that on your second pass through the material it will a) go a lot faster, and b) fill in a lot of gaps. But more importantly, your brain will suddenly enjoy the material, because it will be running across familiar items, making those connections that are so satisfying, and not working so hard with each and every sentence. Yes, it is possible to actually start enjoying the technical reading, because everyone likes to read stuff they already know! It makes you feel smart!

(You may or may not find it useful to take notes the second time through -- for me it depends on how dense the material is. )

OK, that was a bit rambling, but I hope my main points come across: 1) take broad notes on first pass, and 2) engage the material more than once.
posted by peripatetic007 at 7:05 AM on October 21, 2009

Technology is an ecology. It's a bunch of moving parts that fit together -- sometimes well, sometimes badly. Neal Stephenson said that learning Unix is more like learning anatomy than like learning physics, and I find that true of technical learning in general.

To summarize/expand upon my own advice elsewhere: Skim first, really fast, for the headings/subheadings. Draw an anatomy, a diagram of all the parts and how they fit together. Imagine yourself in a conversation with the author. What questions would you ask if you were in a one-on-one conversation with her, or if you were trying to implement or use that technology? Then skim for the answer, annotate your diagram, and think up the next question. What's the usual flow of information through all these components? What's enforcing the rules, and what's pushing the data through the system? What are possible attacks or failure points? And what defenses are built in to resist or recover from attacks or failures?

With any skill, there's theory and there's practice. You're obviously just fine at the practice part, since you learn by doing. If you're trying to learn a new technical subject, make up problems for yourself, or get books that have a lot of practice exercises (like, every other page). Learning a skill isn't like memorizing history.

And since you learn through conversation, as you learn a new subject, try teaching it to someone else. In my experience, coworkers are fine with me taking up a few minutes of their time with "I need to explain this to someone else to make sure I understand it myself," followed by whiteboarding and chatter. Or get a study buddy with whom you can discuss the material topic-by-topic.

My friend Mel calls her learning style "deep learning" (110% engagement) and her tips may prove useful to you. (Sample "how I would learn $topic.")

By the way, I have a terrible time reading visual descriptions in fiction or nonfiction; in the Baroque Cycle, the multipage exposition describing the Tower of London and its surroundings in intricate detail delayed me for days. My eyes just slipped off the page. I've learned to skim, to have someone else read it to me, or to ask of each sentence "what subtext is the author trying to convey?" Diagnostic question: do you have similar experiences?

Also by the way, I finally paid my USD5 to give this answer, and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by brainwane at 7:06 AM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Think about how you would use each idea you read about, in real terms. In the context of your work or interests, how would it apply? How would you implement it? What could you build with it?
You need to tie information to a framework to remember it usefully anyhow, and this way you are engaged and have more of a hands-on approach to the material.
posted by Billegible at 7:57 AM on October 21, 2009

As an engineer I've found the same issue. One thing I did was found out which series of books worked best for me (usually O'reilly).

When I went back to school for my Master's degree I started forcing myself to highlight key passages in my books. Which of course marked the crap out of my books so it might not be desirable. But it forced me to go back and read and search for the key facts. I even kind of made a game out of trying to find the key points. It may work for you, and is a bit less intensive then note taking - if you can deal with the highlighted book.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:10 AM on October 21, 2009

Part of the issue may be that your expectations are a little unrealistic. Reading and comprehending technical documents is hard. The only way I would understand a design document of any complexity after one read through would be if I were already intimately familiar with the systems involved. With a new design relating to unfamiliar systems I might come away from it having barely comprehended anything. You just have to take a break from it and come back to it the next day. There is a big difference between this kind of thing and the daily activities of most jobs; I find that even programming and system administration work generally involves applying a large amount of prior knowledge to fairly small and well-defined problems. It can come as quite a shock to be confronted with a serious mental challenge and the difficulty can make a person feel like something is wrong with them when it really just reflects the complexity of the task.

More practically, if I have to do any serious reading at work I need to wear ear defenders. They are a huge help.
posted by tomcooke at 11:27 AM on October 21, 2009

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