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Problem Solving While Reading

I'd urge anyone who has trouble reading something to stop and do problem solving instead of ignoring the problem or giving up. This kind of thing is an opportunity to practice and improve.

You could e.g. take a paragraph you have trouble with and analyze it, possibly with a paragraph tree.

If you do that kind of activity many times, you will get better at reading that type of material and reading in general. You can automatize some of the analysis steps so, in the future, you automatically know some of the results without having to go through all the steps. A way to look at it is if you do those activities enough, you'll get faster at it, and also some of the conclusions will become predictable to you before you've consciously/explicitly done all the steps.

When stuff is hard, slow down and figure out the correct answer – the way you ideally want to do it – so you end up forming good habits (a habit of doing what you think is best when you go slowly and put in more effort) instead of bad habits.

This is the same as improving at other kinds of things, e.g. typing. If you’re typing incorrectly (e.g. hitting a key with the wrong finger, or looking at the keyboard while typing), you should slow down, fix the problems, then speed up only when you’re doing it the way you want to. It’s hard to fix errors while going fast. And you should avoid habit-forming amounts of repetition of the activity until you’re satisfied with the way you’re doing it.

You can never be perfect. It’s also important to sometimes change your habits after they’re formed. Sometimes you’ll learn something new and realize a habit or subconscious automatization should be changed. But forming habits/automatizations and then changing them soon after is inefficient; it’s more efficient to make a serious effort to get them right in the first place so you can reduce the need to change habits. You don’t want to form a habit than is worse than your current knowledge.

If you do this text analysis stuff consistently whenever there are hard parts, it will be disruptive to reading the book. It'll slow you way down and spread your reading out due to taking many breaks to practice. You won’t get much reading flow due to all the interruptions. Here are some options for dealing with that problem:

  1. It doesn't matter. Improving skills is the priority, not understanding the book. You can read the book later including rereading the sections you had many stops during.
  2. Read something else where you run into harder parts infrequently so stopping for every hard part isn't very disruptive.
  3. Make trees, outlines or other notes covering everything so you get an understanding of the book that way rather than from direct reading. E.g. do paragraph trees for every paragraph and then make section trees that put the paragraphs together, and then do trees that put the sections together, and keep doing higher level trees until you cover the whole book.
  4. Read a section at a time then go back and do the analysis and practice after finishing the section but before reading the next section, rather than stopping in the middle of a section. That'll let you read and understand a whole chunk at once (to your current standards). Analyzing/practicing/etc. in between sections shouldn't be very disruptive.

With option 4, it’s very important not to cheat and read multiple sections in a row while planning to go back to stuff eventually. Even if you try to go back later, the hard stuff won’t be fresh enough in your mind anymore. If you’re procrastinating on doing any analysis, it’s because you don’t actually want to do it. In that case you need to do problem solving about that. Why are you conflicted? Why does part of you want to improve intellectually and do learning activities, etc., while part of you doesn’t? What part doesn’t and what is its motivation?

Also how big a section should you use? It depends on the book (does it have natural break points often?) and your memory (if a section is too big you’ll forget stuff from the earlier parts) and your skill level. If a section is too big, you’ll also have too many hard parts you need to do (e.g. 20) which may be overwhelming or seem like too much work. Also by the time you analyze the first 19 hard parts, you won’t remember the 20th one because it’s been so long since you read the end of the section. And if you’re trying to analyze and revise how you understood 20 parts at once, it’s hard to take those all into account at once to update your understanding of what the book said. Doing it closer to “read something, analyze it right away to understand it correctly, keep reading” has clear advantages like letting you actually use your analysis to help your reading instead of the analysis being tacked on later and not actually being used. So you might need to use sections that are pretty short, like 2 or 3 pages long, which could give you more uninterrupted reading flow without being too much to deal with at once. You could do it based on reading time too, like maybe 5 or 10 minutes would be a reasonable chunk to read at once before you stop to analyze (depending on how many problems you’re having). Also if you have a big problem, like you’re really extra confused about a sentence, paragraph or argument, you may want to stop early.

Also, it’s important to analyze and practice regarding small problems and slightly hard parts, not just major problems. Some people only want to focus on the really visible problems, but optimizing smaller stuff will help you get really good at what you’re doing. Also if something is actually a small difficulty then working on it should go fast. If it takes a long time and seems like a hassle, then you needed the practice and it wasn’t that small for you after all. Though if it feels like a hassle, that means you’re conflicted and should investigate that conflict.

If you’re conflicted, here are relevant articles by me:

And I wrote a part 2 for this post:

Subconscious Reading; Conscious Learning; Getting Advanced Skills

And recorded a podcast:

Reading, Learning and the Subconscious | Philosophy Podcast

Elliot Temple on February 13, 2023


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