Practical skills for scholars

Dear colleagues,

Doing research requires advanced intellectual skills for comprehension, analysis and synthesis. But what about more practical things like taking notes and word processing? These are important, too, because becoming more efficient at a routine activity can save hundreds of hours over years or decades.

Thinking back over nearly 40 years of research, I thought to myself, what are the practical skills I'm most pleased that I learned? This is my personal list. Others might have different priorities.


In high school, I took a class in typing. Back in the 1960s, typing was thought to be mainly a job for typists and secretaries. For me, it turned out to be incredibly useful, more so than most others subjects I studied.

Touch typing - using 8 fingers and a thumb, without looking at the keyboard - is the basis for fast and efficient work at the keyboard. This saves a vast amount of time over the years.

Efficient reading

Most people read very slowly. A rate of 200 to 300 words per minute is common. In 1970, I took a course in efficient reading and learned that reading faster is possible and furthermore that retention is often greater at higher speeds. We practised scanning down pages, concentrating on key points, and were tested afterwards on comprehension.

Efficient reading is different from speed reading. Being efficient means going fast when it's possible and slowing down when required. I learned to be comfortable mixing close readings of some passages, painstakingly slow, while going much faster through other parts of the text. I can decide to go through a book in an hour, or 30 minutes or less. It depends on the book and what I'm looking for - books for review take longer.

Given that reading is at the core of our work, that efficient reading course was one of my best investments.

Note taking

I've always read a lot. I used to read a book and then immediately begin another. In the mid 1970s I realised that I needed to slow down and spend more time thinking. So I started taking notes on everything I read. My notes typically include bibliographical details, a summary in my own words and key points relevant to my current interests. My notes on some books extend to many pages; others are just a paragraph or two.

My notes are handwritten. If I were starting today, I'd type them, perhaps in Endnote or as comments in pdfs of articles. According to one author, the real value in taking notes is in aiding one's memory. Taking notes is an excellent way to learn.

Priority setting

Efficiency guru Stephen Covey co-authored a book titled First Things First. To get things done, it's vital to do what's important, not just what's urgent.

Somewhere along the line, I started making lists of my daily and long-term priorities. I read in some manual that after making a daily list, it is a good idea to do the most dreaded task first. This works for me: the dreaded task is seldom as hard as it seems, and afterwards everything else seems easy.

The busier I get, the more important I find it is to set priorities and stick to them. Priority-setting is a part of the wider field of time management.

Word processing

Everyone uses word processors these days, but do many people spend time learning methods for working faster and making documents look nicer? I don't know all the tricks, but I do practise some basics. For example, when I use a function regularly, like "Find", I learn the key-stroke option rather than going to a menu.

I'm reminded of the scope for improving at word processing whenever I see a document that, instead of having an inserted page break, uses a series of returns to position a title on a new page.

Years ago, I read a little book titled The Mac is not a typewriter. There's also a version for PC. It explains what is involved in typesetting and what is possible with word processing. When I studied typing, I learned to put two spaces between sentences. But that rule only applies to fixed-width fonts like Courier. Proportional-width fonts need only a single space between sentences. Then there are niceties such as accented characters, widows and orphans, and en-dashes and em-dashes.

Document management

I once saw a colleague's computer screen, but couldn't see the desktop because it was three deep in icons. This is equivalent to a physical desk so deep in papers strewn about that it's impossible to see the surface.

Handling files - paper files, electronic files, emails - is vital. Over the years I've spent many an hour developing logical systems for my files, so I can find things without much trouble. David Allen's book Getting things done is good for advice on this. If you have an unsorted pile of old documents - physical or electronic - without any indication of which ones are priorities, then you might as well throw it away. As the information explosion continues, document management becomes ever more important.


I've mentioned a few areas. Others will have their own insights about learning languages, interviewing, doing fieldwork and attending meetings. There are lots of areas in which to be efficient.

Saving a few minutes every hour is the same as saving a few weeks every year. Being efficient with typing, reading and other practical matters can make a big difference over the long term. To become more efficient, you need to allocate time to learning skills and setting up systems. That is the big challenge: you need to be efficient enough to put effort into becoming even more efficient.

30 March 2010


Thanks to Afandi, Scott Burrows, Peter Gibson, Helen Kilpatrick, Michael Matteson, Susheela Pandian, Colin Salter and Viji Venkat for helpful comments on drafts.

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