As planners, and other RM professionals, we read a lot of wordy documents online. How can we hack this necessary task to do it faster and/or do it more effectively?
Firstly we need to understand what we are trying to gain when we consult one of these planning documents. The options include:
- discovery – to find rules, policies, standards etc applicable to our project and rule out other parts as irrelevant
- understanding – to gain an understanding of the meaning of relevant parts of the document so we can apply it to our project
- guidance – to find information which informs our actions on the project for example which mitigation method is most appropriate for the effects of the project
The best type of reading technique to use varies depending on what we are trying to achieve. Skim reading is great for discovery, as we can efficiently cover lots of text. Conversely we do focused reading and re-reading of the most relevant sections to gain deeper insights.
One of the dangers of mixing various reading techniques is that your mind has a tendency to misapply these techniques to the required task. You end up trying to focus on reading a relevant part of the text but you keep skimming around the page, or you are supposed to be skimming but end up wasting time reading more than you need.
What you require is something to help you skim text better and something else to help you read with focus better. By using two different support tools, you help to create a discipline in your mind about the appropriate use of each reading technique.
Reading for Discovery
The benefit of reading a technical document as an expert is that you know broadly what is in there, you just have to find it and understand the details. You know the plan will have rules for earthworks and yards. You know the policy statement will have policies about heritage, biodiversity and quarrying. How do you efficiently find what you need?
The good news is that technology will bring us automated discovery in the near future. It is already happening in other professions such as law. For now, this task still falls to us but take some comfort in the fact that we won’t always have to sort through irrelevant parts of a document.
But for now, we must make do ourselves. The most helpful tool is simply Ctrl-F. By hitting ‘Control’ and ‘F’, you bring up a search box to look in that document. More authorities are now providing a single pdf of the whole planning document, because NZ generally has sufficient speeds of internet connection now to support this. If your local authority does not have a single pdf of a document, provide them with feedback, as there is no excuse these days. Even some of NZ’s smallest authorities are signatories to the Digital Local Government Partnership’s Charter for Digital Transformation and Collaboration. A single pdf for the plan is an easy win for user experience and “digital maturity”.
So Ctrl-F is a great way to find the content you are looking for. It does need an expert approach to the search terms, to ensure you don’t miss relevant content. As plans adopt the National Planning Standards, some consistency in terminology will arise. For now, you can keep a list of words, with their synonyms, so you have a go-to reference when you are searching. For those who are less experienced, try to pick the brains of one of your colleagues about how they go through the process of discovery in a planning document. If you have a shared notebook available for your team (like Onenote or Evernote), you can pool your resources and knowledge in a shared notebook. Then you don’t need to interrupt your colleague to ask them “where are the earthwork rules in the x district plan, again?”
Reading for Meaning
Stopping your eyes from skimming can be a big battle. Sometimes it helps to take the rest of the page away so you are not distracted. How do you do this?
Spritz is a digital tool which displays each word in succession for you. It is reading but without the inefficient eye movement. Each word is brought to your eye and displayed in turn. The word is centred in a way which optimises your recognition of the word. Try it out here.
There are different versions of Spritz. Spritzlet is an app for your Chrome browser to display html webpages with Spritz. Readsy does the same for pdf’s. There is also an add-in for MS Word as well. As you can imagine it is also used widely on small devices such as smart watches since it displays text compactly.
There are times when having the whole page is in front of me aids my understanding, but there are other times when Spritz allows me to focus on the paragraph word by word and omit any other distractions.
In my experience Spritz also creates a nice pattern to reading. We know that focusing on our screen for too long is not good for us. Spritz encourages short bursts of hyper-focus on one part of your screen, paired with breaks where you are more likely to look away from your screen properly. Also, when you read normally on screen, your body tends to stay static as your eyes move. With Spritz, your eyes are anchored in the word display box so I find it easier to do a few of those little at-desk stretches that the health and safety people say you should be doing regularly. Most of all, it just adds some variety and flexibility to your toolkit.
Transforming your skills to make better use of technology starts with the willingness to try new things, Spritz is a great tool to try a “different” way to read on screen. While it is only useful for certain scenarios, it is well worth giving it a try to see where it can help you.
This post is part of the How-to June series, so subscribe to the blog to see more How-To’s and hacks.