Surviving and Thriving

How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.

P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?

  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 


Protect Your Precious Resources with Reserves

How often do you find yourself facing an overwhelming combination of things you have to take care of—assignments at school, responsibilities at work, maintenance of children and other family—when you already feel spent? This could also manifest as a pile of bills to be paid out of a checking account that’s run dry; or a regular schedule with too many commitments and not enough time in the day to keep them all. When situations like these develop, it’s easy to feel tremendous pressure and anxiety. If they happen over and over again in one or more areas of your life, a typical and perfectly understandable response is to feel trapped on an unstoppable roller coaster that’s failed every safety inspection for the last ten years.

Step back and notice a pattern—an ecological pattern—in all of the above-mentioned anxiety-producing situations: in every one of them there is an overcommitment, and consequently an overconsumption, of resources. The resources are all yours: your energy, your time, your money, and (lest we forget) your attention. Often there are no quick fixes in an ecological crisis, but there are ways to slow the roller coaster, bring it to a stop, and reverse course back to ecological health. What is ecological health? The reverse of desperation: abundance; enough; reserves.

If all this is all too familiar to you, you’ve had ample experience of being overextended and exhausted. But you’ve almost certainly also had the experience of having enough of some things. What are you confident about? Most of the time when you feel confident about your ability to do something, reserves are involved. If you feel (not imagine, but feel) confident that you will pass a test, you probably have reserves of knowledge in that area. If you feel confident that you’ll be able to take a shower tomorrow morning, you probably have reserves of water to draw on. Superheroes are confident because they have reserves of power and agility, not to mention chic costumes. If you’re confident you can pay all your bills, you know where the money’s coming from.

Stop and think. In what areas of your life do you have reserves?

Think of something you make sure you always have enough of. It could be an intangible and inexhaustible wellspring, like respect for your parents or love for your children, or it might be something material that could run out but which you actively prevent from running out. How many ways to you have to check your e-mail or watch your favorite show or play video games? If one device breaks, are you sunk, or do you have reserves? What things to you actively keep in good supply?

When this concept of reserves was first introduced to me, I had a hell of time wrapping my mind around it. I was asked: “What would it feel like, Mark, to have reserves of time?” Now, for me, being early to an appointment usually means arriving before the second-hand on my watch has reached the apex of the dial. I really couldn’t imagine what reserves of time would feel like. I was in my kitchen at that moment, and I happened to glance up at my cereal shelf.

I eat plenty of cereal—no, not Fruity Pebbles; I like Cheerios (no generic replacements, please!) and Weetabix Crispy Flakes. Cheerios I can get at any supermarket. But Weetabix Crispy Flakes are a specialty item. Finally I found a supermarket, one that I regularly pass but which is a forty-five minute drive from home, that always has them. Not wanting to run out and have to drive nearly an hour to get more, I keep an abundant supply. At that moment when I looked up at my cereal shelf, I had about a dozen boxes. I have reserves of Weetabix Crispy Flakes.

It dawned on me that having as much extra time as I had extra cereal would feel very secure and comfortable.

Feeling that way became my goal. It’s a much easier goal to work toward and to achieve than striving not to be constantly in a rush, and beating myself up when I know, the moment I leave my house, that I’m already late and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

I now think about my time totally differently than I used to. I schedule things more carefully and responsibly. I no longer get too hungry, because I have time to eat in between appointments. I have plenty to do, but I no longer run myself ragged. Instead of constantly running to catch up, I am able to move from one activity to the next with full commitment and attention, which is not only better for me but better for my clients and students and family and friends.

Begin by appreciating what resources you have—how you keep them, how you replenish them, how you protect them. You can use the Successful Experiences exercise described in this post to take stock of your reserves, and reinforce the knowledge that this is something you do all the time, and can do in other contexts. Pay attention to your reserves, and you can develop reserves of attention, which you can then apply to restoring your own ecological balance.


7 Weird but Effective Test Anxiety Busters

Even people who are well prepared for exams can suffer from test anxiety. Symptoms can include loss of self-confidence, restlessness, feelings of dread, impaired concentration, shortness of breath, tension in shoulders and neck, clenched jaw, gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair, rending of clothes, temporarily wishing one had never been born, and sudden conversion either to a redemption-oriented religious cult or to existential nihilism.

Fortunately, there are several techniques you can use to alleviate test anxiety. Don’t rend your clothes or join a cult. Instead, the next time you feel anxious about a test…

  1. Chew gum during the test. Research at Baylor College of Medicine suggests it may help test performance and concentration, and, though the jury is still deliberating on this, it’s certainly worth the dollar or whatever it costs now for a stick of gum. Some folks with AD/HD–associated symptoms find that gum chewing is a kind of subtle fidgeting that helps them focus. I know a student who swears by this.

  2. When you are sitting at your desk, grip the bottom of the chair with your hands (making sure to watch out for wads of discarded gum from your fellow nervous test-takers). Pull up with your hands as you push down with the rest of your body, creating tension in your shoulders and arms. Hold for a couple of seconds, and then completely release. Do this a few times.

  3. With your chin slightly tucked to lengthen the back of your neck, gently roll your head, and move your jaw up and down and back and forth a few times.

  4. If you really start to freak out, put your pen down and do this eye exercise: without moving your head and with your eyes open, move your eyeballs as far up as you can, then as far down as you can. Repeat over and over at a fairly rapid and regular pace until you feel just a little woozy, and then close your eyes, take a deep breath, and rest for a few seconds. Repeat until you feel a sense of calm. You can also do this by looking ahead at the place where the wall meets the ceiling, then at the place where the floor meets the ceiling, and so on. This is a technique from EMDR that has a very calming effect on feelings of panic or anxiety.

  5. If you suddenly feel like your mind has gone blank, don’t fight it. Actually make your mind go blanker. Put your pen down, close your eyes, and focus on the darkness of nothing. Clear a space in your mind, like an empty room. Rest there for a few moments. When you open your eyes, if your mind is still blank, move on to another question, while saying to yourself  “An empty mind is clear and ready.” Trust that your subconscious is indeed working behind the scenes to help you retrieve the information you need while you go on to other questions.

  6. When you first sit down to take the test, spend a minute doing some deep breathing. Place one hand between the bottom of your ribcage and your belly button, and place the other hand on your back, opposite the first hand. Inhale deeply through your nose into both hands, and exhale fully through your mouth in a natural, slow rhythm. Feel each breath expand your stomach and your back with each inhalation, and deflate them with each exhalation. Notice how this feels. If you become anxious during the exam, your breathing will probably have become shallow, rapid, and located high in your chest. Just put your hands on your stomach and back and let your breath settle down again. One variation you can try is to hold the breath for a few seconds after each inhalation for as long as you feel comfortable doing so without straining at all, and then exhale again. You’ll feel your breath become stronger and your energy replenish.

  7. Repeat silently to yourself:

    I’m smart
    I’m capable
    I know more than I think I do.



Have Confidence!

Back to school. “Have confidence!” people tell you. Have confidence? Really? How? By snapping your fingers? Well, here’s one quick and easy, tried and true method.

Make a list of successful experiences you’ve had in the past. Size doesn’t matter: baking brownies, riding a bike without falling, making a toast at your sister’s wedding that’s so good everyone cries with joy, and getting into college are all successful experiences. Make this list LONG—once you get a couple down, you’ll keep thinking of more. Recall a few new successful experiences every day; just notice and acknowledge them.

This simple exercise can help you feel up to any reasonable challenge and make your days flow with greater ease. If you do it in earnest, it works like magic. Really.

May you have too many successful experiences to count this semester!


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday