This week I began serious training for the creative thinking and speed reading events at the Mind Sports Olympiad. I thought it would be interesting to give an insight into what it takes to prepare for these unusual events. But most of all, I thought that giving an insight into them might widen awareness of both the events and the disciplines. I want to show that these are actually two incredibly important skills, and that dedication in preparation for them also teaches you so much more.

And what I really hope is that in the coming years I’ll see more and more of you at these events with me.

At the 2016 Creative Thinking World Championship

I’ll explain more about the disciplines as I go, about why I love each of them, about how they’re scored, about whether it even makes sense to score events like this, about why they matter, about how despite seeming very different they are actually two sides of a single coin, about why both are really important for meeting the challenges our world faces, about why neither, as far as mind sports go, has captured the public imagination the way memory has done.

The very briefest of introductions. The Mind Sports Olympiad has been held every year since 1997. In each of those years it has hosted the Creative Thinking World Championships. I took part in the very first of those, unexpectedly picking up the bronze medal, and won the title in 2016 and 2017. I didn’t take part last year but had the privilege of donating hot off the press packs of Mycelium to the medallists. Speed reading was part of the early MSOs, when the one true legend of the sport, Anne Jones, dominated the scene. After a long hiatus, it returned in 2017, with a staging of the European Championships. I have had the good fortune to win both events since the reintroduction.

I am starting serious training now more with 2020 in min than this year. I want to see what is possible. It is hard to set a goal for competitive creative thinking, because of the way it is scored. But I can set myself the goal of becoming the most sought after speaker and consultant on creativity, and to earn that in part by being the best creative thinker I can possibly be.

When it comes to speed reading, it is easier to set a goal. There is a set standard for scoring one’s reading speed, based on a combination of actual words per minute and percentage comprehension (which must be over 50 for a meaningful score), giving an “effective words per minute” score. In 2017 and 2018 I scored around 1300 effective words per minute. Anne Jones regularly topped 2000. 2000 seems like a good target to aim for in 2020, 1500 this year.

Training for speed reading 1: Breathing

In many sports, some of the most significant improvements do not from increasing what your body or your mind can do. That seems incredibly counterintuitive, but in at least two of the three sports I have competed in over sustained periods (the mind sport, bridge, and ultra distance running) I have seen it play out in spades. In speed reading it should be even more the case. While competitors of course train in these disciplines to improve what they are capable of doing, they can also make remarkable gains by increasing the percentage of their ability they perform to.

In bridge, even the greatest players aspire to play a “boring” game. World champions are, at times, brilliant, but the most important factor in performing at the highest level is simply not making mistakes. And in ultra running, where races can take 24 hours or more, so many people lose often hours of time not by being slow at running but by accumulating large numbers of small mistakes, from inefficient procedures at aid stations to not taking care of a rubbing sock before it becomes a blister to not eating early enough. Get those right and, without being a “better runner” you will perform relatively better than many who are quicker than you.

In speed reading the potential to read faster by eliminating mistakes comes from two things that hold us all back – inefficient eye movements, and getting distracted. The former takes the form of things like backskipping, requiring you to make more fixations per page than are necessary to take the information in. The latter, well, it’s obvious. Your mind darts around, even if only for a split second at a time. Over the course of a 300 page book (and there’s another thing right there – how you turn the page – lose a second a page and that’s 2 and a half minutes. The past two years I have finished in just over 60 minutes. That’s almost 5% of my time that could be shaved) it adds up. Eliminate backskipping, distraction, and slow page turning and you could improve your speed enormously without actually being any faster at a base level.

Which brings me to breathing. The key cause – for me, at least – of both backskipping and distraction is a lack of “fluidity while in focus” which I am fairly sure could be improved significantly by better breathing.

I have found some aspects of mindfulness helpful for some aspects of my poor mental health, so I am vaguely familiar with controlled breathing. But where I am taking my lead is from a sport with which I have been fascinated for years: freediving. The two parts of freediving training I am using are controlled slow breathing to regulate my breath and lower my anxiety (higher anxiety also equates to more distraction – I’ll talk about my neurology and mental health in much more detail later, but in short, either I can concentrate on nothing or I end up utterly lost in something – maximising the latter state is clearly optimal); and apnoea – breath holding.

I am not using water for access-to-pool reasons, but I want to teach myself techniques like packing, which freedivers use to increase the oxygen in their lungs, and how to resist the diaphragm’s urge to gasp for breath.

I am currently doing a 5 minute session daily with strict 10 second breaths (4 seconds in, 6 out). And I have increased my breath hold from 57 to 75 seconds. As I’m so new, I’m still at the “exploring my baseline” level, but I am already noticing my general breathing is better. And I am learning a lot about the history of apnoea in general and freediving in particular. And, as we will see, that kind of side effect of any training is massively beneficial to creative thinking.

Next time I want to look at another key physical part of training and how it fits the overall strategy. One that has, at times, played a very big part in my life and to which I have been overwhelmingly excited to return. Powerlifting.


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