7 powerful habits to make your reading more effective

7 powerful habits to make your reading more effective
1 July 2020

Improving how you read is the fastest way to accelerate your pace of progress.

Yet, most of us have never received any kind of training in how to read well.

Ask a smart person what book they read last, and how they would summarise its content. Most won’t even be able to give you just a few of the key points. Would you?

You could read hundreds of books a year, yet not make any tangible progress in your life. Somehow, though, most of us still think that consuming vast amounts of information is the same as learning information.

Today’s article will reveal my seven favourite techniques for getting the most out of my reading.

Why I wrote this article

In the past, I’ve fallen for articles such as: “How to read 200 books a year“.

One of them used a quote by Warren Buffett: “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works.

I now disagree with the premise of such articles.

For most people, it will never be practical to read more than a few dozen books a year, let alone a triple-digit number. Realistically, most people may be able to read one or two books a month.

Also, the idea that reading many books makes you smarter and more successful is deeply flawed. There is overwhelming evidence that reading alone does not mean that any of the read words stick in your brain or change your life for the better.

I realised as much when I thought back to Cryptonomicon, the 900-page cult novel by Neal Stephenson which I read with great enthusiasm and under ideal circumstances:

  • I read it during a quiet period of my life when I could read slowly and focus on the book’s content.
  • I already had some context from reading similar books.
  • It left a deep impression on me.

Yet, if you asked me today, I couldn’t tell you:

  • The basic plot.
  • The name of the main protagonist.
  • How it ended.

I must have spent up to 20 hours reading it, yet I seemingly retained ZILCH. It dawned on me that my work-related reading must be suffering from similarly lousy retention.

How could I avoid this from happening? What could I do to quickly and consistently increase the Return on Invested Time (ROIT) of my reading?

While researching the subject, I realised that reading and learning are two profoundly misunderstood subjects.

Most of us will still use the approaches to reading (and learning) that we were taught in school. And too many of us will have looked at concepts that don’t work, such as so-called “speed reading”.

During my research, I realised that the act of reading words is the easy part. That’s what school focussed on, besides making you remember small bits of information for next day’s exams (all of which you then swiftly forget to study for the next exam). Just because you read the words doesn’t mean you read well.

In today’s knowledge economy, lifelong learning is more important than ever. And learning mostly means reading.

It’s high time that you break out of the school mindset and develop a framework that helps you to automatically improve what you get out of your reading.

By taking a more conscious approach, I taught myself to learn better. And after having applied this framework more rigorously to myself, my ROIT exploded.

This framework doesn’t require much. A few well-tested concepts can VASTLY improve your comprehension and your ability to connect to content. As a result, you will find it much easier to apply what you are reading to your critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

I looked at this subject primarily from the perspective of reading for work, but some of the same methods can be applied whether you are reading for entertainment, information, or understanding.

By taking a more conscious approach, I taught myself to learn better. And after having applied this framework more rigorously to myself, my ROIT exploded.

Habit 1: Reframe the cost of reading a book

It’s easy to think that the price of purchasing a book is the same as the cost of reading it.

Far from it. The highest cost – by a mile – is the time you need to invest in reading a book.

What’s the value of your time?

You will have to come up with an answer that suits your situation. A 30-something professional who lives in London could probably charge upwards of GBP 500 per day in consulting fees. With a working day of 10 hours (including commuting), this person’s opportunity costs would be GBP 50 per hour.

Let’s assume a book is GBP 25 to buy, and it takes 6h to read it.

The person in my example spends GBP 300 worth of time on reading the book, and GBP 25 for the book itself.

Put another way, the price for buying the book is not even 10% of the overall cost of reading it.

Why is this relevant?

We were taught at a young age that books are something you HAVE to finish because they are sacred.

You have probably experienced the intense emotions when quitting a book halfway. It’s almost like ending a relationship.

This attitude very much stands in the way of maximising your ROIT from reading books.

Let’s be realistic:

  • Most books are fluff and not worth your time. If you purchase books regularly, you inevitably end up buying a good number of books that turn out to be useless to you.
  • Of those books that are valuable to you, many will turn out to be “front-loaded”. The author lays the premise at the start, and the rest is mostly repetition and anecdotes. It’s a feature caused by today’s book industry. No customer is going to pay GBP 25 for a hardcover book with 6,000 words. That’s why publishers demand their authors to achieve a minimum word count. Often, that’s done through repetition.

Skipping chapters, starting books in the middle — these things still make most people uncomfortable. It almost feels like cheating – a violation of the terms of use.

But for the reasons I just set out, it shouldn’t be.

Nowadays, I am absolutely, 100% unabashed about:

  • Reading just the chapters that interest me.
  • Not finishing books.
  • Quickly throwing away books if it turns out that I shouldn’t have bought them in the first place.

Doing it any other way would be way too expensive. Remember, it’s all about the value of your time!

Consume books poorly, and you’ll pay the price. You’ll be overwhelmed with irrelevant facts and meaningless data.

If you consume books intelligently, your rate of learning will skyrocket.

Break the old thinking and make finishing books optional. See it as a strength if you only finish a few of your books. It’ll be a sign that you have successfully adapted to today’s world of information abundance.

As Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s multi-billionaire sidekick, used to say: “Most books I don’t read past the first chapter. I’m not burdened by bad books.

Munger’s approach is the way to go!

Habit 2: Teach someone something to increase your retention by 800%

It’s incredible how little our brains retain what we read.

Ask a few people what non-fiction book they last read and what their main takeaways were. Most will struggle to even give you the precise title.

Amazingly, the problem can be solved by applying a single method.

The Roman philosopher, Seneca, summed it up: “While we teach, we learn.

Nowadays, we have the research available to us to accurately measure just how much wisdom there was to Seneca’s saying.

When we merely read something, we are lucky to retain 10% of it.

However, when we read something and then explain it to someone else, we retain about 90%.

The 10/90 ratio may not always be entirely accurate, but it’s the standard figure used in today’s scientific literature. Google “Learning Pyramid” if you want to look more deeply into the subject.

The evidence is crystal clear. Teaching is widely recognised as the single most powerful technique to improve your retention. You’ll automatically remember better, and be forced to think and challenge your understanding.

It means you need to teach others for your own sake.

That’s one of the reasons why I write this blog. By sharing my knowledge and exposing myself to the questions of others, my retention of information goes through the roof.

There are many easy and cheap (mostly even free) ways for you to teach others:

  • Create a YouTube channel.
  • Write posts for social media.
  • Create a website or blog.

There is no stigma attached anymore to trying to teach something when you are not an expert yet. Most successful Internet personalities started publishing content that in retrospective seems embarrassingly unsophisticated. Check back to my article about Sven Carlin, a highly successful YouTuber, whose first videos were seen by absolutely no one but his dad (who used three different computers to give him three likes).

Teaching is widely recognised as the single most powerful technique to improve your retention.

When you read, see yourself as a teacher and act like one.

Remind yourself: “I must focus on this book because I will share everything I’ve learned with others. I gotta know my shit!

Don’t just “read” a book. You have to devour it with the aim to talk about it with others (though you don’t even need an audience to use this method).

One very tangible rule for making this method work for you is the 50/50 rule:

  • Spend 50% of your time reading.
  • Spend 50% of your time sharing.

Your ROIT will go through the roof!

Habit 3: Immediately apply ONE piece of new information

If you absolutely do not have anyone or any way to teach, then teach it to yourself!

How so?

Here’s how I’ve done it.

During the months leading up to this article, I’ve read a lot about fitness. I wanted to not just up my level of fitness, but also do it in an informed and strategic way. That’s an approach I had never taken in the past because I simply went running or swimming without considering any details. That works when you are young but at my age, it could lead to a highly inefficient workout or, even worse, injury or lasting damage.

The challenge for me was that the finer details of fitness don’t interest me at all. So I decided to break things down into small steps.

Each time I read up about an aspect relating to fitness, I did so with the explicit aim of picking ONE learning point and applying it within the same week.

To help myself advance and keep a positive attitude, I was quite generous with regards to what the learning could consist of.

For example, I once spent an hour reading up on wireless headsets for use during workouts. Two cables dangling in front of me and my earphones constantly falling out were a major annoyance when I went running. I made some time to FINALLY make an informed decision for buying suitable headphones. Doing so massively upgraded the quality of my workout experience, which in turn makes it easier for me to stick to my workout routine. A quick win!

Some other learnings made me aware of things I should NOT be doing, such as carrying handheld weights while running. Reading up on this aspect finally answered a question that had been on my mind for years, since you inevitably spot other runners doing it.

As the weeks passed, I had put DOZENS of learnings to use, and my workout routines have been transformed.

These all seem like little steps, but they add up.

Teaching yourself bite-sized new tricks is a powerful and easy way to get more out of your reading.

Habit 4: Honour the author by mistreating the book

It’s vital to throw out any notion that books are sacred.

Were you taught that books shouldn’t be highlighted or written on? What about folding pages? Your teacher probably told you not to create dog ears (or, as the Germans would call it, donkey ears / Eselsohren).

That’s how most people treat their books. But most people aren’t nearly learning enough by reading, so what the majority does shouldn’t be your guide in life.

Grant yourself permission to do things differently, and lean on Edgar Allen Poe to make you feel good about it:

Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

It’s simple and practical to make notes, fold pages, and highlight text. It also massively improves what you get out of a book.

You can find hundreds of articles on the Internet about systems for notetaking and marking books – ranging from simple ones to the most insanely sophisticated. Find one that you can adapt to your needs and way of working.

Mine is as simple as they come. I have yellow Stabilo Boss highlighter pens strewn across my house and profusely highlight what interests me – without paying attention to getting the lines straight.

Permit yourself to do anything and everything that increases your Return on Invested Time, even if it means the book will get ripped to shreds in the process.

The critical point for you to keep in mind is that passive readers forget most things almost as quickly as they read them, whereas active readers retain a higher percentage of what they read.

With this in mind, allow yourself to go crazy with marginalia. The more you scribble into books, the more active your mind will be while you are reading. If you don’t have a pen at hand, use dog ears to make it easy for you to find relevant sections again. The only rule is that there are no rules.

Do it based on the moment, else you risk losing the contemporaneous inspiration. Don’t be afraid to tear the book up. Remember habit 1, books themselves are cheap and the smallest part of your overall costs. Books are work tools, and it’s totally okay if they perish in the process.

Permit yourself to do anything and everything that increases your Return on Invested Time, even if it means the book will get ripped to shreds in the process.

Habit 5: Habitualise times and places for different reading routines

There seem to be two particularly relevant, albeit completely different techniques for reading:

  • Quickly skimming through piles of books to round up a vast subject in a short time.
  • In-depth reading for thorough absorption (and/or enjoyment).

I am a big believer that habits help you in many walks of life. A habit puts both your mind and your body into the right space for achieving the best results (try having your mind focus if your body isn’t up for it – good luck with that!). To improve my reading results, I found that turning the flow of my day into a set of habits has worked well.

Mornings are the time for me to make things. During mornings, I write.

Come midday, and I need to change tack. I need to stop writing because four to five hours is my limit. However, my mind remains in the flow as far as pursuing goals for work is concerned – and I try to make the best of that state of mind.

Around midday, I usually take a bunch of books out of my “kitchen office” into my conservatory. By moving to the conservatory, I make a conscious decision to move away from other distractions. It’s the place where I focus on going through large amounts of material quickly to find the best nuggets. Besides, I love the sunshine and singing birds as a backdrop; it all helps with focussing at a time of day when I usually have the first slight drop in energy.

On the other hand, I can’t read for deep absorption and enjoyment while I am in the heat of the daily work battles. I am best at it once I feel that it’s been a productive day, and I genuinely deserve some quiet time. I therefore read those books that I want to go through thoroughly in the evening, in bed.

Your ability to work based on an effective system is like a muscle, and you can strengthen it through practice.

This way, I kill two birds with one stone. We all usually take our electronic devices to bed, a habit which is widely known to interfere with sleeping patterns. Reading hardcopy books, on the other hand, is proven to increase the quality of your sleep. By saving the best till the end of the day – those books that I *really* want to read properly – I also increase the rest I get at night. A good night’s sleep puts me onto the right track for a productive morning of writing, which in turn creates a virtuous circle.

Everyone will have a different approach that suits them.

What’s the same for everyone, though, is that creating routines (or systems) is a powerful way for achieving an improvement in their life.

Figure out a routine and a system that works for yourself. Even if you only stick to it 50% of the time because your job, family or other commitments often stand in the way, you will still come out ahead overall. It’s all about incremental improvements, not about aiming for perfection. And as you pursue this approach, you’ll inevitably get better at it. Your ability to work based on an effective system is like a muscle, and you can strengthen it through practice.

Habit 6: Find the books that “quake” you

We’ve all had breakthrough experiences. A phrase that a parent, mentor or teacher said that stuck with us and changed everything. A movie or a documentary that changed your view of the world.

The same can happen when you read a book.

A “quake” book is a book that shakes you to the core. To bring up Warren Buffett one last time, his quake book was “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham. For Elon Musk, it was Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, which he says helped him ask bigger questions.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, finding a bunch of “aha” moments in a book does not make for a quake book. It’s great if you come across them or if a book touches you emotionally. But a quake book is something of a different order of magnitude. It’ll make your grey matter lurch and heave, and it’ll cause a tremor in your life after which nothing looks the same. Quake books jolt you out of your old familiar ruts and throw you into a new and unfamiliar area of idea space. They cause you to experience a “view quake”. They are, literally, books to base your life on.

Finding quake books is rare, but reading one quake book can be worth reading a thousand good books. Their effects can last a lifetime. Quake books are the ultimate form of learning leverage.

I have set myself the goal to find such a quake book once a year rather than once a decade.  I’d rather read a smaller number of powerful books that I can internalise and apply for the rest of my life.

How do you achieve such breakthrough knowledge experiences?

Think of it as a three-step process:

Step 1: Be aware that quake books exist. That alone will make you better at spotting them.

Step 2: Increase the number of books you take a look at (as per #1). The increased quantity will increase your likelihood of finding one.

Step 3: When you do find a quake book, have the right techniques at hand to make sure you milk it for everything it’s worth (which is what you will be able to do after finishing this article).

I’d rather read a smaller number of powerful books that I can internalise and apply for the rest of my life.

Let this easy rule guide you:

Books don’t need to be read to the end, but some books can change your life.

Now that you are familiar with the term “quake book”, entering a book shop or surfing on a book-related website will never be the same again!

Habit 7: Take care of your brain health

At the start of the coronavirus lockdown, I gave recommendations on how to make your reading during lockdown a positive experience.

As my article set out:

Everyone knows (and agrees) that we are what we EAT. What goes into our mouths creates our bodies. That’s why you’d want to avoid fast, cheap and fake food.

Fewer will have considered that we also are what we READ. After all, our thoughts create our reality, and reading is the information that fuels our mind.

It’s such an important point that I wanted to dig a bit deeper into it.

Would you have known that reading actually changes the wiring of your brain? It does!

If you only ever skim information, your brain unlearns absorbing in-depth information. Also, reading has been shown to delay cognitive decline (including preventing Alzheimer’s Disease). The field of so-called neuroplasticity analyses how your brain undergoes structural or physiological changes – and some even say that brain exercises are as powerful as drugs.

“Brain health” is a subject we should all be more aware of. It also ties in with the whole issue of reading and learning effectively.

There are quick wins you can exploit. For example, being fit and working out improves your ability to focus and absorb information. There is a lot of scientific evidence about why that may be the case. Watch this 11-minute TED talk “You can grow new brain cells” that explains how running fires up the body’s ability to produce new neurons in your brain. We don’t know for sure why it happens, but it’s already proven to be measurable.

If you want to consistently and permanently up your ability to read and learn, you need to keep your brain sharp. What you do or don’t do on a daily basis will significantly influence how you record, process, and retrieve information.

It also helps to eat lots of foods that are associated with slowing down our natural cognitive decline. That could be blueberries, vegetables (leafy greens such as kale, spinach, broccoli), whole grains, protein from fish and legumes, and healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil). Obviously, the matter of diet is a whole subject onto itself – these are mere examples.

The bottom line is this: if you don’t do anything to protect your brain, it will naturally decline. Equally, it’s relatively easy to intervene early, which will slow down the decline process. As ever, an ounce of preparation is worth a ton of cure. Protecting a healthy brain is a lot easier than try and repair damage.

Make it a take-away from today’s article that you mustn’t only choose carefully what you read, but also how you treat the organ that processes it all.

In closing

Reading is a personal journey. I can only give you inspiration; figuring out what works for you is something only you can do.

These seven habits have not just improved my overall experience as a reader, but also helped me to level up in other areas of my life.

Since I get so much more out of reading these days, I’ve reduced other media that I used to consume more often.

I don’t use social media, I don’t have Netflix, and I don’t play video games.

I read books.

When people tell me “I don’t have time to read“, my gut reaction is to be sceptical whether it’s true. After all, the average American alone spends 705 hours a year on social media, plus 2737 hours watching TV.

Reading doesn’t even require much time. If you just spend five minutes a day reading books, you will have read five books within a year. Chosen carefully and read within the right framework, these five books can change your life.

Five minutes is nothing. Five minutes is what many people deliberate over ordering take-away food, or staring at a coffee pot while it heats up, or reading a promotional email.

Make it 60 minutes a day, and you probably end up reading 60 books a year. That’s already way more than you need to read to get ahead in life. I’d say if you make it through two books a month but based on the right framework, you’ll massively improve the quality of your life over the coming years.

Reading doesn’t even require much time. If you just spend five minutes a day reading books, you will have read five books within a year. Chosen carefully and read within the right framework, these five books can change your life.

What are you waiting for? Apply habit 3 and put one learning point from this article to good use before the end of the week. It shouldn’t take you more than five minutes to figure out ONE point. And if you don’t manage to do this right now, what will you actually have retained from reading this article?

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