I’ve read about 30 books in the last 3 months alone.
I’m not saying that to impress you, but to impress upon you that consuming a lot of valuable information is possible, even if your calendar already seems to be overflowing with commitments 24/7.
We’re all busy, me included. Yet, I believe that investing in learning from others who have lived before me is of the utmost importance. In the face of impending busyness, reading must prevail.
Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him. –John Locke
Last week a friend asked me “how I read books”. At first it seemed like a bizarre question, but I soon realised it is a fair thing to ask. Reading habits are very personal, and some may be more productive than others. Here I present mine, so take away what you find relevant, and disregard the rest. Happy reading!
1. Pick Your Medium
“Know Thyself”. –Ancient Greek grafitti artists
One of the best things about living in an age of information abundance, is the variety of media types we have to choose from. We can read paper books, digital books, blog posts and magazines. We can read in the library, in bed, and, according to 155 million Google results, even in the shower. We can listen to audiobooks and podcasts, watch movies and YouTube clips continuously for as long as we want.
This buffet of information sources is great, but won’t do you any good unless you take time to explore it and taste different input types. These are my favourites:
- Digital books on my Kindle (let me give away 500+ physical books as I minimised my possessions. So liberating!),
- Audiobooks (no, audiobooks are not “cheating”),
- Podcasts (the best iOS podcast app is called Overcast),
- Blog posts from people I respect.
Information Trumps Paper
The information is important, not the artefact.
I realised this fact when I decided to become a minimalist and get rid of the excess stuff in my life. One of the hardest things to let go of was my library of books. I had an entire corridor wall in my apartment stacked floor to roof with books. Most of them I hadn’t even read, but in some fantastical future, “I’ll definitely read that one”. Of course, that never happened.
The underlying belief that made me keep all these books was very simple: I believed they made me look smart. That’s it. When stated explicitly, that sounds ridiculous, but that’s what I implicitly believed back then.
To let go of the physical books, I had to realise two things:
- The need to look smart wasn’t something I wanted to hold on to.
- The books were not inherently valuable – the value lies in the information they contain, not in the physical paper artefact.
Don’t seek to build a wall of paper to portray your brilliance. Seek out good information instead. That’s why staying platform agnostic is a good idea.
The Allure Of Platform Agnosticism
Platform Agnosticism, 1st Commandment: “You may very well enjoy other information sources than me”.
Don’t stick to just one information platform for no productive reason. Instead, stay platform agnostic.
A friend of mine is the antithesis of platform agnostic: he ONLY reads paper books, cover to cover. He believes audiobooks are cheating. Kindle is blasphemy (“READING ON A SCREEN??!!?”).
The result of this? He very seldom reads anything at all, because carrying those massive books around is a major hassle. Don’t be like my friend. Try out different things on the information source buffet.
Harness the Power of Multiple Input Formats
The brain of someone listening to an audiobook absorbs the content differently than of someone reading the letters on a page. Consider this science from two PhDs at the University of Texas:
The memories you form differ based on the way you consume information [reading or listening]. None are necessarily better or worse for your brain, they’re just different experiences.
That is I recommend consuming similar information in different ways. I will often listen to an audiobook via Audible, then read it on my Kindle later. The audio gives me the essence of the book, and the Kindle reading lets me take copious notes along the way for further processing.
Furthermore, when a popular author launches a book these days, she will typically do a number of podcast appearances to explain the book’s essence. Listening to a few of these gives yet another viewpoints on a given subject.
2. Find The Time: Schedule and Default
I use two different methods to find time to read: “pre-scheduling” and “defaulting”.
Pre-scheduling is exactly what it sounds like: put an hour of reading in my calendar in advance, just like I do with any other commitment. This is simple, but not easy in a busy day to day life.
The other, more interesting way to read more, is what I call “default to read”. It means to make reading your default activity when you have nothing else to do. This can be tricky, because we’ve all established social media or mindless internet surfing as our default activities for idle moments.
I’ve re-trained my brain to default to productive reading in three ways:
- I listen to audiobooks and podcasts CONSTANTLY when I’m not focusing on a cognitively demanding task. When I’m walking, cooking, vacuum cleaning and commuting, I’m simultaneously learning something new from audiobooks and podcasts. It’s fantastic, try it out!
- I’ve stopped reading the news, and started reading books instead. I no longer feel the need to stay up to date on everything that happens in the world. This is so liberating! Someone may say this is irresponsible or selfish, but here’s the thing: the important stuff reaches me through conversations with others anyway. The stuff that doesn’t reach me, is by definition irrelevant. I’d rather pass.
- I recently deleted practically all social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder +++) from my phone for at least 30 days. Why? To re-train my brain away from defaulting to incessant scrolling. I replaced these with just one app: KINDLE. When I twitch for the screen spot where Facebook used to be, Kindle opens up instead. Before I know it, I’ve read a few more pages of a book.
3. Take Note of What You Read
Writing down your key takeaways from a book increases retention in your memory, and gives you a backlog of important ideas to return to in the future. Imagine the library of wisdom you’ll accumulate after taking notes on a few dozen a few hundred books you’ve read!
Taking notes is an art form, and everyone’s artistic sense is different. The important point is simple: make sure your notes serve you and your purpose. It doesn’t matter if your notes are incomprehensible to anyone else, as long as they work for you.
Again, know yourself and the way you prefer to have and do things. I tend to keep my notes in pure text form. Many people enjoy colouring and making note taking visually appealing. Mind Maps are a great way of getting associations and big picture concepts down on paper. Audio lovers might want to record their notes read out loud. Find out what works for you.
[“The Mind Map Book” by Tony Buzan is a great resource on mind mapping and its many benefits – highly recommended.]
4. Avoid Information Overload: Share to Solidify
The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.
The reason I share lessons learned from books I read on this blog is very simple: I want to remember more of what I read.
I used to find myself consuming tons of great information, only to forget 95% of it later. Diagnosis? Information overload. It was like drinking from a fire hose. By forcing myself to turn all that input into OUTPUT of some sort, I’m able to remember much more. This benefit comes in three ways:
- Cognitive processing: By taking notes while I read, tweaking and shortening those notes afterwards, and then adding commentary to them, I must process the input cognitively. This is in stark contrast to simply skimming through and gobbling down the information just once.
- Repetition: Through the same process, I get exposed to the information multiple times over. Simply seeing the same essential words over and over again helps me remember way more of it.
- Backlog for easy access: When I have my notes posted online, I can go back and get an overview of the core concepts of a book very quickly when I need to in the future.
I also try to explain core ideas I read about to my friends and family. I (and all good teachers) know this: the best proof of my understanding of a topic is how eloquently I can explain it to someone else. Trying to get a big idea across in a 5 minute conversation is the ultimate test of how well I understand that very idea.
Try It Out!
That is my recipe for how to read a bunch of good stuff, all the time. Try some of these tricks out for 30 days, and see what happens! If you need book recommendations, I have 10 titles for you that everyone should read. Happy reading!
Also published on Medium.