As long as you’re reading, you are already on your way to wisdom.
Do you ever close a non-fiction book and worry whether reading is a time-waster?
If you ever feel like the knowledge in a book can’t help you live a better life, it’s likely because you don’t know about key reading principles.
Reading non-fiction takes anywhere from six to nine hours — a significant time investment. These hours aren’t wasted if you read for entertainment.
But if you carve out the hours from a busy day to read books like Thinking Fast and Slow, you’re likely looking for something more than joyful reading time.
Whether you want to use books to advance your career or apply what you read to your life, this one is for you. Here are fundamental reading principles many people learn too late in life.
1.) Passive Reading Won’t Make Information Stick
It’s Sunday morning, and you’re on a walk with friends. The topic revolves around some serious non-fiction books you just read. First, you feel proud because you read it. But soon after, you feel dumb.
Because when the conversation goes beyond the main book themes, you feel lost. You discover you only remembered a fraction of the content.
This happened to me quite often. I could talk about the basic claims, but when a friend asked a probing question, I couldn’t answer it. I often thought reading didn’t work for me and considered quitting books altogether.
I didn’t have a basic understanding of how our brains work. Twelve books and hours of lectures later, I understand how we learn and remember.
Human brains don’t work like recording devices. The words on the pages don’t magically stick to our memory.
Learning is at least a three-step process: encoding of information in your short-term memory, consolidating knowledge in the long-term memory, and retrieving information when it’s needed.
To make reading effective, you need to factor in the two components of learning and memory: the learned information itself and the so-called retrieval cue that helps you find the material you learned.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
— Mortimer Adler
What to do:
These three evidence-based steps will help you remember anything you want from the books you read.
First, elaborate. Explain what you read in your own words and relate it to what you already know. Stop after reading an interesting sentence and scribble your thoughts on the book’s page or your note-taking app.
Answer these meta-learning questions: “How does this relate to my life? In which situation will I make use of this knowledge? How does it connect to other insights I have on the topic?”
You can’t rephrase anything in your words if you don’t get it. By elaborating, you become an active reader and make new information stick.
Second, retrieve. We learn something not only when we connect it to what we already know (elaboration) but when we try to access it. Retrieval is powerful because when you recall a memory, you reinforce both it and its cue.
After finishing a book, summarize the content from your memory: “How can you summarize the book in three sentences? Which ideas do you want to keep in mind and apply? How does the book relate to what you already know?”
This is also the technique Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used to remember what he learned. He mentally recalled all principles and main points he wanted to keep in mind. You can do the same. Unlock the benefits of retrieval by writing your summary after finishing a book.
Third, space out self-testing. The more time has gone since you read a book, the more difficult it is to recall it. That’s why you can’t remember concepts when you talk to friends. But forgetting isn’t a character flaw. It’s essential for learning.
After a week went by, think about the book you read. Recall your summary without looking at the sheet. After, check for your knowledge gaps. In that way, you strengthen your memory and cues for faster retrieval. Repeat the self-testing once in a while, and you’ll be able to recall a book’s content fast.
The entire process can feel slow and intense. But that’s how effective learning works — you have to do the work.
2.) Reading Isn’t About the Number of Books You Read
When I made reading a life habit, I set the intention to read a specific number of books a year. And while reading 52 books a year for three years certainly helped me get started, this mindset is counter-productive.
Focusing on a number of books accelerates the way you read. But speed-reading isn’t helpful. Different studies confirm when reading speed goes up as a result of speed-reading, comprehension goes down.
And as you know from the previous point, comprehension is only the start of proper knowledge acquisition. If you want to remember what you read, you need to use metacognition (meaning the questions you answer while and after reading).
If you want to expand your knowledge and learn deeply, read slower.
The better the book, the slower you should look at the words. Because all new information and concepts you learn need to be connected to your existing knowledge.
Before building my first business, I had read dozens of books for each stage in the business lifecycle. But when it came to starting, the biggest gamechanger was connecting it to my life by applying what I read.
“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
— Mortimer Adler
What to do:
Don’t focus on the number of books you read. Instead, look for ways to include new ideas into your life. Quality matters more than quantity. Pay attention to what’s in front of you. Think about how you can apply it to life, then do it.
As Ratna Kusnur said: “Knowledge trapped in books neatly stacked is meaningless and powerless until applied for the betterment of life.”
When you read High-Performance Habits and learn about the power of morning affirmations, start to act. Record your own affirmations. After learning about the benefits of journaling through Stillness is Key, place a notebook with a pen on your nightstand and start journaling the same evening.
Whenever you stumble upon practical advice, pause and act upon it. Put an item on your To-Do list or place an action item on a specific spot. Reading a book isn’t a race — the more insightful the book, the more often you should pause to apply it.
3.) Mediocre Books Just Don’t Cut It
This is probably the most common disbelief that prevents people from unlocking a book’s power. Our desire to finish what we start is what makes reading feel meaningless.
Bad books are hard to read; good books almost read themselves. There are too many excellent books on this planet. Don’t waste your time reading the bad ones.
I got this wrong for years. I felt if I put down a book, I disrespect the author. Plus, I paid for the book. So why would I harm both of us?
Now first, the author won’t know if you put it aside. There’s nothing to worry about. You don’t do anyone good if you force yourself through a book you don’t like.
Second, there’s a sunk-cost fallacy that is ruining your decision. This psychological trap means you continue consuming something because you’ve invested time or money in it.
But if you carry on with a lousy book only because you paid for it and spend some hours reading, all you’re doing is digging a deeper hole. Better to waste $11.95 than four additional hours of your lifetime.
What to do:
When you like a book, you feel it. You love the writing style and marvel at the ideas. You can’t wait to read the next page. You look forward to reading it all day long.
Life is too short for bad books. Read the genres you love, the content you deeply enjoy, from authors you admire.
Start books quickly but also quit them fast if you don’t like them. Once you know, you can stop reading bad books without feeling guilty, your reading practice changes. Because once you quit a bad book, you open up the opportunity to read a great one.
Even if your best friend, a smart mentor, or Bill Gates said, you should read a book; you can quit it. Because the best person to judge whether you should finish a book is you.
Quit most books. Read-only a few. Re-read the best ones twice, thrice, or a hundred times. Books change as we do. You’ll be amazed at how many new things you can discover that you may have missed before.
Reading can be the fast-track to a happier, healthier, wiser life. But unless you get the key reading principles right, it remains mere entertainment.
Try all of the strategies but don’t force yourself through anything that doesn’t feel right for you. Do your research, add other techniques, skip what doesn’t serve you, and think for yourself.
Keep the steps that work for you and screw the rest. No matter which strategies you use, applying them will pay off. As long as you’re reading, you are already on your way to wisdom. Charlie Munger, self-made billionaire:
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero.”