Give up these bad habits to get the most out of your books.
While most people agree that reading leads to happiness and wisdom, only a few become prolific readers.
Yet, these people commit a common thinking error. They confuse reading time with reading quality. Becoming a productive reader has little to do with the total hours you spend reading.
Over the last years, I became a book fanatic, and since 2017, I’ve read 173 books. And until this summer, I did so while working a full-time job and running a startup at +65 hours a week.
If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that prolific readers don’t focus on doing more of something, but rather avoiding common pitfalls. Here’s the complete list:
They Don’t Force Themselves Through Mediocre Books
We only have a limited number of books we can read before we die. While our life is ticking away, new books are published at light speed.
How many books will you read before you die?
This article uses a life expectancy calculator and data on US reading habits to calculate the numbers. A 25-year old voracious reader who finishes 50 books per year has only around 2950 books left to read in their remaining life.
The number alone might seem like a lot. But if you put it in perspective, you’ll realize it’s almost nothing. Because 2950 out of 129,864,880 books are around 0.000023.
And that’s why prolific readers don’t force themselves through mediocre books. They know not all books are created equal, and most of the books aren’t worth their time.
Patrick Collison, the self-made billionaire founder of Stripe, explains in a podcast interview:
At every moment, you should be reading the best book you know of in the world [for you]. But as soon as you discover something that seems more interesting or more important, you should absolutely discard your current book … because any other algorithm necessarily results in your reading ‘worse’ stuff over time.
Time is a limited resource, and if you waste your time with a mediocre book, you won’t have enough left for the great ones.
How to do it:
Stop reading mediocre books. Get comfortable with putting an unfinished book aside when you find a better one. Look out for and read the great books, the ones that hold the power to change your entire life.
Prolific Readers Don’t Forget What They Read
Ever wondered why the smartest people you know seem to remember everything they read? It’s because people who know a lot are also likely to remember more.
Elon Musk once answered in an ‘ask-me-anything’ Reddit thread:
“Knowledge [is]… a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to”
So the question is, how do you start building your knowledge trunk?
The learning theory answer is called elaborative rehearsal. You make an association between the new information in the book and the information you already know. The more you elaborate, or try to understand something, the more likely you‘ll keep this new information in your long-term memory.
How to do it:
The best way to do so is to connect the new knowledge to what you already know, and in the best case, apply it in real life. Take notes while reading. Instead of keeping your books look new, use them to the fullest. The more you write in the margins, the more you’ll remember.
Great Readers Don’t Focus On One Book at A Time
In March 2018, I didn’t finish a single book. It’s not that I stopped reading. Instead, I only managed to read five pages of Harari’s Sapiens before falling asleep every night.
That’s why prolific readers don’t read just one book at a time. You don’t want to eat the same dish for breakfast, lunch, and breakfast. Why would you read the same book at different times of the day?
Our brains can handle reading different books. In fact, spaced repetition, meaning revisiting some concepts with some days in between, is one of the most effective learning methods.
So, reading several books simultaneously can improve the way you remember what you read. Plus, you’ll likely find useful intersections between various concepts. It was James Clear who said:
“The most useful insights are often found at the intersection of ideas.”
How to do it:
Read a few books at the same time. Start a new book before you finish the one you’re reading. Pick a content-dense book, like Sapiens, for learning mode and a lighter fiction book for a nighttime session.
They Don’t Get Distracted By Technology
Our world is distracting, and we’re tempted to shift focus at light speed. When phones are within a hand reach, it’s easy to switch tasks without even realizing it.
Some 2000 years ago, Stoic philosopher Seneca summarized how bad even the most intelligent people are when it comes to protecting their time:
“No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tightfisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
The average person spends over four hours a day on their device. If you spent half the time reading, with a reading speed of 250 words per minute and an average book length of 90,000 words, you’d finish more than two books a week. The equation is simple:
The less time you spend on your device, the more you’ll read.
I struggled to change my phone habits for an entire year. But the journey was worth it. Once I abandoned my phone from my sleeping room and left it shut until 10 AM, I didn’t need to skip any activities to read 52 books a year.
How to do it:
You don’t need to try the digital detox apps like Forest, and Freedom. Instead, read Deep Work and Digital Minimalism and conclude that your best option is to switch off your phone whenever you want to focus completely.
Smart Readers Don’t Aim For A Number of Books
Most people confuse reading with progressing. They think reading a specific number will make them happier, healthier, and wealthier.
But no idea could be further from the truth. Reading is no fast-lane to wealth and wisdom. Instead, reading can even limit your achievements.
I know because I made this mistake.
Before building my first business, I had read dozens of books for each stage in the business lifecycle. But when it came to really starting, the biggest gamechanger was just doing it.
At some point, reading distracts you from acting. You’ll achieve more if you bump along without any books than you ever will reading and not doing anything.
So, prolific readers don’t have the goal to read a specific number of books for the sake of reading.
There’s a subtle difference between book hoarders, focusing on the total number of books they read, and prolific readers. Whereas book hoarders judge themselves by the number of books they own, smart readers judge themselves by what they got out of them and applied in real life.
Mortimer J. Adler put it best when he wrote:
“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.”
How to do it:
Don’t confuse reading with acting. When you finish the book, ask yourself what to do with what you’ve just read. Apply the knowledge and put what you’ve learned into action items.
All You Need to Know
Letting go of these things isn’t difficult or exhausting.
On the contrary: Avoiding these common mistakes makes reading fun and worthwhile.
- Don’t force yourself through mediocre books.
- Take notes to remember what you read.
- Read several books simultaneously.
- Leave your phone shut whenever you want to read.
- Apply what you read to your life.
Instead of feeling discouraged by all the ideas about becoming a prolific reader, enjoy experimenting at your own pace. Keep the habits that work for you and screw the rest.
Choose one or two new reading habits until you find a pattern that helps you on your journey to health, wealth, and wisdom.
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