Reading Time: 20 minutes
I get asked a lot about my reading habits. “Where do you find the time and discipline to read?”, “How do you remember what you read?”, and “what books you recommend?” Here, I’ll share my opinions, tips, and everything else related to books and reading that I can think of.
PART I: READING HABITS
Why read more?
Books have made me everything I am. They have been my mentors in almost every area of my life. They have influenced and improved my mind, finances, health, social life, and everything I do. They correct me when I make mistakes, they guide me through difficult paths, they inspire me to dream and then help me achieve those dreams.
Books have been my critics, my motivators, my teachers, and my entertainers. If books have improved my life in all possible ways, how could I not want to read more?
Reading improves your life. When you read you are exposed to new ideas, see new perspectives, expand your mind, and learn new things. Reading gives you knowledge about the world and helps you find balance and meaning in life.
Books are fascinating. When you buy a book, usually for under $30, you get the knowledge that took someone years or even a lifetime to gather and organize. I’m amazed every time I think about it.
Books also transcend the barrier of time. Through a book you can have a conversation with great minds from the past, even the ones that lived hundreds of years ago. You can learn from their successes, failures, ideas, and knowledge. That should be reason enough to pick up a book.
The people you admire are avid readers. Everyone I feel great admiration for is an avid reader. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe their reading habits are an important factor in their success and their skill level. Being constantly exposed to new ideas allows them to connect them with what they already know. This is creativity. The more you know, the more creative and insightful you’ll become.
Read more to be exposed to new ideas, read to be taken on a journey, read for entertainment, read for pleasure, read for culture, read for knowledge, read for whatever reason you find valid but READ.
If you don’t know where to start, download the free report below “Books to improve your life”. It’s a short list of the books that have made the most impact in different areas of my life and others that have simply been a fascinating read.
How to read more
Reading more can be broken into three parts: Time, Concentration, and Speed.
Time is how long you spend reading. This is the part where people complain the most. You always hear “I don’t have time to read”. It’s usually not time that they lack, it’s discipline. You are not supposed to find time to read, you are supposed to take it from all the useless activities you do everyday.
Concentration is how focused you are while you read. Having poor concentration makes us read slower and forget what we read. Can you remember a time when you read a paragraph and by the time you finished it you couldn’t remember what it said? That’s poor concentration. We start thinking about other things, we get distracted by outside noise, or we try to multitask.
Speed is simply how fast you read. Your reading speed will affect how much you read in the time you dedicate to reading.
Improving any of these areas will help you read more. Ideally you would optimize all three of them but there’s no need to approach it too mechanical. From the strategies we’ll discuss, implement the ideas you like and that work for you. Later on you can go back and implement others.
Remember: You are trying to read more, you want to find what’s sustainable for you, not something that will help you read a lot for a short while and then make you quit because it feels like work.
Let’s looks at some strategies for each component.
Carry a book everywhere. This is the simplest way to get more reading done. Take a book everywhere you go and read every time you have a chance. I read when I am waiting for an appointment, when I’m at the airport, I read on planes, buses, and trains.
I also read at the park, I read before bed, I read while I wait for my food, I once put my kindle inside a ziplock bag and brought it in the shower (It didn’t quite work the way I wanted). I read when I’m tired of doing other things, and I read during my reading time, which is usually about an hour or more a day.
Pretty much every time most people feel the urge to get their cellphone out because they have nothing to do but wait, I pull out a book and read. Carry a book or a reading device with you all the time and instead of being on your cellphone go back to reading your book.
Read a pre-determined number of pages everyday. Something I did a few years ago when I wanted to catch up on my reading was to set up a rule of reading at least 50 pages first thing in the morning no matter what.
I didn’t allow myself to do anything else until I passed that limit. No email, no internet, just breakfast and then read. Once I finished the 50 pages I could start my day. This is probably not convenient for everyone but you get the idea, you can do it so you don’t go to bed until you do your reading, or any other variation. It can also be any number of pages (or chapters) as long as you stick to your plan and you are consistent.
The point here is that if you make reading one of your priorities instead of dedicating it the time you have left, which is usually none, you will read much more.
Read for a pre-determined amount of time everyday. A similar strategy to page approach is dedicating a specific amount of time to reading everyday. You’ll start realizing that reading more is not at all challenging. It’s normal to finish a book in 2-5 days without dedicating too much time to it. That adds to about a hundred books per year. The problem that most people have is doing it consistently. If you read for just half an hour everyday, you will get a lot of reading done.
Whether you chose a page or a time strategy, the most important thing is being consistent. Read everyday. I don’t care if you only read 5 pages or read for 15 min as long as you do it every day. Here’s the way you should approach reading habits and any other habit for that matter: First create the habit then build the intensity.
As long as we are on the subject here’s another good way to create habits, stick the activity you want to turn into a habit, in this case reading, to a habit you already have. For example, if you brush your teeth after every meal, read for 15min immediately after every time you brush your teeth. After some time, finishing the activity that is already a habit (brushing your teeth in this example) triggers the beginning of the next one (reading).
Read, read, read. The more you read the easier it is to dedicate time for reading. You’ll start enjoying reading and it will slowly become part of your life, something you just do.
Avoid distractions. If you can, choose a quiet environment where you won’t be interrupted. As you get more reading practice you’ll be able to concentrate in almost any environment, but for now try to be in a quiet place.
If you are used to reading with music on and doesn’t seem to affect your concentration much you are free to do that. I read while listening to death metal, at this point it becomes a delightful background that helps me concentrate.
If possible, turn off your cellphone and avoid other distraction. Keep whatever you need (i.e water) close to you so you don’t have to stand up or close the book often. You want your reading session to be as continuous as possible.
Don’t try multitasking. Trying to do other things while you read will slow you down and make you forget what you are reading. I’ve seen people trying to text while they read, they stop every few lines to send or read a text. It doesn’t work. If you can only commit to 20min without doing anything else I rather you do that than read for an hour while you try to do something else.
Read, read, read. Another way to increase your concentration is practice. As you read more you will feel that your concentration improves naturally. It doesn’t take me as long anymore to get immersed in my reading or regain concentration when there are many distractions around me.
PART II: READING SPEED
For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with books. When you realize how much you want to read it’s natural to want to increase your reading speed.
Some people obsess about this part, but speed is only one of three components of reading more. Remember, reading more is broken into Time, Concentration, and Speed. (See “how to read more and remember what you read part 1”)
What affects reading Speed?
Concentration. We already talked about some techniques to improve your concentration so you can read more (See part 1 of the series). We need to mention it again because concentration also affects reading speed. The more you avoid distractions and multitasking the faster you will be able to read.
Writing style. Some books are just poorly written; the author is disorganized, uses words that are too technical, or fails to keep you engaged. That’s going to slow you down.
Type of books. One of the biggest factors affecting reading speed is the kind of books you read. Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra reads differently than Harry Potter. There is nothing wrong with the genre of books you choose, the point I want to make is that some books are more complex and are slower to read than others.
Familiarity with the subject. Related to the type of books you read is your familiarity with the subject. If you already read five books on a subject the sixth one will be faster to read. You are already familiar with the principles, terms, and theory of what you are reading and no longer have stop as much or work as hard to understand the information. But if you are reading a subject you know nothing about it will take time to internalize the ideas.
Technique. Reading is a skill, it takes good technique to do it right. If you want to increase your reading speed you will have to improve your technique. Here is where speed reading comes in. The good news is that it doesn’t take much practice to see improvement.
Increasing your reading speed
Read, Read, Read. The first way to increase your speed is to read more. It’s natural to become more efficient at what we do often. Reading more will increase your reading speed, especially when combined with proper technique.
Like most avid readers I turned to speed reading thinking it would be the solution to my ever growing list of books to read. There is much controversy on the subject so before I give you my perspective I will explain what speed reading is, what is not, and the experience I had with it.
What’s speed reading?
Speed reading is a collection of techniques to make reading more efficient. The concept is based on a few sane principles: having precise eye fixations (Fixation: when your eyes stop to get the input), reading more words per fixation, reducing the time of each fixation, and eliminating subvocalization (Subvocalization: hearing the words in your mind as you read)
How fast is speed reading?
Speed reading ranges from a few hundreds words per minute to around 1200. In some cases the speeds reported are much higher. The current world record is 4251 words per minute. (On a Harry Potter book)
There are some other categories of speed reading which practitioners claim can get them speeds of 40.000 words per minute and higher. We won’t even dignify such nonsense by discussing it here. All you need to know about this is to stay away from it.
How do I learn to speed read?
There are great articles and books on how to speed read. Instead of writing a half decent guide I’m choosing to link those sources here so you go straight to quality training.
- “Scientific Speed reading: How to read %300 times faster in 20 minutes” (Article) By Tim Ferris
- “The speed reading book” by Tony Buzan
- For spanish speakers: Curso definitivo de lectura rapida de Ramon Campayo.
There are also apps and software to learn how to speed read but I haven’t used any so I won’t be recommending or mentioning them.
Does it work?
In my experience, yes. The techniques do help you read faster.
Is it worth it?
To a point. I practiced for a few weeks and significantly improved my reading speed. The problem was that with time, practice became more demanding and results slow down -Just like in most skills- So when I felt comfortable with my technique and speed I stopped. I didn’t want to be a “speed reader” or read fast, I just wanted to read faster.
If you just want to improve your technique and read faster then practice speed reading but don’t obsess about it. There’s a difference between wanting to run properly, and wanting to become a professional sprinter. It’s important to know what you want with speed reading so you don’t get lost in it and spend hours learning to read faster when you should be spending them reading more.
Remember: It’s not about reading faster, it’s about reading more, speed is only one component. Don’t learn to optimize something you won’t do. If you don’t read, learning how to read at twice the speed won’t help. You will still NOT read at the same speed.
How much should I practice?
15 to 20 min a day for a few weeks should be enough to see good results. You won’t read 1200 words per minute but you will increase your reading speed. When you feel good about your speed you can practice only every few days to maintain the skill.
Criticism of speed reading
Critics of speed reading say it makes reading tedious and lowers comprehension. They are partly right, but this is temporary. Just like in learning any skill, the initial practice is difficult, hard to enjoy, and many times makes you worse than you were before. It takes time to make a new skill less conscious and get good enough to start enjoying it. You are basically re learning to read. Can you remember learning to ride a bicycle? You kept losing balance, falling, and not going anywhere. You couldn’t enjoy riding the bike or go anywhere because you were still learning.
What should you look out for?
People who have tried speed reading and then criticized it are likely to have made one of the three following mistakes. Avoid them and you’ll make speed reading work for you.
1. They didn’t stick with it long enough. The techniques have to become second nature before you can focus completely on the book again and not think of the way you are moving your eyes or how fast you are going. It takes practice. If the techniques are not unconscious your focus will be divided and you won’t enjoy or understand as much what you are reading. You would be essentially trying to multitask.
2. They practiced on books they were interested in. You should practice speed reading on books you don’t care about until you get used to the techniques. Why? Because the goal at this point is to develop your reading speed, not to read the book. Imagine someone trying to learn speed typing while writing a novel. They would probably complain that the novel didn’t turn out too good and that they didn’t enjoy writing it. Shocking.
Once you internalize the techniques you won’t be thinking about them anymore. You will be able to apply them on all books without affecting your comprehension or enjoyment of reading.
Remember: Don’t obsess about speed reading techniques when you are reading what you want to read. Leave the speed reading practice for practice time with practice books until the skill becomes unconscious.
3. They didn’t Practice often. No skill can be developed without practice. Ideally you should practice every day or every other day for about 15-20 min. Minimum practice should be three times per week, if you space it out more you’ll lose some gains in between sessions and practice will be less effective.
Sometimes Skimming is considered speed reading. It is Not. Skimming happens when you are not reading the entire text but only selected sections. You jump from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, or chapter to chapter only reading a few lines to get a general idea of the material. When you skim you are not reading faster, you are reading less. There are only four instances where I would recommend skimming a book. Understand: Skimming is a tool for reading not a way of reading.
1. The book sucks. I give books a good chance of gaining my interest, but if they don’t I put them away or skim the rest. I skim just in case there is something worth looking into -there usually isn’t-. You don’t have to read every word of a terrible book just because you started it. If you were waiting for someone to tell you it’s ok to do it here it is: you are allowed to skim or close an awful book even if you are 10 pages away from finishing it. You only feel guilty until you read the first few pages of the next book, I promise.
2. The ideas in the book are diluted. This happens often, specially on business books. The author had one good idea that could be discussed in 10 pages but wanted to make a book out of it. These books are full or redundant talk, excessive stories, and endless examples. Unless I’m looking to be entertained or the stories and examples are exceptionally good, I’ll skim the better part of the book.
3. Priming your mind for the material. This is the most valuable benefit of skimming. The idea is to skim the chapter you are about to read (or the entire book) before you read. This will spark your curiosity and attention as well as give you a general structure of what’s ahead. We learn better when we have an idea of what we are about to learn and when we have a strong interest in the subject.
I chose to include skimming as a tool for reading faster for this benefit. Priming your mind for the material you are about to read will help you understand it faster. Ideally, you want to get an overview of the entire material before reading it. Look at the book contents, skim the chapters and then go back to read the book.
Obvious Note: Do not do this with fiction books, you’ll ruin them.
4. You are familiar with the subject. When you know about the subject you are reading it’s likely that you will come across repeated ideas. You can skim these sections and move on to what you think is valuable and new.
A final note on speed reading and reading speed.
Your reading speed should be flexible. It’s good to have a rhythm, but you should feel free to slow down, speed up, or stop if you want to. Being too rigid on the technique will make reading miserable. Remember: the goal is to read more, reading faster is only part of it. If trying to speed read is making reading annoying I rather you don’t do it. It would be counterproductive. You might learn to read faster but you will read less.
Part III: Remembering what you read
Priming your mind to learn
The first strategy is to get your mind in a state where it’s easier to understand and absorb the information you are about to read. The goal is to have a general idea of the subject and explore just enough to become curious and excited about it.
- Read a short article on the subject. This is something you can do to get an overview of what you will learn before you start reading the book.
- Look at the table of contents to know how the book is organized.
- If the book or chapters have introductions and summaries, read those first, If you don’t like to get too far ahead, read only the summary of the first chapter, then read the chapter. Follow by reading the summary of the second chapter and then read that chapter, and so on.
- Skim the chapters to start forming an idea of what you will be learning.
What we are looking to do is have our brains asking questions and getting curious about the subject. Our minds don’t like unresolved problems or unanswered questions (specially when we find them interesting), it’s our nature to try to fill that knowledge gap. This curious and inquisitive state is ideal for learning and creativity, it focuses our attention and prepares us to think and reflect on what we’ll read.
Underlining and Taking notes
I used to never underline a book or write on it, I thought it was disrespectful to do so. Today is the opposite, all my books are full of notes and underlinings, I feel it’s disrespectful not to do it. Why? Because you want to learn from the book, not just read it. That’s how you really respect the book. Taking notes, writing on the margin and underlining will help you reinforce and remember the information. Don’t feel bad about underlining and writing on the book, great minds in history did it all the time.
Underlining or highlighting
The concept is simple, underline or highlight the main ideas and any information you like or find valuable. Underlining forces you to stop and focus on what you are underlining; this extra attention works as a boost for your memory.
To avoid underlining too much try to do it after you finish the paragraph. If you do it as you read -specially if you don’t know anything about the subject- you will think that everything is important and worth underlining. So finish the idea first, understand what is being said, and then underline what’s important or want to remember.
There are different kinds of notes. Sometimes you transcribe or summarize what you just read, other times you write questions, observations, ideas, and even have discussions with the author. All of these reinforce what you read in different ways. Summarizing, for example, helps you understand and encode the information, while observations helps you connect with ideas and knowledge you already have.
For your general knowledge, when you write notes at the margin of the book they are called “Marginalia”. If you prefer to write them in a notebook where you keep all other notes, observations, ideas, etc this notebook is usually referred as a commonplace book. (More on common place book later in this article)
I encourage you to make all types of notes, write everything that comes to mind as you read, either on the margin or in your commonplace book. Don’t rely on thinking you will remember your ideas later, you won’t, write them right away.
I do want to emphasize that you write down what you want to remember. I once wrote a note at a seminar that read “I know this”, when I read it back weeks later I had no idea what it was. I felt angry for writing such a useless note and bowed not to do that again.
Years later, I wrote the same “I know this” note at a lecture. I immediately remembered my past mistake and thought of changing it, but I felt like this idea was truly unforgettable. I kept the note, and as an extra cocky line for my future self I added, “don’t worry, this one I know for sure and won’t forget.” When I went back to my notes a few months later I had obviously forgotten all about it. What an obnoxious little brat.
As a final note on writing your thoughts, it is important that you do it not just to remember them but also to encourage more thinking. Writing makes you slow down and organize your ideas in a coherent way, this in turn promotes more thinking and connections.
Another benefit of underlining and taking notes.
I constantly go back to books and read only my notes and underlinings. The first time you read a book you need examples, stories, and arguments. But once you understand the subject, you can go straight to the information you want, and avoid all the fillers. If you don’t take notes or underline, you would have to read the entire book again.
Summaries and conceptual maps
Making summaries leads to a better understating of the subject because it makes you think about what you are reading and forces you to condense the information. The summaries you make also work as quick references to refresh your memory. To get the best results, summarize in your own words, it will help you understand and encode the information at a deeper level.
Conceptual maps or Mind maps help you in a similar way, they force you to create an overview of what you read and to organize and connect main ideas. All this thinking and ruminating on the information helps solidify it in your memory.
A word on reviewing
Reviewing is not much of a learning strategy. The value of reviewing is to refresh the information you already know, but it is not an efficient strategy to learn it the first time.
When you review information (either your notes, summaries, underlinings or the entire book) be aware of the “Fluency illusion”, where we mistake our familiarity with the material with the mastery of the content. In other words, you recognize the information so you assume you already know it. To really find out what you know or don’t know you need some kind of self testing, either in the form of explaining the subject in your own words or answering questions about it.
Closely related to marginalia, underlining, and summarizing is keeping a commonplace book. This is a type of journal or notebook where you write down ideas, quotes, and concepts you find valuable.
A commonplace book becomes a collection of all the wisdom you come across. There are variations on how to keep one, it can go from just writing down anything you find worthy of remembering without any order, to a complex system with many categories and cross references. Check this article by Ryan Holiday on how and why to keep a commonplace book.
A great way to use marginalia to remember what you read is by creating quiz like questions as you are reading. Let’s imagine that you are reading a book on Napoleon. As you read, write questions next to the paragraphs where you learned something you would like to remember.
For example, if you just learned about a specific battle, write next to the paragraph “when did this battle took place and how it unfolded?” Once you finish the book, go through your questions trying to answer them by memory. If you can’t remember, don’t worry, the answer is in the paragraph next to the question. Keep quizzing yourself every other day until the material is solid in your memory. This strategy basically creates instant Flash Cards.
Why should you do this?
Practice testing is one of the best learning strategies out there. It surpasses summarizing, underlining, reviewing, and route learning (repetition). The effort we put into trying to recall the right answers during practice testing makes a big impact in strengthening our memories.
Here’s John Dunlosky on the article “Strengthening the Student toolbox: Study strategies to Boost Learning” Featured on “American Educator”:
“Taking practice tests can substantially boost student learning…The use of practice tests can improve student learning in both direct and indirect ways. When students correctly retrieve an answer from memory, the correct retrieval can have a direct effect on memory. When a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, that failure signals that the answer need to be re-studied; in this way, practice test can help students make better decisions about what need further practice and what does not.”
He then adds, “Most important is to make frequent use of testing and retrieval practice to verify what you really do know versus what you think you know.”
Mnemonics are memory techniques to make memorizing easier and more efficient. It’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss the techniques, but we’ll cover them in depth in future articles. In the meantime I encourage you to pick up a book on the subject; reading about Memory and mnemonics is fascinating and well worth your time. Here’s a link to a good book to start: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
For more recommendations of memory books see Referenced material under the title “memory.” I list there the books I’ve used to improve my memory and for my research on learning.
Talking about the book or teaching what you learned
This idea is similar to summarizing and making conceptual maps, but instead of writing you’ll be talking. Next time you are socializing talk about the book or the subject, try to explain to other people what you learned. You will find that is difficult the first time, but you will get better as you force yourself to do it. This type of recall will help you strengthen and organize the knowledge you got from the book.
Read in Clusters
Read more than one book on a subject. There are several benefits for doing this:
1. You’ll get a better understanding of the subject. Your mind will be thinking about it for longer and you’ll have more information to build your knowledge. Also, as you internalize the principles, you’ll start seeing deeper layers and nuances of what you are reading.
2. You’ll remember more. With better understanding also comes better encoding. It’s easier for us to remember what we understand deeply. We are also being exposed to the information for a longer time, and as ideas repeat themselves they become reinforced in our memory.
3. You’ll be exposed to different perspectives from several authors. Reading this way gives you better understanding of the subject because it makes the books complement of each other instead of being stand alone. Also, reading from different authors in a subject will help you avoid the “only source bias” where we think what we read is right even though we haven’t read other sources.
When I was younger I used to be hunted by all the things I didn’t know, I was obsessed about it. I would say that now I’m just as concerned -or maybe more- about what I think I know but might be wrong. I am concerned that I might be basing my life on information I never revised because I once accepted it as true without studying other perspectives.
If you are going to follow this strategy make sure to not let much time pass by between books, ideally read them back to back. The information should be fresh in your mind so you don’t waste time reviewing and relearning the material.
Reading in clusters will also improve your reading speed. Since you already have knowledge of what you are reading, you won’t have to spend time trying to understand it again. The Information will also start to overlap, you can then speed up on the parts you already know and focus on the information that is new and important which will give you the deeper understanding we are looking for.
Make knowledge personal
We learn faster and remember better when the knowledge is personal and actionable. Try to relate what you are learning to something you already know and visualize specific scenarios where you can apply the new knowledge. Think how it relates or benefits your life and when you can use it. If you are reading a book on body language, for example, think about how you could apply the ideas to your next presentation at work and how it would benefit you.
Taking action/Using the information
The best way to remember what you read is to use it or incorporate it into your life in some way. Besides being the best strategy to remember what you read, it’s also the ultimate goal of reading (non fiction that is). Using the information -which can also mean being able to talk about the subject or having a better understanding of it- is why you wanted to learn the ideas from the book in the first place.
Read, Read, Read.
The more you know the easier it is to learn more and remember what you learn. Why? Knowledge is not linear in our minds, it is a web, we make connections between subjects and memories. The more things you can connect new knowledge to the easier it is to understand and remember it.
We’ve covered many strategies to remember what you read. It might seem overwhelming so implement the ones you like the most, let them become second nature, and then work on another one. My goal is to show you different things you can do to remember what you read, but I don’t want to turn reading into a dreadful activity for you. Above all, I want you to read and learn more, so implement the strategies at your own pace.
We’ve come to the end of the series “How to read more and remember what you read.” Here’s an overview of what we’ve covered.
How to read more and remember what you read
Dedicating more Time
- Carry a book everywhere
- Read a pre-determined amount of pages everyday
- Read for a pre-determined amount of time everyday.
- Read, read, read
- Avoid distractions
- Don’t try multitasking
- Read, read, read
Increasing your reading speed
- Book type, writing style, and your familiarity with the subject affect your speed.
- Read in an environment that allows you to focus
- Learn and practice the basics of speed reading
- Skim when necessary
- Read, read, read
Remembering what you read
- Prime your mind to learn
- Underline and take notes
- Make summaries and conceptual maps
- Keep a commonplace book
- Practice testing
- Learn the basics of mnemonics
- Talk about the book or teach what you learned
- Read in clusters
- Make the knowledge personal
- Take action, use the information
- Read, read, read
This concludes the series “How to read more and remember what you read”. In the upcoming posts we will discuss Habits, learning strategies, and pitfalls to avoid when developing a skill. Don’t miss a post, sign up for the newsletter Here
Put your new reading skills to use, see here 5 Great books to improve your skills and achieve mastery