A compelling strategy to read more, more comprehensively, and in less time

One down…
One down…
Image: Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski
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The desire to read more books is a noble, and widespread, aspiration. But who has the time?

Peter Bregman does. The author and leadership coach developed a strategy to read 10 times more books than he used to, with each taking a quarter of the time as before.

If it sounds dubious, consider this: the books he reads are written by authors he interviews on his podcast, so he can’t really fake his way through the interviews, pretending to grasp the material. “I have read lots of books cover to cover, but the books I read this way I get more out of, I remember more clearly,” he tells Quartz.

He developed his strategy, which he applies only to nonfiction books, with the help from the late Michael Jimenez, a professor of Latin American history. It’s pretty simple: you don’t have to read the whole book. But you need to actively read some of it, taking notes along the way on key points, and potential questions.

Here’s how it works:

1) Start with the author

Get some context: who is writing the book and why?

2) Read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents

What’s the big-picture argument of the book? What’s the flow?


Read the introduction and the conclusion

This is a classic skimming strategy. But as it happens, authors generally provide an argument and a roadmap in the intro, and a summation in the end. So it’s a good strategy.

4) Read/skim each chapter

Bregman writes:

Read the title and anywhere from the first few paragraphs to the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using this chapter and where it fits into the argument of the book. Then skim through the headings and subheadings (if there are any) to get a feel for the flow. Read the first sentence of each paragraph and the last.

5) End with the table of contents again

How did it all fit together? What was the flow? Did it work? Did the author make his/her case?

Many of us read in bite-sized chunks, a few minutes before bed, between stops on the subway while other commuters are fighting for space under your armpits, or while the kids are taking a bath and trying to drown each other.

That strategy—call it “life”—has two problems: it takes ages to finish a book, and it is hard to retain much of it. By reading in one-to-two hour slots, but actively reading—taking notes, thinking about the book, and looking at the architecture of the argument—you can actually retain it, Bregman argues.

“It surprises me a little that reading a book, not thoroughly, in one to two hours, makes it easier to apply and retain than reading it in eight hours,” he says. The upside to not reading every detail is seeing the big picture, which is mostly why we read nonfiction (versus fiction, which is very much about all of the words).

There is a downside: this sort of reading is not relaxing. “You can’t zone out,” Bregman says. For that, he reads his kids fantasy books. And would he put books he’s written—which are, not surprisingly, about how to use time more effectively—to the one-to-two hour test?

“If you want main points, and get a flavor, you could read it this way,” he admits, but “I hope I make them so fun to read that people—even as they try to skim—they get drawn in to the examples.”