How to read more effectively

Read more, retain more.
Read more, retain more.
Image: Gosia Herba
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Whether you’re dissecting Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations or relaxing poolside with 50 Shades of Grey, reading is, for many of us, a regular source of joy, perspective, and ideas, which enable us to grow personally and professionally. But here’s the catch: We live in a world of never ending content and constant competition for our attention. One study, back in 2009, found that we’re exposed to 100,000 words each day, the equivalent of one quarter of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And that was before most of us started using our phones for reading texts, emails, or articles instead of just for talking.

If you’re spending up to two hours a day on social media, as the average American now does, then you know that technology plays the role of both obstacle and ally in our quest to read more. In this guide, we explore how to use technology (along with several analog strategies) to your advantage, to pick what you read, and to incorporate the ideas you read about into your life.

Set up yourself up to succeed

If you assume a reading speed of 350 words per minute, it would require just 20 minutes of reading per day to read roughly a book each week. So reading doesn’t have to require a lot of time.

But reading effectively requires a good setup, or as chefs would call it the mise-en-place. Here’s where the technology surrounding us can be used to our advantage. Start by putting your old iPads, iPhones, and Kindles to work. Download the Kindle app on each of them and scatter these old devices around your home. Turn on the wi-fi, and you’ll never be more than a few feet from your most recently synched page. If your budget allows it, extend that approach by going “multi-medium.” For example, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris buys both physical and Kindle copies of whatever he’s reading. Melting Asphalt blogger Kevin Simler prefers the Audiobook-and-Kindle combo, and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant flat out buys multiple physical copies just to “have them lying around the house.” Now there’s no excuse.

Further Reading

In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books

Triage and curation are important

Now that we’re set up, the next question is figuring out what to read. This isn’t an easy question to answer—the publishing industry puts out more than 50,000 new books a year, plus there’s all the great writing that the world’s bookshelves have accumulated since the first works of literature were written more than 4,000 years ago. RibbonFarm blogger Venkatesh Rao believes that deciding what not to read is critical since “every book you consciously decide not to read increases what you’ll get out of the ones you do read.

Patrick O’Shaughnessy, host of the Invest Like the Best podcast host, focuses on books with unique ideas, using Joseph Campbell’s rule of thumb that “the fewer citations, the better the book.” O’Shaughnessy looks for books that use “proprietary data” which to him might include anecdotal information about experiences or conversations, or actual data that isn’t publicly accessible.

Personally, I use a simpler approach that taps into the diversity of ideas in my network. If a book is recommended to me by three friends from three distinct professional circles, I move it up to the front of the queue. It’s a nice, if unscientific, reminder that the universe is conspiring for me to read that book.

Further Reading

Patrick O'Shaughnessy: How I Choose my Books (Tweetstorm)

Find the right reading strategy

Are books more than just a collection of words that are meant to be read sequentially? The philosopher Mortimer Adler, author of the 1940s classic How to Read a Book, argues that your reading approach should depend on your end goals.

Adler identifies a simple difference between reading for information versus for understanding. The former typically consists of short articles that can increase “our store of information” but cannot  “improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started.” Reading for understanding, on the other hand, consists of a “communication amongst unequals” since the author knows more about the subject matter than the reader.

In the pursuit of reading for understanding, Adler lays out four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and synoptical. For business reading, the most common approaches are likely the middle two. Inspectional reading is comprised of “systematically skimming” with the objective of getting “the most out of a book” given a time constraint. Analytical reading has the objective of classifying the ideas and understanding the structure of its arguments such that one can accept or reject the book’s key ideas. Both are worth trying when you’re reading for work.

Further Reading

How to Read a Book: The Classical Guide to Intelligent Reading

Remembering what you read

Up until now, we’ve focused on the act of reading, but how can we remember what we’ve read? Farnam Street blogger Shane Parrish reads over 150 books a year.His note-taking approach centers on drawing connections among disparate ideas. As he’s reading, Parrish marks out thoughts, questions, and “most importantly connections to other ideas” in the margins. (Note, he strongly prefers physical books.) Once he reaches the end of a chapter, “without looking back” he writes down the main points and arguments, specifically noting topics that can be applied somewhere else. He then applies the Feynman Technique, explaining the core ideas back to himself, only referencing back to the book to fill in blind spots. And finally, to really tease out what’s most important, he puts the book down for a week and then re-reads all those notes and highlights to see what ultimately sticks.

Listen to Bill Gates describe his note-taking approach, his preference for paper books over ebooks, and why he won’t pick up Infinite Jest.

Further Reading

A system for remembering what you read

Understand the psychology behind reading

Believe it or not, there’s a lot more than reading going on in our minds as we read. For instance, have you ever struggled to get through a mediocre book, but forced yourself to finish it? This could be the sunk-cost fallacy cognitive bias in action. (This is the same effect that prevents us from selling a stock until it returns to the level at which we bought it.) O’Shaughnessy describes it succinctly: “I stop a good chunk of books between 5-100 pages in. Never keep going if a book sucks. Most books are bad.”

Another cognitive bias is herding and Ravikant cautions against falling for it, i.e. reading for social approval. “If you want social approval, definitely go read what the herd is reading. It takes a level of contrarianism in saying, ‘Nope. I’m just going to do my own thing.’”

In my own professional circle, business reading often involves sticking exclusively to non-fiction. You’ll notice this tendency in Bill Gates’ annual reading list. Of the 15 books he’s recommended over the last three years, only one was fiction (The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal). But reading fiction is known to develop empathy and release stress. And then there’s science fiction, a favorite genre of many entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Reid Hoffman (collectively, the Paypal Mafia). Novelist and strategist Eliot Peper writes that science-fiction books like Snow Crash, Foundation, and Dune “reframe our perspective of the world” and “create the space to challenge our assumptions.”

Further Reading

The surprising power of reading fiction

So grab those old iPads and start writing in those margins. The 1,300 words in this article represent 0.005% of War and Peace, so it’s time to get started!

Find more Quartz At Work guides here.