Reading Time: 18 minutes
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, guide me through difficult paths, 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 skills. 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. 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 in creative ways.
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, visit Ryan Holiday’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Ryan is a voracious reader, and once a month he sends out great book recommendations.
PART I: READING 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. I hear often, “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 take it from all the useless activities you do every day.
Concentration is how focused you are while reading. Having poor concentration makes us read slower and forget what we read. Can you remember a time 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, 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 it.
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 mechanically. Implement only the ideas that you like from the strategies we’ll discuss. Later on, you can go back and add more.
Remember: You are trying to read more. Find what’s sustainable for you instead of what will help you read a lot for a short while but make you quit after because it feels like work.
Let’s looks at some strategies for each part -Time, Concentration, and Speed-
Carry a book everywhere. This is the simplest way to get more reading done. Take a book -or reading device- everywhere you go and read every time you have a chance. Read when waiting for an appointment, a meal, a flight, a train, etc. Whenever you feel the urge to get your phone out grab your book instead.
Read a pre-determined number of pages a day. 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 before going to bed, and read any set number of pages. The point is to be consistent and to treat reading as a priority instead of dedicating it the time you have left -which is usually none-
Read for a pre-determined amount of time every day. Similar to the strategy above is to dedicate a specific amount of time to read every day. You’ll start realizing that reading more is not challenging. It’s common 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 even just half an hour every day you will get a lot of reading done in a year.
For either “Pages per day” or “Time per day” the most important thing is being consistent. Read every day. Doesn’t matter if you read 5 pages or read for 15 min as long as you do it every day. You can start small and increase from there. That’s how you build a reading habit-or any habit for that matter-. First create the habit then build the intensity.
Read, read, read. The more you read the easier it is to dedicate time for reading. You’ll start enjoying reading. 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 possible, turn off your phone and avoid other distraction. Keep whatever you need (i.e water) nearby so you don’t have to stand up or close the book often. You want your reading time to be uninterrupted.
Don’t multitask. 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 reading 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 your concentration will improve naturally. It won’t take you as long to get immersed in your reading or regain concentration after being distracted.
This component needs special attention. We’ll spend some time looking deeper into it.
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.
What affects reading Speed?
Concentration. We already talked about some techniques to improve concentration. Here, I’ll mention it again because it also affects reading speed. The more you avoid distractions and multitasking the faster you will read.
Writing style. Some books are just hard to read. 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, but the point to make is that some books are more complex and slower to read than others.
Familiarity with the subject. Related to the type of books is your familiarity with the subject. If you have already read five books on a subject, the sixth one will be faster to read. You will be familiar with the principles, terms, and theory of what you are reading, so it will make information easier to understand. On the other hand, if you are reading a subject you know nothing about, it will take more time to internalize the ideas and your reading speed will be slower.
Technique. Reading is a skill. And like any skill, It takes good technique to do it right. If you want to increase your reading speed you will have to improve the way you read. Let’s take a look at some ways to improve your technique.
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.
Speed reading. 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 (where your eyes stop to get the input), reading more words per fixation, reducing the time of each fixation, and eliminating subvocalization (hearing the words in your mind as you read).
How fast is speed reading? Speed reading ranges from a few hundred 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 with practitioners claiming speeds of 40.000 words per minute and higher. All you need to know about this reading courses and techniques is to stay away from them. They are scams.
How to 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) ByTim 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 to 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, as with most skills, practicing became more demanding and results slowed down. So I stopped when I felt comfortable with my technique and my speed. 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 for example, and wanting to become a professional sprinter. It’s important to know what you want with speed reading. Don’t get lost in it and spend hours learning to read faster when you should be spending them reading more.
Remember: Above all, 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 you 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. Once you feel good about your speed, practice only every few days to maintain the skill.
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? It was the same. You couldn’t enjoy riding the bike or go anywhere because you kept losing balance, falling, and not going anywhere.
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. In the beginning, you will be too conscious of the way you move your eyes and how fast you are going, which will take away from the book itself. It takes practice to make the techniques subconscious so you are able to focus entirely on what you are reading.
2. They practiced on books they were interested in. Until you get used to the techniques, you should practice speed reading on books you don’t care about. Why? Because the goal for now is to develop your reading speed, not to read the book. Imagine someone trying to learn speed typing while writing a novel. They would complain that the novel is not 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 to 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.
Skimming. 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 or 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. Understand: Skimming is a tool for reading not a way of reading.
There are only four instances where I would recommend skimming a book.
1. The book sucks. I give books a good chance of gaining my interest. 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, especially 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 it. This will spark your curiosity and attention. It will also give you a general structure of what’s ahead. These conditions -curiosity, attention, and structure- helps us understand and memorize what we read.
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 better and read 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 you will come across repeated ideas. You can skim these sections. 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 speedread 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 II: REMEMBERING WHAT YOU READ
Priming your mind to learn. This first strategy is about getting your mind in a state where it’s easier to 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’ll 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. After that, read the summary of the second chapter followed by the chapter, and so on.
- Skim the chapters to get an idea of what you’ll learn.
What we are trying to do is asking questions and getting curious about the subject. Our minds don’t like unsolved problems or unanswered questions (especially when we find them interesting). It’s our nature to try to fill that knowledge gap, so this curious and inquisitive state is ideal for learning and creativity. It focuses our attention and prepares us to reflect on what we’ll read.
Underlining and taking notes. I used to not 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 internalize the information.
Underlining or highlighting. The concept is simple, underline or highlight the main ideas and any information you 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 -especially 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.
Taking Notes. There are different kinds of notes. Sometimes you transcribe or summarize what you 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. Observations, on the other hand, help you connect with ideas and knowledge you already have.
For general knowledge, the notes we write on the margin of a book 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 to as a commonplace book. (More on the commonplace book below)
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-. it is important that you do it not just to help you memorize, but also to elaborate more on what you read. Writing makes you slow down and organize your ideas in a coherent way. This promotes further thinking and connection between ideas.
Another benefit of underlining and making notes is that you can go back to a book and only read those. 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 concept maps. Making summaries leads to a better understating of the subject. It makes you think about what you are reading. It also forces you to condense the information. As an added benefit, 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 main ideas. All this thinking and ruminating on the information helps solidify it in your memory.It’s important to mention that 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 effective 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”. This is 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. This is done either in the form of explaining the subject in your own words or answering questions about it.
Commonplace Book. 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 why and how to keep a commonplace book.
Practice Testing. 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 you can go through your questions trying to answer them by memory. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the answer, It’s 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 rote learning (repetition). The effort we put into trying to recall the right answers during practice testing makes a big impact in strengthening our memories.
John Dunlosky explained it best in his 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 needs to be re-studied; in this way, practice testing can help students make better decisions about what needs 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. 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
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 to doing this:
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.
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 get reinforced in our memory.
You’ll be exposed to different perspectives from several authors. Reading this way gives you a better understanding of the subject. It makes the books complement each other instead of being “stand alone”. Also, reading from different authors in a subject will help you avoid the “only source bias”. This is when we believe that 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 only on the information that is new and important.
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 about how it relates or can benefit your life. If you are reading a book on body language, for example, think about how you can apply the ideas to your next presentation at work, and how this 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. Besides being the best strategy to remember what you read, it’s also the ultimate goal of reading (nonfiction 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.
Here’s an overview of everything 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 every day
- Read for a pre-determined amount of time every day.
- 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
In the upcoming articles we’ll be discussing Goals, Mastery, Learning strategies, and more. Don’t miss a post, sign up below to get my newest articles in your inbox.