I recently wrote about the importance of reading books (‘I cannot live without books’). In this follow-up post, I discuss how to make book reading a daily habit and how to get the most out of what you read.
Most of us spend a lot of time reading (especially for work or on social media), but few of us read critically. Our comprehension isn’t particularly deep. We don’t question or examine very carefully what we’ve read. We absorb bits and pieces of text as quickly as possible and then move on.
There’s so much information to process that we’ve gotten into the habit of skimming everything. Posts, tweets, emails, web content—it all runs together, and soon we’re overwhelmed.
That’s the beauty of reading a book. You put your smartphone away. You turn off the TV. You remove all distractions. You pick up a book and focus on just the book. So that is step one: Learn to focus.
Start by setting aside a time each day to read without interruption. I like to read with my first cup of coffee in the morning. Other people read during lunch or during their daily commute. Bill Gates reportedly reads for an hour each night before going to bed.
Sam Thomas Davies, the author of Unhooked: How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones That Stick, describes how he reads a book a week by turning reading into a habit. “Instead of only reading when you’re ‘in the mood’ (which is unpredictable), habitualise when you do it. Identify a constant trigger for when to read (like an existing habit) and commit to it.”
Davies schedules 30 minutes of reading each morning after his wife leaves for work. Joan Fallon, CEO of Curemark, says in a Fast Company article by Stephanie Vozza that she reads during her downtime while traveling. “If those gaps are long, I can read a book,” she says. “If they are shorter, I read an article.”
Davies suggests reading about 10 percent of a book each day, and he notes that you don’t have to read the entire book. (More on that in a moment.) Unless it’s a thick tome, your goal should be to finish a book in seven to 10 days.
It also helps to pick books that you’re interested in reading. While books on your profession or industry are always good to have on your reading list, you should also read books that feed your imagination and broaden your perspective. Learning new things and expanding your horizon will cement your habit of reading and spur you to read more.
Keep a running list of books you’d like to read. You can get recommendations from friends or from the articles and blogs you read. One of my favorite activities is browsing the shelves at the library or a bookstore. I always see something interesting. Have a couple of new books on your nightstand so that when you finish one, you’ve got a new one ready to go.
How to read
How you read is important, too. Many of us were told growing up that we should never write in a book. As consequence, we’re fairly passive readers. We’re not used to underlining or taking notes. We need to teach ourselves to be active and critical readers.
So before you plunge into your next book, ask yourself a few questions: Why am I reading this book? What do I hope to gain from it? How will it help my career, business or personal life? When you start a book, have a goal in mind. Then, as you read, make sure you are getting what you intended out of the book.
Skim through a book’s table of contents and chapter headings when you first pick it up. Read the preface or introduction before you decide to buy it. It’s there that you learn the author’s intentions, discover any biases and get a sense of the writing style. You can often tell based on those first pages if the book is a good choice or not.
Before you begin a nonfiction work, spend some time considering the way the author organizes his material, read the chapter summaries (if provided), study the table of contents to get a sense of structure. Then jot down the sections you care about the most. These are the chapters where you will want to spend the most time and take notes.
There are a number of guides to reading, and many universities offer primers for students new to the rigors of academic life. Often they suggest that you divide your reading into three parts: skimming, scanning and detailed reading.
- Skimming is a quick read of the text once you’ve done your initial survey. Read as quickly and efficiently as possible. Don’t worry about details or taking notes. Your goal is get a general sense of the text.
- Scanning is a closer reading of a few pages or sections. These might be chapters you’ve selected because they address specific concerns or questions you have. Try not to scan more than 20 percent of the book.
- Reading for detail is the last step. This is where you read the text in a methodical and close manner. Taking notes is important at this stage, although I admit I don’t always do it. If you use some type of e-reader, take advantage of the tools provided—highlighting and annotating the text as you go. If you’ve purchased a book, don’t be afraid to underline or write notes in the margin. Or use a notebook or computer to take notes. (To learn more, download this pdf on “Effective Reading” from the University of Kent.)
Historian Joseph Ellis writes in American Sphinx that Thomas Jefferson was an inveterate note-taker. Jefferson would copy passages that he felt were important, but not word for word. Instead, he blended his own thoughts and observations into the selections he copied. You can easily do the same. Only when you write the key concepts in your own words will you begin to understand and absorb what you’ve read.
As you take notes, consider the author’s arguments and interpretations. Are they well-developed? Does he present evidence to support his points? Do you agree with what he says? What’s missing? What other sources are needed to better understand the subject?
Whenever I’m reading, I keep a dictionary handy to look up words, and I use the Internet to check sources or look up references I’m not familiar with.
One of the myths about book reading is that you have to read every word, from beginning to end. Actually, it’s okay to jump around or skip chapters that aren’t relevant to your purpose. Remember, it’s your reading program. You get to decide what you read and what you don’t.
Sir Francis Bacon wisely said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”