How to Make Your Reading More Productive

A reader of the Praxis blog recently asked me “Derek, you seem to read a lot. How do you do it more productively?”
This struck me as an odd question at first until I remembered that school has a way of reading into a tedious process of checking off academic boxes instead of the selfish and exciting cultivation of self mastery it should be. People graduate with the ability to read, but not the knowledge of how to do it.
“You see, but you do not observe,” to borrow a phrase from Sherlock Holmes.
In the interest of helping you become a better reader, here are the things I’ve done:

1. Get out of your schooled mindset

There’s a great quote from Seneca that goes:

We haven’t time to spare to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm or somewhere outside the world we know–when every day we’re running into our own storms, spiritual storms, and driven by vice into all the troubles that Ulysses ever knew.

In other words, dropping the schooled approach to reading means reading to pass your own tests, not somebody else’s. The goal is not to accumulate random facts that you think will win approval from others, but to build a body of knowledge that serves your specific ends. Nothing more, nothing less. When a particular book stops serving your ends, stop serving that book and move on to something better.

2. Turn your reading into something creative

Don’t be content with reading a book and giving yourself a pat on the back. Knowledge without action is like having a car you never drive. It wears breaks down without constant stress testing.
Document your reading notes, share lists of your reading, write Quora answers on the topics you’re reading about, and otherwise turn the new knowledge you have into something actionable.
You’ll learn the material far better if you hold yourself accountable to talking about it and teaching others. You’ll also build a documented record of your learning that will unlock new opportunities.

3. Just 25 pages a day

Most people fall off their roading goals because they are too ambitious. They adopt a “read 100 pages one day then forget to read for a few weeks” approach. The approach to reading I’ve tried to adopt for myself is to commit to reading 25 pages a day. If I hit that, I can stop. If I want to go over it, I can do that too. You can get through a ton of material doing this. From the Farnham Street blog:

The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.
That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

As we’ve written before,

…small acts of deliberate work yield far better results than waiting for big wins.
Think of yourself like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Living the same day over and over is tragically underrated.

You don’t need me to close by writing about the value of reading good books. You get it. Go get started.