Here I share the most useful reading tips I’ve tried and tested over the years, including:
- General reading tips
- Tips on reading faster
- Tips on retaining more
- Tips on increasing reading volume
- Tips on reading critically
- Other tips and thoughts
Below is what we’ll cover:
1. General tips
# Re-write the narrative in your head that you’re a bad reader
Chances are there’s a voice in your head saying things like “I’m a slow reader. I quickly forget what I read. I get distracted easily.”
Discard this defeatist mindset.
Instead tell yourself something like “I’m a bit slow now, but once I put some conscious effort in I’ll improve in no time.”
# An hour a day is 50 books a year
When a goal seems dauntingly impossible, you’re unlikely to pursue it. But when a challenging goal seems achievable, you’re more likely to take the first baby steps.
For instance, “50 books a year” seems pretty difficult. But let me point out how attainable it really is.
- Can you make 30 minutes a day? That’s half a Netflix episode.
- If it’s about a topic you’re fascinated about, could read 10 pages in 30 minutes?
- 10 pages a day, that’s 70 pages a week.
- Say a typical book is 280 pages, that’s 1 book every 4 weeks.
- 52 weeks a year, that’s 13 books.
- So 30 minutes a day is 13 books a year.
- Not bad.
Now suppose we doubled the time spent reading to 1 hour a day.
- An hour a day has now become 26 books a year.
Your reading speed will organically improve as you read more. It’ll also get a significant boost after applying some speed reading tips from this post. You could easily double your reading speed.
- An hour a day now becomes 52 books a year.
- Round that down to 50 a year.
Yes book count goals can be somewhat illusive and easily labelled as a vanity metric. So while 50 a year might not be your goal, isn’t it empowering to know that you could if you wanted to?
# Start small to build up momentum
I’m often asked “How do you have the discipline to read? I get easily distracted and just don’t have the mental energy.”
My answer: I don’t really have the discipline or mental energy either.
Thing is, I’m not pushing myself to read with sheer willpower. I’ve just intentionally re-wired myself so that I can do it more effortlessly. It’s become a habit.
A habit I’ve gone out of my way to create, but a habit nonetheless.
So a more meaningful question is: “How does one start building this habit?“
Like all other habits, start small. Getting started is the hardest part.
By starting small you quickly accumulate small wins. “Nice. I read 10 pages today. That’s 10 pages more than I’ve read all year.” Pat yourself on the back.
Come tomorrow, “Yesterday I did 10 pages. Today I can do another 10. Tomorrow I know I can do 15.“
Within a few months (or even weeks), the momentum kicks in and the habit sticks.
Keep at it and you’ll get there. Consistently small leads to consistently big.
# Clarify your why
Everyone reads for different reasons. Be clear on yours.
“I read to be moved… to go to places I haven’t been… to glimpse worlds I otherwise couldn’t see, including the worlds deep within myself.” – How I Read and Why (vid), John Green
Mine started out as seeking more in-depth content about the world. Especially for more niche topics.
Now it’s my preferred medium for digesting information, as I can reach significantly superior data flow rates compared to videos, audiobooks etc.
2. Tips on reading faster
I’ve been told, “Don’t rush. Read at your own pace. Just enjoy.” Problem is, I didn’t enjoy reading as much when my reading speed was too slow. It felt like I was wasting my time.
Besides, life is short. There’s only so many books you can read over your lifetime.
There’s 2 aspects to reading speed: (i) increase raw speed, and (ii) being more selective.
2.1. Increase raw reading speed
# Put the pressure on
A conscious desire to speed up becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every now and then, measure how long it takes you to read a page. For instance: “8pm started at page 234. 9pm, now on page 300. That’s a bit over a page a minute. Let’s see if I can speed up and hit page 400 by 10pm.”
# Use a pen (or finger) as pacesetter
Our eyes are good at detecting movement. This a Darwinian survival legacy. If something moves it’s a potential threat. Leverage this to ‘pull’ your eyes across the page at an ambitious pace set by your pen/finger. This also stops you from accidentally going back to the same line again.
# Process words only with your eyes and suppress the voice in your head that reads out loud
Most of us learned to read in an industrial classroom environment: reading out loud from a book. This is why most people’s reading speeds closely matches the pace of an audio conversation. But our eyes can take in a lot more data than our ears. That mental voice in your head reading out loud is a bottleneck. A lower-bound constraint. “The speed of a navy is the speed of the slowest ship.”
So learn to suppress that voice and only read with your eyes.
This may seem difficult but chances are you’re already doing this for very short reading tasks. For example, when you see a “construction work ahead” sign while driving, you probably read it so fast that there’s no voice in your head at all. The message goes in your head at the same speed that your eyes take it in. Now try doing that as you read longer texts.
This is certainly the most difficult tip to implement – as it demands a wholesale un-learn and re-learn on a skill you’ve naturally required decades ago. But it’s also the most game-changing.
# Utilise your peripheral vision more
Use your peripheries to read the words on the left and right edges of the page. This way more of your eye movement is going down the page rather than left to right.
# Only read the few key words in each sentence
Skip the filler words. Focus on the key nouns and verbs. For example, in the paragraph below, I would only read the bolded words:
“Yet Westphalian principles are being challenged on all sides, some times in the name of world order itself. Europe has set out to depart from the state system it designed and to transcend it through a concept of pooled sovereignty. And ironically, though Europe invented the balance-of-power concept, it has consciously and severely limited the element of power in its new institutions.” – World Order, Henry Kissinger (2014)
# Adjust what you read based on your current mental capacity
Raw reading speed also depends on how much mental energy you have right now.
After a mentally demanding day at work, I prefer a lighter read. On a weekend afternoon or while on a holiday, I prefer more demanding reads.
And yes, I have zero hesitation with reading 5-10 books at a time.
2.2. Practice selective reading
The goal is not to read every word in a book as quickly as possible. The goal is to extract the key insights and interesting points as quickly as possible. Insights over data.
Many books (especially business books) have been intentionally puffed up to make it publishable. It could have just been a long article.
So be picky. Picky with what you choose to read. And picky with which parts of the book you read – which paragraphs, sentences, words in a sentence etc.
# Only read what you’re fascinated about
Can’t emphasize this enough. No one’s forcing you to read.
If there’s a topic you’re only peripherally interested in but not dying to learn more about, then just watch YouTube videos on it. Don’t bother with the book.
Bill Gates says he’s extremely picky with what he reads because he commits to finishing every book he starts.
# Get comfortable with discontinuing the book, or putting it on hold for later
But unlike Bill, there’s many books I start but don’t finish. And I’m perfectly comfortable with doing this.
What you’re fascinated changes over time. Right book at the right time. So if you lose focus, just put it down and save it for another day. Try reading something else. You shouldn’t bother trying to fool yourself.
In most cases, I still want to read it, but I’ll probably end up going back to it in a few weeks or even months. Some books I’ve had on hold for over a year.
In other cases, I’ll just discontinue the book. If I’m convinced it’s a book is shit about 30 pages in, sorry, but I have better things to do than finish the shit book for the sake of completion.
Diligently respect opportunity cost.
# Get comfortable with skipping entire sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters
If something is poorly written, repetitive, irrelevant, or worst, boring, then skip it. Discard the instinct that every paragraph is a pre-requisite for understanding the next. And even if it was, you can always go back. Otherwise you’ll lose momentum. Again, respect opportunity cost.
Another reason why reading speed increases as you read more: you probably know more, meaning you can skip more. Compounding effects.
Many books spend considerable time explaining things that you already know: historical events, technical concepts, key ideas from other books etc. Occasional revision is helpful, but if it’s 2 whole pages on something familiar, don’t waste your time.
Also, as you read more you get a sharpened sense of what’s important and what’s not. But one needs to be cautious to avoid self-reinforcing echo chambers and confirmation bias here. More on critical reading later.
3. Tips on retaining more
How fast you read has little use if you forget everything. The goal is not to merely extract and digest insights. The goal is to retain and apply them in life and work. There’s 2 aspects to reading retention: (i) how you read, and (ii) what you do after you read.
3.1. Active reading vs passive reading
# Understand the different levels of reading
- Elementary: Anyone that knows the alphabet can technically read anything, only they wouldn’t know what the words mean
- Inspectional: This includes systematically skimming the text (just looking at the table of contents – this is what Tai Lopez does when he claims he reads a book a day lol). And it could also be superficial reading (just reading something without thinking about it, looking up things you don’t know – this was 10 year old me reading Harry Potter).
- Analytical: More active reading where you classify the book into a topic, state what the whole book is about, enumerate its major parts, define the problems the author is trying to solve.
- Syntopical: Reading multiple books on the same subject, comparing and contrasting them, and then gaining a deeper fluency in that subject
# Underline and write notes on side
This is why I love physical books. I can write in them much easier/faster than on tablet/e-book reader etc.
My system is this:
- Underline key points and/or interesting points
- Tick marks next to the more interesting points – anything that gave me an ‘aha’ moment.
- Fold corners of pages that has any ticks so it’s easy go to them later
- Cross marks next to points I disagree with, statistical flaws (these are surprisingly common), or don’t like.
- Notes and little diagrams on sides of pages
- Notes with an asterisk for points not directly related to what’s in book, but of what I was reminded of while reading
- Squiggly lines under words I don’t know but feel like I should
I prefer to underline than highlight as I’m lazy to carry both a pen and a highlighter around. Pen can do it all. And I always use a non-black pen so it’s more visible. (Also, invest in a good pen that doesn’t flood through the page, and one that you can write easily without needing a flat surface e.g. while reading on train).
# But don’t over-underline
If everything is important nothing is. I’m guilty of this and continuing work on it.
# Attach the knowledge somewhere
When I come across something interesting I immediately store it in a mental ‘knowledge tree’. Give that insight something to cling onto. Put it into a category, sub-category, and sub-sub-category etc. Something to associate it with. Otherwise it floats around on its own and gets lost.
I use these Level 1 categories:
- Human: how people think, act, interact, and mastering the art of living a good life
- Business: how to lead and manage to create and capture value
- World: how the world worked, works, and will most likely work
It’s important to recognize that a book often fits into multiple categories and sub-categories. There’s lessons about politics from science books, lessons about economics from geography books etc.
So more recently, this ‘knowledge tree’ is now starting to look more like a web or a network as so many topics are interconnected and interdependent. More on interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.
3.2. Invest time into post-reading activities
# Understand the retention curve
First, it’s important to know a little bit about how memory works. Without getting into the neuroscientific details, there’s the retention curve, aka. forgetting curve.
Basically, revision helps boost your memory, and after every subsequent revision it takes an even longer time for that memory to decay.
# Quality sleep is essential for memory
There’s obvious physiological factors that help with memory: eat healthy, manage stress, exercise etc. But above all, it’s how you sleep that probably has the most material impact. Much of your brain’s memory mechanisms operate while you sleep.
There’s different sleep stages and each serve different functions. Awake: reception (take in data). NREM: reflection (store and strengthen data). This is key for memory. REM: integration (refine models of reality based on data). Brain is actually 30% more active in REM than when awake.
If you get just 5 hours sleep instead of 8 hours, you don’t simply lose 38% (3/8) of your sleep, you actually miss out on ~60% of the total REM sleep!
In short, if you want to remember more of what you read, make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep.
# Re-read your highlighted sections and side notes
It’s a good investment. If you spent 5 hours reading something, why not spend another 30 minutes re-reading just the underlined parts? And boost retention
# Listen to the author’s talk
Most books come with a TED talk, or Google Talk, or some talk at a university. For the heavier, longer reads, I like listening to these either before/after (or sometimes both) reading. The author distills only the most important parts of the book. If watching after reading, it’s a good check if you’ve missed anything important. If watching before reading, you have a better idea of which parts of the book are central to the main points, and which parts are more ancillary.
# Write a paper summary of the book
Either while reading it, or when you’re finished. Ideally not too long after you’re finished – slow down the forgetting curve. This could be inside the book cover or just on a separate piece of paper. Depends on how insight-rich the book was.
Write, not type. I’ve found it helps with retention.
# Write notes in Pyramid Principle format
If a book really makes an impression on me, packed with countless insights, then I’d go as far as typing up a summary of it. Not a book summary like the ones you find online, but in a format that’s written just for you. More like study notes. For example, below is my ‘summary’ of Scale by Geoffrey West.
Don’t always summarise the book by chapter. Do it by key ideas. Usually this is by chapter, but not always.
Most books are written deductively. But memory retrieval works better inductively.
# Embrace spiral learning
The ‘revision events’ in the retention curve doesn’t always have to be re-reading or looking back at notes/summaries. It can be consuming other related material too.
I like to think of each book as a jigsaw piece in a larger puzzle. The point of reading is to triangulate across different sources, apply critical filters, think for yourself and construct your own models of reality.
# The best way to retain is to share and discuss with others
The best way to learn is to teach. You want to be surrounded by people that call you out on your bullshit. By sharing and discussing, friends can point out any misinterpretations you may have made, giving you a chance to reflect, etc. The key is to identify the right friends that have similar interests though.
4. Tips on reading more
How fast you read and how much you retain has little use if you don’t have the time to read. Instead of adding things that make it easier to read, focus on remove things that make it harder to read.
For me it was: my phone, not having enough physical space, noise pollution, and not having enough uninterrupted quality time.
# Read in blocks of 30 minutes or more
It takes some time to warm up / build momentum. Most of my productive reading occurs in uninterrupted 1 hour blocks in the evening.
# Stay away from your phone while reading
Leave it face down or somewhere out of reach.
# Optimize where you’re reading
I get sleepy if I read in bed or on the couch. So I usually read sitting at my desk, or at a park. Figure out what works best for you.
# Be specific with when, where, what
- “I’ll read this afternoon” – meh
- “I’ll read this specific book this afternoon” – ok
- “I’ll read this specific book from 3pm to 4pm” – good
- “I’ll read this specific book from 3pm to 4pm at the park” – better
# Make financial commitments
You’re more likely to exercise if you’ve already paid for gym membership, and have your gym gear packed in a bag ready to go. Similarly, you’re more likely to read if you’ve already bought a bunch of books, and have them sitting in a bookshelf in clear sight.
If there’s certain books you’ve been wanting to read for a while. Just go ahead and buy them. Make a financial commitment. You might not read them straight away. But you’re more likely to read them sooner than if you don’t have them lying around.
When it comes to spending money on reading, I think of it this way. How much would you pay someone to dedicate their life to studying something, then writing down only the most important and interesting things into a few hundred pages?
Compare this to the amount you spend on dining out, on drinks or clothes. A plain t-shirt costs the same as access to someone’s life work.
# 2 birds, 1 stone
Read while waiting for that friend that’s always late. Read on the train. Audible walks. Audible drives.
5. Tips on reading critically
What you read inevitably refreshes your models of reality. So it’s so important to be conscious of how we consume.
“We must always seek truth in our opponent’s error and the error in our own truth” – Reinhold Niebhur
# Never absorb any book without a healthy dose of skepticism
Be skeptical of blind naivety while remaining open-minded. Also be skeptical of being too skeptical.
# Take note on how the facts are presented
Especially with charts. Are the aggregates meaningful without breaking it into segments? Smell any cherry-picking? Are comparisons apples-to-apples? Statistically significant sample size? Real or nominal dollars? Any logical fallacies? Which links in the chain of deductive reasoning is weakest? Any biases? (confirmation bias is very common for authors) Are any of the inductive arguments too far of a stretch?
# Distinguish fact from opinion
Opinions are still useful. Just be cautious when using them to extend the ‘knowledge tree’.
# Pay attention to the metadata
What year was it published? What was happening there and then at the time? What’s the author’s background? Qualifications? What context did they grow up in to shape their model of reality? What are they doing now? What messages are in their best interests? What are their incentives to write this book? What biases are they likely to have?
# Second-order derivations (Common Knowledge Game)
With some books, I read it not for its factual merit, but to understand what it’s claiming – especially the canonical philosophy, psychology, and economics texts.
“While much of what was believed then is now disproven after 700 more years of progress, it’s still very interesting to see what was understood at this time and the overall world view when it’s all considered together,” Mark Zuckerberg, referring to a book written in 1377 about Islam.
Oftentimes for classical books, I’m more interested in how society at that time responded to the book, rather than the contents of that book itself. I tend to be more interested in the dynamic reception and development of ideas over time than the ideas themselves.
In similar fashion, a friend told me he’s reading Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Not because he wants to learn from Trump out of admiration, but he wants to learn about Trump out of curiosity. How does Donald Trump think? What’s going on in his mind? Not necessarily out of respect for Trump, but out of acknowledgement that his words have an enormous influence in markets. Using a book to deriving a second-order truth.
6. Other tips and thoughts
# Physical vs e-books vs audio-books
- Pros: fastest format to read, most convenient for underlining/taking notes, fastest for scanning chapters, fastest for going back and forth
- Cons: heavy, bulky (need bookshelves), not text-searchable, takes time to arrive (if ordering online)
E-books / Kindle
- Pros: best for searching text and notes, instant download, cheapest, light (great for travelling), good for reading in bed (don’t need lamp)
- Cons: slow to take notes, bad for diagrams, slow to turn pages/go back and forth/preview what’s ahead etc
Audio-books / Audible
- Pros: phone is always with you, can multi-task while walking/driving/cooking etc, instant download
- Cons: slowest reading speed, many titles not available as audio-books (esp. more niche books), impossible to quickly scan/preview what’s ahead, can’t see any diagrams/charts
Some read books on their phone / tablet / computer. I struggle with this.
# Another reason why I prefer physical books
It’s to do with the topics I tend to enjoy read. Many non-fiction books contain lots of diagrams and charts etc.
Also, the topics I read about overlap quite often. So it’s important that I can skip entire paragraphs/chapters while knowing exactly what I have skipped, and knowing where to skip to. It’s difficult to do with audio-books.
# When I prefer to listen to audiobooks
Having said that, for some books I actually prefer to listen to it. Books that contain lots of stories. Business stories. Biographies. With these kind of books I rarely skip anyway.
Even better if it’s narrated by the author as they know best on which points deserve more emphasis etc. And listening to their changing tone, pace etc makes the story more interesting.
# Book summary services
I’ve tried Blinkist and a few others though I can’t remember because they weren’t very effective. I don’t recommend them personally.
I know that’s quite a lot to take in. So, again, start small.
No need to implement all of these at once. Maybe just a couple at a time.
And above all, remember you’re reading because you want to, not because you feel you should be doing it.
Thanks for reading about my reading. Until next year!
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