This post covers:
- General reading tips
- Tips on reading faster
- Tips on retaining more
- Tips on reading more
- Tips on reading critically
- Other tips and thoughts
Below is a summary, but it probably won’t make much sense until you read the full explanations covered in this post.
But first let me tell you where I’m coming from.
You know what’s always perplexed me?
That in so many parts of the world, people think that native English speakers make for the most qualified English teachers.
Parents in Vietnam prefer to send their kids to an English center staffed by a 19-year old Aussie backpacker with no teaching experience, over a Vietnamese that’s returned from their studies in Australia.
But many native speakers haven’t been through the process of learning English as a second language. Therefore, many things that are so easy and trivial to them, such as grammar, can actually be very confusing for students.
Sometimes, the best teachers are the ones that have started at zero. Those that have been through the entire journey themselves.
But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I hated reading. Maybe I hated it because I was slow. Or maybe I was slow because I hated it.
“I’m not a good reader. Reading is just not for me.” This was the narrative I lived by for most of my years.
Then one day, I gave reading a second chance. Mostly because the topics I was interested in only seemed to be covered in-depth in books rather than videos or podcasts.
At first, the pace was excruciatingly slow. But it didn’t matter. I was reading for pleasure. Somehow, I brute-forced my way through one book. Then another. And another. Miraculously, I ended up reading more books in 2018 than the total I had my entire life.
I now enjoy reading so much, and wish for more of my friends to experience the same.
Along the way, and having started at zero, I’ve picked up a number of reading tips.
Some came organically as a byproduct of just reading more.
Others came inorganically as I proactively researched and tried out various techniques.
This post summarizes those that worked for me.
1. General tips
Most are fixated on how to read faster.
But it’s these more general tips below that have most lifted my reading game.
# Re-write the narrative in your head that you’re a bad reader
Slow? Forgetful? Easily distracted?
Well, I respect your self-awareness and humility. But it doesn’t have to stay this way. Discard this defeatist mindset.
What worked for me was giving myself a mini pep talk:
“I’ve actually never really tried that hard to read. Plus, I was slow because I was reading things I wasn’t interested in. If I read what I like and put in a little more effort, I’m sure I won’t be that bad. After all, with most things I put my mind to, I end up getting there in the end. Let’s give it a go.”
# An hour a day is 50 books a year
Yes book count goals are somewhat illusive. But for argument’s sake let’s say that reading 50 books a year is a worthwhile goal.
Now, 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 steps.
So let me point out how attainable 50 books a year really is.
- Make 30 minutes a day. That’s half a Netflix episode.
- On a topic you’re absolutely fascinated about, you could read 10 pages in 30 minutes right?
- 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.
Suppose we doubled the time spent reading, from half a Netflix episode to a full one.
- An hour a day becomes 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.
While 50 a year might not be your goal, isn’t it empowering to know that you could if you wanted to?
# Start small
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. I’m awesome.“
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. Reading 100 pages a day becomes as easy as taking a shower or brushing your teeth.
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.
Mine started out as seeking more in-depth content. Especially for more niche topics.
Now it’s my preferred medium. Information flow rate is faster than any other medium:
- videos at 1.25x speed is max I can handle
- audio-books at 2.0x speed is max I can handle
- and reading is around 5x audio-book speed
“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
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2. Tips on reading faster
Some say, “Don’t rush. Read at your own pace. Just enjoy.“
But I don’t enjoy it if I’m too slow. Feels like I’m wasting 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.
By far the most difficult tip to implement, but it’s also the most game-changing. What makes it so incredibly difficult is it demands wholesale un-learning and re-learning.
# 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.
# Exercise your eye muscles
Your eye muscles get stronger as you read more, and supplementary exercises gives this a further boost. Roll your eyes around to trace the infinity symbol. Reverse direction. Repeat. Kind of the like this.
# Only read the few key words in each sentence
Skip the filler words. Focus on the key nouns and verbs.
For example, I would only read the bolded words for the below extract.
“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) have been intentionally puffed up to make it publishable. It could have just been a long article.
Selective reading means being 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
Unlike Bill, there’s many books I start but don’t finish. And I’m perfectly comfortable with this.
What you’re fascinated changes over time.
So if you lose focus, just put it down and save it for another day.
Try reading something else. You can’t 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. Right book at the right time.
In other cases, I’ll just discontinue the book. If I’m convinced it’s a shit book, it’s not worth any more of my time for me to have even more confidence that it was a shit book.
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. Practice active reading, not just passive
# 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
- Ticks 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
- Crosses 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 can’t be bothered carrying 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).
I do something similar in Audible with the bookmark function.
# 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 it something to cling onto. Put it into a category, sub-category, and sub-sub-category etc. Something to associate to.
Otherwise it floats around 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
# 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.
# Sleep science
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.
Forgive me if this sounds too obvious but think of each book as a piece in a larger puzzle, rather than some sort of sacred text that has every truth on that topic in it. The point 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.
Also, 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.
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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
5.1. 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? (causation-correlation fallacy very common) Which links in the chain of deductive reasoning is weakest?
Any biases? (confirmation bias is very common) 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?
5.2. Second-order derivations (Common Knowledge Game)
Sometimes I read not necessarily to learn directly from the book, but to learn various things ancillary to it.
Say you were a general 1,000 years ago, and you somehow know that your enemy generals are reading this outdated book about warfare. Despite having access to a more updated book, you should still read the older one. Not necessarily to follow the tactics in it, but to know what your enemy is reading and thinking. The moment they find out you’ve also read these books, and the moment you know that they know that you know the book, then this book becomes common knowledge.
This is the value in reading the older books. The canonical texts. The over-rated popular titles. The facts and claims in there may be wrong. Especially for philosophy, psychology, and economics. But the fact that so many people, past and present, are influenced by them as if they are all true is undeniable. This way you’re tracking the history of the collective consciousness through the primary sources.
“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, but he wants to learn about Trump. How does Donald Trump thinks? 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 related thoughts
6.1. Physical vs e-books vs audio-books
# Pros and Cons
- 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 what I read and the way I read. Most of what I read has quite a lot of diagrams and charts etc. And 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
Having said that, for some books I actually prefer to listen to it. Books that contain lots of stories. Business stories. Biographies. Anything written by journalists. Anyone telling their own story. With these kind of books I rarely skip anyway.
Even better if narrated by the author. The author knows best which points deserve more emphasis etc. And listening to their changing tone, pace etc makes the story more interesting.
# Not a fan of immersion reading
Immersion reading is listening to an audio-book and reading the book at the same time. I’ve tried it and it’s not for me: dilutes the unique advantages of physical and audio-books while only retaining their disadvantages. But it could be useful for those that want to establish a pace, or if it helps with digesting the content as the method claims to.
6.2. Choosing what to read
# My sources
- Referrals (20% of time?) are best obviously. Especially from those that know more about you in that area.
- Book lists (40% of time?) are usually good too. You know those articles like “6 books Bill Gates is reading this summer,” “McKinsey 25 favourites from global CEOs.” Highly recommend Bill Gates’ book blog/reviews/lists by the way. He like macro-world stuff as I do too.
- Recommendations (30% of time?) from Goodreads/online orders. “People who bought this also bought…“
- Book shops (5% of time?). Literally judging books from their covers.
- Searched myself (5% of time?) e.g. last year I wanted to learn more about game theory and African geopolitics so I seeked out books on this topic.
# Book ratings: pay attention to distribution more than the average
When a book sounds kind of interesting, but I’m not completely sure if it’s worthwhile, I turn to ratings and reviews on Goodreads.
But I pay more attention to the distribution of the ratings rather than the overall average. For instance, Rasiel’s McKinsey Way was a pretty useless book. Ratings of 2 or 3 is the worst. I’d prefer to read something with lots of 5s and 1s. People either love it or completely hate it.
Not surprisingly for a controversial topic, ratings of Dawkin’s God Delusion is much more skewed. More people rated it a 1, but quite a lot gave it a 5 too. Makes me want to read it even more.
I’ve also observed that most ratings seem to be driven more about how good someone felt while reading, more than how much it made them think. So keep this in mind.
# 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.
# Where I buy
- ~95% of the time I order online. Google the book under ‘Shopping’ and price comparisons just lead me to whatever’s cheapest. Most of the time this ends up being Amazon.
- ~3% of the time I buy second-hand through Facebook marketplace. I always have a wishlist of a few hundred books so if I come across any one of them I’ll buy.
- ~2% of the time, I’ll just get it in a book store when I lack the patience to wait a few days.
Plus an Audible subscription.
Also have a Kindle, but don’t use it very often.
# Keep your physical books out of the sun
It fades the cover, and damages the glue that holds the pages together too. Useful to know if you intend to re-read your annotated books every now and then over the next few decades.
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.
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