Reading Hacks

13 min readAug 15, 2015


or “my reading more how-to”

This post is inspired from FightMediocrity’s YouTube channel video “How I read two to three books every week”. Great content, wanted to give back and also revise my techniques. This post is a follow up to the author’s call: “So if any of you have advice on how you do things that can help me, and not only just me but everyone else in regards to this, please share so everyone can benefit.”

Those hacks are similar to setting up a personal working environment where things work differently for different people. So in theory no two people should find the exact same elements or the same mix being equally effective for them. As an example most developers I know use a different colour combination for highlighting source code. What is common here is that everyone looked out, tried different things and made a choice that suits himself. This indicates how I would suggest to use this post: copy a lot from different places, but at the end of the day end up with something that serves you best.

Something related with skill acquisition and retention would be suggesting adopting one technique at a time, integrating it, then picking up another one and so forth. Even if 100% of the stuff below makes sense, adopting all of them might trigger regression or limited results.

The hacks

Need to state again that the ordering is In loose order of personal importance and preference. For each person the order of importance or which to choose to adopt is different.

Read it when you need it

The “drink water when thirsty” approach or “prefer just in time over just in case”. This piece of advice originates from start-up literature: It is better to engage with content close to when it is needed in order to achieve a task. This will keep the brain active and will facilitate higher absorbency rates.

An example from my experience would be reading Noam Wassermann’s “The founder’s dilemmas”, which has lots of statistical analysis on various start-up companies and what they encounter, one chapter is about stuffing. I read that book while in a start-up scenario we would be in the process of discussing if a person should be hired and what characteristics that person should have as well as other aspects such as compensation versus equity. Maybe I achieved the highest pages per day ratio ever.

So the hack would be summarised to: Identify a gap that needs to be addressed in the near future, then engage with material related to that gap.

Read it when you want it

The second strongest force after necessity should be desire or curiosity. This applies both for fiction and non-fiction titles: identify things that are of interest to you and engage when you feel like it. Try to avoid what is currently popular or trending on the web or hip, unless it has to do with your interests.

Example: I have a semi-professional interest in advertising and generally in the arts of mass-persuasion . I was lucky enough to win a copy of Byron Sharp’s “how brands grow”. It immediately became the next item of my list. If I realise that I ended up not so interested in the subject, it would have probably been passed to someone that might like or need it more.

Read actively

Advice from Tim Feriss from the “4 hour week”:

or this YouTube video: How to Triple Your Reading Speed in 20 Minutes, or the associated blog post: Learn How to Triple Your Reading Speed in 5 Minutes.

Following lines with the finger tracing provided a great speed multiplier and focus assistance even when some distractions were around. Then adjusting the eyes as advised provided an additional incremental improvement.

In order to be active and engaged some prefer a pen or marker to underline passages. An compartmental approach is to use post-its on pages. I have seen the latter also as a substitution for underlining for whoever does not want to “damage” the book.

Make time

Making small rearrangements of daily schedule can often create pockets of time for extra reading. As an example while in London using the underground: starting the commute from a different station added 5 minutes to the journey but eliminated one train exchange. This created a 25 minute continuous commute back and forth, totalling to almost an hour for reading each working day.

It is OK to quit or stop

This hack is again from a person from the IT start-up scene whose name I cannot remember: If at any given point while reading you feel like doing something else, then stop. Do what you have to and then come back or leave it for another day.

I would extend this suggesting that it is OK to stop reading books if they end up not interesting or if the mood about them changes. This happened with the third part of the Dune series: I wanted to read more about the sands of the planet Arrakis, but after following up from volume two I just could not follow through. I dropped the book immediately and will probably pick it up at some point in the future. A close friend always reads books up to their last page no matter what. After trying to do the same, I found myself not wanting to read anything significant for a couple of weeks.

The above should not become a habit of starting something and never finishing. The tactic should exist as a tool, but one of the tools that are not used often.

Rule 50 to the rescue

Rule 50 is stolen from author of “Steal like an artist”, Austin Kleon (I’m doing what you taught me Austin), who in turn got was quoting Nancy Pearl:

“Believe me, nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren’t enjoying but think they ought to read. I live by what I call ‘the rule of fifty,’ which acknowledges that time is short and the world of books is immense. If you’re fifty years old or younger, give every book about fifty pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100. The result is the number of pages you should read before deciding.”

The spirit of the rule, at least for me, is to start, give some time and a second chance for each book tried, say for the first 50 pages. If until then there is no immersion, leave it for later or never and move on.

Rule of 300

It has nothing to do with ancient Sparta. I have found incredibly difficult to read a fiction title which is larger than 300 pages. Maybe it has to do with how I visualise the content, or how the characters are conceptualised, or just how deep my mind allows me to get into a story. When checking out fiction, I always do a page count and after 300 I start to wonder if it’s worth it, then do some research. 300 up to 350 is mostly OK, but afterwards I feel itchy. Recently the rule gets more and more broken, maybe “Rule of 400” would be more appropriate. In either case there is a limit.

There are always some exceptions as I am thinking of reading Homer in parts, but this is another thing altogether.

Very personal rule this one, put it here for the case that somebody else feels similar, would not recommend it that much.

Prefer paperbacks

Paperbacks have some advantages: They are easier to carry around because of weight and size. This means it is easier to utilise opportunities to read, hence one can read more. Because of the lower price, there is less guilt in “book abuse”: underlining, sticking post-its, having coffee spill over in a coffee shop etc.

Example: “Woken furies” after a coffee shower, it happens:

There is another factor that contributes to reading paperbacks: they can be purchased from alternative sources. Remember the 3rd book of the Dune series mentioned before? It was purchased from a Christian charity from the US for about £2.50 which is the cost of one cup of coffee in a UK café. This means that there is both the contribution to the charity as well as that stop reading it was associated with a £2.50 “loss”, which would be easier than doing the same to a £30 hard-copy.

“But I hate paperbacks and I love my kindle”. That is OK. What this section wants to convey is more something in the lines of ”Choose your preferred medium”. Whichever works best.

Alternate between “fact” and “fiction” titles

Maybe the most “personal” one, in the area that it might not be applicable to everyone. Alternating between fiction and non fiction titles helps to: enjoy reading more leading to generally reading more, introduce new concepts, cultivate my English.

(and/or) Read more than one book concurrently

Inspired from “How to read a book" by Tobias van Schneider, rule number 2:

”Start reading 3–4 books at the same time, I rotate either depending on the day or on the mood I’m in.”

I had been exposed to this advice from different sources but after reading it there I decided to do a little experiment by reading two books in parallel … and it worked! Possibly this has to do with shifting gears in the mind and participating in different universes, one for each book. Possible fatigue from concentrating on something specific can be mitigated by checking out something different.

The variation that I tried this time was to read a non-fiction book and a graphic novel in parallel. I’ve almost finished both on the time I would need for each one say plus 30/40%. Another approach that I tried in the past was to have one book for the commute, in the bag, and another one at home, for the sofa.

Buy it now to read it later

Alternatively bookmark when on-line, write down the title in a notepad, generally archive details. Buy now/read later applies more for items that are either rare or in sale or for any reason attractive to purchase. You see the volume that you want to read a bench selling for £2: Can be purchased on the spot and be read in a year.

Alternatively archiving/bookmarking so that the information can be referenced back. One “app for that” is Google’s Keep which can store both photos and text in post-it format.

After the death of Umberto Eco, this comment from Nassim Nicholas Taleb after visiting Eco’s house surfaced:

Let’s listen to the masters! I currently have some books in my library which I aim to start reading at a different time. Their presence there is a mental reminder to do so at some point in time. Some people do the same with their Kindles, although for me it seems I need something tangible.


Utilise a different approach for non-fiction material

I recently discovered from Hacker News the “How to Read a Book” paper from Paul N. Edwards, School of Information University of Michigan.

For when you want to “”discover, understand, and remember” or when “The purpose of reading things like this is to gain, and retain, information. Here, finding out what happens — as quickly and easily as possible — is your main goal. So unless you’re stuck in prison with nothing else to do, NEVER read a non-fiction book or article from beginning to end.”

I would suggest to read the whole paper in detail, which can be found here and the comments in Hacker News.

The points of the paper summarised in a diagram are:

A very interesting read on how to approach academic material is the “How to Study: A Brief Guide” from William J. Papaport, State University of New York at Buffalo. Long, parts of it might not be so relevant if not in academia, but definitely worth the read.

Chose proper learning material

By proper I mean:
1. Of high quality,
2. Something you can read and understand.

Point (2) comes from Allen B. Downey’s Textbook manifesto. Having bought one of his books (which you can sample from his site), quoting the first paragraph of his argument:

My textbook manifesto is so simple it sounds stupid. Here it is:
Students should read and understand textbooks.
That’s it. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would disagree, but here’s the part I find infuriating: the vast majority of textbook authors, publishers, professors, and students behave as if they do not expect students to read or understand textbooks.

Sometimes read it again

It’s much better to read the best book on the topic 5 times, than to read 5 different books on the topic once.

From Jovica Ilic’s post referenced below.

Admit it and accept

Placed it as the last one to demonstrate that the above hacks are of different importance to each one. For some this could be the first step.

Admit first to yourself that reading is one of the ways to educate and inform yourself. Then that this is not everyone’s choice and that’s OK. There are people that learn through different media or are just reading-intolerant. There are also people that want to evolve and people that feel fine as they are.

I could have not stated it better than Malkhaz Geldiashvili who inspired me to write this post, quoting his YouTube video transcript:

“So the two issues that I come across with this: The first one is, I always have one person tell me, ‘That’s too much. Why are you straining yourself, dude? Like that’s way too much.’ And they say something like, ‘I read a couple of books every year, and I’m fine with that.’ And that’s OK. I’m not going to criticize that, but that’s what I do when I play tennis for example. So I play tennis a couple of times a month, but I would never go up to a professional tennis player, who’s passionate about what he does, and tell him, ‘Dude, why are you straining yourself? You know, just relax. You don’t have to practice that much.’ You know, it’s the exact same thing. … I’ve read many books and I’ve listened to many books, and I can tell you there is pretty much no real difference in doing either one. And you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Additional resources

Have not yet utilised the advice here, next on the list: Read to lead: how to digest books above your “level”, from Ryan Holiday, 33 thoughts on reading by Austin Kleon, and “Lessons learned after 300 books in 4 years” from Jovica Ilic.

I am writing a book named “IT Archetypes” — a know thyself guide for the IT people, a know thy-friends guide for the ones that interact with them. Check it here: and sign up to the newsletter for updates on new chapters.


Notes on e-readers

A reader asked about choosing or not e-readers over traditional (dead tree) formats

A reader asked about choosing or not e-readers over traditional (dead tree) formats. Without having fully made up my mind, I lean towards treating e-readers as a complimentary medium/format to printed books having a roundly 5% of my book reading (or with blogs, articles excluded) on a tablet — maybe less. My thoughts are the following:

There was a peak e-books on about 2013, since then they regressed. It seems that the market has decided that they will not replace books in the near future if ever.

Arguments in favour of e-readers

Space: since minimalism is popular having an e-reader does not consume space, a scarce commodity if you are living in mega-cities such as London.
Niche content: There is some niche stuff released only in electronic format or is very expensive on print. Example self-publish material that if you wanted printed, author has to ship it themselves. My book when finished might have the same fate
“Embarrassing” content: A friend of mine told me that he did not want to see people in the tube to see that he was reading the book of an English comedian with a ginger beard whose name I forgot. Probably the same with the Milo fans out there or the “50 shades of pooey” if they had some shame (or brain).
Better for material that would be outdated if it followed the printed route: Specially for technical stuff such as how to upgrade from RubyOnRails vs X to (X + 1). Generally things that are relevant for a year or two.
Blog posts, articles, magazine stuff: as well as personalized magazines, no need to print. Nobody printed this post to read it alone.
Now-time availability: since material can be released for e-consumption instantly.

Arguments against e-readers

Connection to your memory/brain: Books once read and sitting on a shelve serve as a mental bookmark to their content. You see them, remember stuff, touch them read them again, etc. Electronic material once consumed disappears into eventual oblivion. Perhaps the same with music, comics, photos?
Easier to take notes: It is possible to highlight and scribe with e-readers but it does not feel the same. So printed material is better for active reading.
Easier to share: I share and exchange books and comics with friends, until very recently this was impossible to do with electronic material.
You are licensing not owning the content: Companies want to take away stuff from consumers on occasion. That whole thing of licensing stuff instead of selling it is very dodgy, nasty, ethically wrong. Same with operating systems (Apple).
You are being tracked: at least on Kindle. How much tracking is too much?
Prone to distractions: Specially if not using a single purpose tablet.
Amount of electronics being carried around: I tend to read everywhere. It feels better not to have an electronic gadget for everything. Also for public transport it feels better to have less things to guard or keep safe from say accidentally drop to the floor. While I was reading on a Nexus7 it was a £100 or so thing. A book is at most £30 and it does not break, nobody wants to steal it, or if you lose it it’s not big deal. Kind of more relaxing.
Sale value: Once read, books can be given as a gift or given away to charity or to a local library. Social good / relationships aspect.