How To Read Productively To Learn Faster

Use purpose, speed, and focus to increase your reading speed

Bryan Ye
Bryan Ye
Sep 9 · 15 min read
This guide is for non-fiction readers who want to read productively. Some tips may apply to those who read for fun, but others won't.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I’ve read with physical books, Kindles, PDFs, audiobooks, text-to-speech—you name it. I’ve also used these mediums in different ways, whether it’s combining them together, speed reading and more.

Some techniques have worked, while others haven’t. This guide will go into the ones that work and the situations you can use them.

You probably aren’t going to implement every technique described in this guide; you would be insane to introduce this much change to your reading habits. But if you’re someone who is struggling to read or wants a little boost, you will likely find something useful here.

These tools aim to make you more productive with reading—whether it’s through reading faster, getting to know yourself better, or by simply enjoying the reading process more.

📚 Understand Why You’re Reading a Book

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

I grew up hating reading. I was terrible at English until one of my high school teachers explained the purpose of reading. She said that it started with someone wanting to tell a story, them communicating that story in words and us reading those words to understand the story.

I always liked stories, but for some reason, I was convinced that reading was a chore.

With my teacher’s wisdom, I was able to understand that reading isn’t just important—but that it could actually be fun. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with the why behind reading.

The purpose behind reading a book

Before reading any book, understand why you’re going to read it. If you can understand why you’re reading a book, you’re going to be motivated to read it.

I recently read The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo.

Here are the reasons why:

  • I’ve been a longtime fan of Julie, so I know I’d enjoy her writing.
  • I recently got a new manager (she was promoted) and thought it’d be a good idea to get some empathy for her new role.
  • I want to be a manager one day; this book would help me understand the responsibilities of one.

Everyone says that it’s important to understand your purpose in life. I think it’s also important to understand the purpose behind the smaller things—like why you’re reading a book.

When I understand why I’m reading a book, I know why it’s important to read it. It’s a small psychological shift, but it changes everything.

Ask yourself why

The next time you read a book, ask yourself this one question:

Why am I reading this book?

Not only will this motivate you, but it’s also self-reflection exercise. This is especially important in the digital world with so many stimuli and not enough solitude.

When you do this exercise, remember that there are no bad reasons to read a book. It’s perfectly reasonable to read a book because you want to have fun. This is meant to help you understand yourself without judgment.

🤝 Join a Reading Community

“We read to know we’re not alone.”

William Nicholson

Join Goodreads to access an online reading community. You may already have an account on Goodreads, which means you already know the benefits of using it; if you don’t, I hope to convince you to make one.

If you’ve ever learned a skill—whether it’s martial arts, calligraphy, or pretty much anything else, you probably know how important it is to have other people who do it, too.

Reading is a lonely task unless you’re reading in a group, which is unsustainable. If you know other people are doing the same lonely task, it becomes a little less lonely.

Apart from the obvious benefits of having friends and keeping track of your books, joining a reading community will help you find the right books to read.

It goes without saying that finding the right books to read is an important part of being a productive reader. Spending time reading books that don’t matter to you is a waste of time.

Learn what books you enjoy

There’s no point reading a book that you’re not engaged in. This doesn’t mean I only read books of a specific genre. But if a book of the genre I enjoy shows up, I’m probably going to enjoy it.

I used to read books that other people told me to read. Over time, I learned I didn’t like most of the books others recommended. I realized my favorite books were ones with interesting biographical stories, especially those that include humor in the lessons.

Most people recommend fiction books or self-help books to me. I guess that’s because those books have the clearest benefits. Fiction because we understand the importance of stories as children; self-help because they have straight-to-the-point advice. If you are part of a reading community, though, you’ll be exposed to much more than what people would think to recommend to you personally—so you have a wider variety of interesting reading prospects to choose from.

My favorite book of all time is Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman. This book is neither of fiction nor self-help. It wasn’t recommended to me by anyone. I just happened to come across it on Goodreads and had to read it. With such great reviews and as a Richard Feynman fan, it certainly appealed to me.

Look at book lists of people who inspire you

One thing I do to get book recommendations is to look at others' book lists. There are people like Bill Gates who post their book list, which I add to my Goodreads if they interest me.

Furthermore, I follow my friends on Goodreads. If you’re a reader, it’s likely you have friends who read. If you don’t, I suggest you find some—especially friends that you trust.

I’m lucky to have friends who are similar to me in terms of personality and/or demographic. I’ve found that people who have a similar personality tend to enjoy the same style of books as me (biographical and funny).

On the other hand, people who are in the same demographic enjoy the same topics. As someone who’s at the age where everyone is starting their career, my friends tend to read books ranging from those that help with a quarter-life crisis to those that teach you what a high-performer at work looks like.

When I need a new book to read, I look at my friends’ top-rated books and go from there. If you have reliable friends, you can do the same.

Look at reviews of books

I’ve found the reviews on Goodreads more useful than those on Amazon. I always read the reviews of a book before purchasing it. Not only do I check the rating, but I see why people rated it well, or why they didn’t.

Although the rating is useful, I take it with a grain of salt. It’s likely that there are books that don’t fit into certain people’s expectations, or they may simply find it hard to read.

One example that comes to mind is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. Although it’s rated decently, it’s certainly not one of the highest-rated books on Goodreads, yet it’s one of my favorite books of all time.

I suspect that this is because it’s significantly different from Murakami’s other books, as he’s a fiction writer. The book is packaged as a book about running — but is actually about something deeper. To understand the lessons in the book, you have to look beneath the surface. Throughout Murakami’s running journey, he describes his challenges with precise detail into his mental state.

The book isn’t really about running. It’s about persevering through—as Murakami likes to call it—the void. My hypothesis is that because of this subtlety, its merits aren’t as obvious and may warrant a lower rating from those who were expecting something else.

Regardless of rating, reading the qualitative reviews of a book teach you about the experiences of others who read it. It’s up to you to decide how their review changes or doesn’t change your decision to read.

🍯 Only Read What You Want to Read

“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.”

Stanley Kubrick

I used to force myself to finish every book I read—probably because my 2nd-grade teacher taught me it was the only way to read. If I didn’t finish a book, I would hate myself.

I’ve since come to realize this isn’t a time-conscious mentality. We have a limited time in this world, and reading books that we can’t even focus on is a waste of time.

The first part of selective reading is to find books that you want to read (which we’ve covered). But if you’ve already started a book that you don’t enjoy, just stop reading it.

The disadvantage of doing this is you may lose your reading habit. It’s hard to tell whether you don’t enjoy a book or that you simply want to stop reading at all.

If you decide to stop reading a book, don’t stop reading until you have the next book ready.

Identify parts of the book to not read

Once you’ve read enough books of the same genre, the same ideas show up. If you don’t want to read about the same idea over and over again, then skip that section.

You don’t need to hear the same ideas and stories again. You don’t need to hear that taking action is important, gossiping is bad and that you have a limited time in the world—you probably know already.

When I first started reading as an adult, one of the first topics I was invested in was stoicism. I started reading every book about stoicism that I could find. Although every book was different, there were parts that were the same—and reading those same parts was time I could’ve spent learning something new. I decided that if I were to read another stoicism book, I would identify the chapters I could skip ahead of time.

The idea behind this is that you can skip parts of a book you don’t want to read.

To identify parts of the book not to read:

  1. Go to the table of contents of the book.
  2. Get a quick overview of the book is about.
  3. Mark chapters you don’t want to read (physically or mentally).

This doesn’t give you a complete overview of the book, but sometimes it’s enough to know the parts that aren’t worth reading.

Read the chapters you want to first

Not only can you identify parts of a book you want to skip, but you can read the chapters that interest you the most. If you’re like me, you may find it hard to be engaged in a book if you’re not reading something that speaks to you.

This doesn’t work for all books, especially not books meant to be read in chronological order, like biographies. This does work for most of the self-help/personal-development genre.

Sometimes there are only a few chapters in a book that engages me so I read those chapters first. The idea behind this is that you’re more engaged with what interests you right now.

When I’m reading self-help/personal-development books, there’s typically something specific I want to learn about so I go learn about those things first. If the rest of the book interests me, I become more engaged with the rest of the book.

This is likely due to the halo effect: where an impression created in one area influences opinion in another area. In other words, enjoying a book in one chapter will give you a good impression for another chapter.

Skim over a chapter before reading it

Before you cut a tree, it’s probably a good idea to sharpen your saw. Similarly, I suggest you sharpen your mind for what’s ahead in a book before reading it.

Unless you live and breathe in uncertainty, skimming over a chapter before you read it will keep you engaged in reading a book—especially if you know there’s something you want to learn ahead.

Although this takes a considerable amount of time, it achieves these goals:

  • Provides the structure of the chapter and if you don’t find it valuable, you can skip it.
  • Helps understand concepts up ahead before reading, so you can retain information faster.

Although reading productively is about being efficient, it’s also about being effective. Taking the time to prepare before reading will give you time to think about the concepts that are coming ahead before reading it.

🖊️ Use a Pen When You Read

“You have to make your own condensed notes. You learn from MAKING them.”

Peter Rogers

The normal way to read a book is to simply open it and start reading. If you’re comfortable reading like this, you probably don’t need a pen. Using a pen to point to your place in the text as you read, however, does have advantages.

Benefits of using a pen:

  • Reduces the number and duration of fixations. We don’t read at a continuous pace because our eyes often stop while reading, which reduces the speed of reading. Using a pen minimizes this (you can use your finger for the same effect).
  • Prevents re-reading. If you’ve read any book at all, you’ve probably experienced reading the same line over and over again as you zone out. Reading is an active task and using a pen will prevent you from drifting off.
  • Underline key concepts. Once you’ve read a bit, there’s a chance you may want to revisit it. If you underline key concepts while reading a book, all you have to do after reading it is to flip through the pages and read the underlined concepts. To do this, underline parts of the book you want to remember while reading.
  • Take notes. I typically like to connect concepts from different schools of thought together i.e. taking note that economic theory of sunk costs and psychological cognitive biases are linked. This is an idea I got from Charlie Munger, who famously talks about his mental models.

Keep in mind that writing in a book will decrease it’s borrowing and resell value—but I never sell my books anyway!

👀 Read with Your Peripheral Vision

“So many books, so little time.”

Frank Zappa

This is a speed reading technique from the world’s fastest readers.

There are two types of vision:

  • Macular vision: the primary focus of your vision.
  • Peripheral vision: what you see less distinctly outside of your macular vision e.g. the sides of your vision.

The idea behind this technique is that you don’t need to read every word with your macular vision, because your peripheral vision picks up words as well.

A huge benefit of this is that it allows you to read without vocalizing every word. You just need to take a glance at what speed readers call a clump: 4–16 words that take in at a time as a group.

Despite this definition, I can never read 16 words in a single glance; I just can’t absorb the information. When I use this technique, I read at the lower end of that spectrum e.g. 4 words per glance.

If you want to start reading in clumps, I suggest starting small. Starting out, try ignoring the first and last few words of a line (unless they’re particularly important words). As you get better at this technique, you can find your own way of using peripheral vision to speed up your reading.

Speed reading is not a silver bullet

One caveat to this technique is that it’s not recommended for complex books. For simple books where you just want to grasp the main concepts and don’t need depth to understand, it’s fine.

I once tried this on Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and it was a total waste of time.

Some say speed reading is a lie, and in some ways they’re right. I say it depends on the difficulty of the book.

👂 Use Audiobooks to Increase Time Reading

“The best listeners listen between the lines.”

Nina Malkin

Productively reading isn’t just about choosing the right books and reading those books effectively. You can also increase your amount of time reading.

This includes changing the medium of your reading to suit your circumstances. For example, if you commute in your everyday routine, you may find audiobooks particularly useful.

I personally use Audible, but you can use whatever audiobook service you want.

I consume most of my books as audiobooks; this isn’t because audio is better. There are benefits to both mediums. For example, reading includes your personal narration with your inner voice, while audiobooks include a social experience from hearing someone else voice.

But there is one great advantage of audiobooks: you can use audiobooks anywhere. I read audiobooks everywhere: I use them when I’m cleaning, eating, and most importantly, commuting.

If you commute to work or school, then it’s likely you have a lot of down-time from it. I think it’s safe to say that most people do nothing on their commutes and are simply waiting for time to pass. This is probably the largest chunk of time that you can make use of with audiobooks.

If you want to read productively, use audiobooks to optimize your time. I’ve reached a point where I feel guilty if I’m not reading an audiobook on my commute because I’m gained so much from it; I feel like I’m losing something.

Use audio with the physical

If you can afford it, get access to both the physical book and audiobook. Reading with your eyes and listening with your ears improves your retention to an extent.

This is a technique that power-users of books use. I’ve tried it a few times personally, and it improves how engaged I am in a book just because I have to use multiple senses.

If you can’t afford this, the next section offers a cheaper alternative for you.

👄 Use Speechify to read PDFs

“Listen with curiosity.”

— Roy T. Bennett

Speechify is a text-to-speech app founded by Cliff Weitzman. It was originally made to give dyslexic people access to reading. But it has special features that all readers can use.

Speechify can convert PDFs into speech while also highlighting the words being read. This combines the visual with the auditory and provides a reading experience both engaging and fast.

The amazing thing about Speechify is that it frees you from the limitation of eye movements. The word read is displayed on the screen so you don’t have to move your eyes. This is similar to speed reading in clumps, since it limits the movement of your eyes.

The one disadvantage I’ve found to using Speechify is that the voices aren’t as authentic as audiobooks — but still good enough for me to use.

Get a PDF and you’re ready

You can download Speechify for free. Once you’ve downloaded it, all you need to do is to find the PDF of a book. This could be from the library, purchasing it or free ones online.

Speechify’s default reading speed is 250 wpm (words per minute). When you start using Speechify, find a reading speed that suits you and slowly ramp up over time.

I tried to increase my speed too quickly and found that I was unable to keep up. When you make significant changes to how fast you read, it’s likely that you won’t adjust fast enough. You may even give up reading because sometimes it’s hard to take a step back to a slower pace.

The average non-fiction book is 50,000 words, with longer books being 75,000. If you keep using Speechify, you’ll eventually be able to read at 500wpm.

50,000/500 = 100 minutes. This means you can finish a non-fiction book in under 2 hours.

Speechify isn’t a silver bullet

Speechify isn’t a silver bullet either. I’ve tried this method again and again. It requires a level of concentration to do. Personally, I try not to make reading the main focus of my life; it’s usually something I do on commutes or at the end of the day.

While this technique is certainly one I would be using if I were to dedicate a day to reading, I’ve found that I can’t be switched on enough at the end of the day to do this.

You might have a different experience.

📖 Read More

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

— Dr. Seuss

I’ve tried a lot of techniques to read more productively. If you haven’t noticed by now, there are truly no silver bullets. Every other tip will help you incrementally.

They can change the way you look at reading or how you read. But you’re always making a sacrifice. For example, if you’re suddenly reading faster, you’re losing depth; although I would still recommend it to those trying to get a broad scope of a topic.

It’s not just about seeing words

The most important tip: read more. If you want a deep understanding, you need to read normally. Too slow will cause you to zone out. Too fast and you’ll lose comprehension.

Your inner voice is an important part of reading and you’ll hear it more when you read normally. You’ll hear yourself think critically about the text. You’ll argue with the author. You’ll have the time to relate the experiences to yourself.

If you read more, you’ll have more knowledge. Once you have a higher baseline of knowledge, you’ll understand concepts faster.

Photo by iam Se7en on Unsplash

Remember that while this guide is about productive reading, you shouldn’t use any reading technique that takes away from the joy of reading. If you enjoy doing something, you’re more likely to do it again—which matters a lot in the long term.

I suggest that you take from this guide what you think will help you, and discard the rest.

Unless you have unstoppable willpower, you probably won’t be able to incorporate everything into your life. You’ll certainly be productive, especially at first, but you’ll surely burn out.

Then you might not ever read again.

With that being said, I’ll leave you with the famously overused reading quote:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Bryan Ye

Written by

Bryan Ye

Words @Atlassian. Based in Sydney. I have a lot of thoughts; here are the less crazy ones.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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