I’ve recently discovered that I have been reading books the wrong way for most of my life. Maybe the same is true for you. Do you see reading a books as a burdensome task that takes up a lot of time?
If you’re not reading much, for this reason or any other reason you may have, then you’re probably missing out on a lot of opportunities for personal improvement. Don’t worry though, in the following sections I’ll explain why you should read more, and then I’ll show you how you can effortlessly achieve it.
Just as a disclaimer, this article is mainly about books that help us grow, books that teach us visions and skills to improve our lives. This category is comprised of books about technical skills like engineering or finance, and also of those dealing with more generic topics such as improving your writing, finding your passion or achieving happiness. You can also apply most of the advice I give in this blog post to fiction books, but they’re not the main focus of my discussion.
Why I Started Reading
Reading books is an awesome tool for learning, it changed my life and will probably change yours too. If you read my previous post, you’ll know that I started reading at the bus on my way to work. What I didn’t say in that post is why I started this habit, what motivated me to schedule time in my daily routine just for books. And the reason is quite simple: I wanted to become a better programmer.
I had just been transferred to the software development team at the company I was working at and I felt in disadvantage with respect to my teammates. This was because they all had degrees in Software Engineering while I had majored in Electrical Engineering. I thought that this sole fact meant that I would never be as good as them. That was until I heard a colleague I really admired as a programmer (I still do, in case he’s reading this) say that he wasn’t always good at making software. At some point in his life he simply started reading books in order to improve his programming skills.
So I set up to do the same. I searched for the best books on “how to program well”. Once I had defined which books I wanted to read (in case you’re curious, they were The Pragmatic Programmer and Clean Code) I needed to find time to read them. And that’s made me start the experiment of reading in the bus.
In retrospective, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did I become a better programmer (eventually), but soon enough I was reading about other topics that interested me. I discovered books about topics such as entrepreneurship, time management and happiness. In this still ongoing process, I have encountered such jewels as: Delivering Happiness, an awesome book about building a company and a life that you love and The Obstacle is The Way, a guide that helps you appreciate and learn from everything that happens to you, no matter how “good” or “bad” you think it is.
The Benefits of Reading
So why is reading so great? My favorite quote that describes the positive consequences of reading comes from the fantasy book series “Song of Ice And Fire” later turned into the HBO series “Game of Thrones”:
“My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.” — Tyrion Lannister
But how do we explain this process? What makes reading a great way of honing our minds? I believe that one of the main reasons is that it gives us unrestrained access to the author’s mind: books are a great way of sharing not only knowledge but a thought process.
We rarely realize this, but after reading book you’ll start thinking like the book’s author. I have experienced this more than once, while rereading books after many years had passed since the first time I read them. Sometimes I would stumble upon ideas that I had absorbed entirely into my mindset, completely forgetting that I had read them in that particular book.
Furthermore, reading books is an excellent complement to first hand experience. We usually see the process of learning as a linear one: first you go to college and study, and then you apply that knowledge for the rest of your life. In reality, true learning comes from interweaving both practices continuously. Although there are other ways of closing this loop (like going back to college), books are a quite simple (and cheap) way of doing it. The benefits from this positive feedback loop come from two mechanisms that are triggered while studying: the discovery of new ideas and the reflection of past experience.
The process of discovering new ideas can be quite inspirational. This is specially true at those moments when you encounter a completely new perspective and everything just clicks in a way it never had before. Books are a very effective way of making this happen. Not only will they help you discover things that are important but you’ve ignored, they will also point out things that are irrelevant but you’ve somehow given too much importance to. Thus, they become a great way of pushing you out of your comfort zone: they will inspire and challenge you to try new things.
While reading you also get the chance to reflect on what you’ve done right or wrong in the past. This can be quite enlightening, since you’ll be tying your own experience to the lessons taught, which will result in a much more persistent learning. And that learning will immediately trigger the next time you encounter similar problems in the future, where you’ll have a more refined solution than the one you used to employ.
In general, if you learn a skill only by experience, you’ll soon reach a plateau where you’re comfortable at your current level, and then you’ll stop improving. That plateau may be pretty high, but it’s as high as you’ll ever get. Studying is the only way to complement that process, showing you the mountains around that plateau, showing you where you can improve.
How to Make Reading Fun
So if reading has so many benefits, why do we still think it’s so boring? Why is finding time to read so hard while finding time for other things like watching TV so easy?
I personally blame my reading assignments at school. I’m talking about those where you had to read a certain literature book like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in The Rye before a deadline. You may be thinking: but aren’t those assignments supposed to motivate us to read? Sure, in theory, but as I have realized in countless occasions throughout my life, forcing someone to do something doesn’t normally make that person like it (it usually has the opposite effect).
Just to avoid confusions, I think those books were great and don’t regret reading them. I just regret how I did it: by stalling the process till the last possible minute. As a consequence, I had to force myself to read for hours, which imprinted in my mind the idea that reading a book was something you did for long stretches of time. I also ended up thinking that reading was something you had to force yourself to keep doing, no matter how tired or sleepy you were.
And having this predisposition makes it really difficult to find both the time and the motivation to read books. Then came my experiment of reading in the bus, which made me realize just how wrong I was.
I believe that I was able to successfully finish books by reading them on the bus for two reasons: I read periodically, since I had to commute everyday, and I read for short stretches of time, since the whole trip took only 30 minutes. These reasons made the experience of reading so much fun. When I started reading I didn’t have a long and daunting reading session ahead of me, so it was easier to just go with it. Also, keeping a constant pace allowed me to finish books at an acceptable amount of time, which then motivated me to read even more. Suddenly the huge pile of books I wanted to read was shorter by one, something that had once seemed impossible to me.
So stop believing the myth that reading is boring and will take you a lot of time. You can actually achieve amazing results with just 15 minutes a day. According to this article the average adult reads about 300 words per minute, that’s 4.500 words in 15 minutes. It may not seem much, but most non-fiction books have under 135.000 words, so there’s a huge amount of books you’ll finish in less than 30 days. That’s twelve books a year! It’s certainly better than zero books a year, which was my number for a long time.
And what’s 15 minutes anyway? It’s half the duration of a TV series episode on Netflix, 15% of the time you spend on social media each day (assuming you spend the average amount of 1.72 hours) or a third of the time you spend smoking daily (assuming you smoke as much as the average smoker).
4 Ways to Read More
So what can you do today to read more and learn from books? It ultimately comes down to trial and error, you should experiment and find what works best for you. Here are a few things you can try:
Set Some Time Aside
To me, the best way of reading consistently came from setting aside short periods of time from my day dedicated exclusively to read. It’s a lot easier to find time if those windows are small: of course you won’t have time to read books if you pretend to set aside 2 hours, but finding 15 minutes will be a lot easier.
It could be on your way to work, the first thing you do in the morning, or the last thing you do before going to sleep. It mostly depends on your own schedule, so just be creative. To make it a daily practice, assign those reading moments around things you do every day, like I did with the bus. If you can’t possibly find 15 minutes during your day to read, then you probably have a bigger problem. I would suggest reading my post on how to stop being busy all the time, because it might be unnecessary busyness what’s causing your problem.
Read About What Motivates You
As obvious as it sounds, it’s a lot easier to finish a book if it’s about something you actually care. So my advice would be that you read about problems that interest you, problems that you have and want to solve.
Next time you see a gap in your life, there’s probably a book that will help you with it. By gap I mean those situations that cause you to say: “I should be a better X”, where X can be anything you want. As soon as you face a challenge, one that you think you’ll never overcome, look for a book that addresses it. Are you afraid to speak in public? There’re books for that. Do you want to learn how to negotiate better? There’re also books for that. Do you want to start a side business to earn a little extra money? Guess what, there’re books for that too.
Get an E-Reader
An E-Reader like Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Nobles’ Nook can make the experience of reading an lot easier, which will then help you to read more. Not only will the books be cheaper (since you don’t have to pay the printing and shipping costs), but you’ll get them instantly delivered to your device. Also, you can read any book you like, no matter how big, and it never becomes cumbersome to carry it around.
And on top of it all, the biggest advantage they offer, in my opinion, is the dictionary you can install on them. If you don’t know a word, you just highlight it and get the definition instantly. You don’t even need an internet connection since you can download the dictionary for easy offline access. Not only did this help me increase my reading comprehension enormously, it helped me with my vocabulary as well.
I’ve heard many people say that they like the feel of traditional books and that reading from an E-Reader just isn’t the same. In my opinion, all the conveniences I described earlier greatly surpass the sensation of turning the pages or any other advantage that traditional books may offer. So, my advice is that you try reading from an E-Reader at least once in your life (if you don’t have one, borrow one from a generous friend). You can always go back to paper books afterwards; in the end you should just go with whatever works best for you.
Alternatives to Books
If you really don’t want to read books, maybe you could try other ways of consuming similar content. Reading books is just a means to an end, which in this case is to improve your own skills. So if you absolutely don’t like books, find alternative ways of growing.
Say you want to consume the same content that books have to offer, but you just don’t want to read them cover to cover. Maybe you could check Blinkist, which is a website that offers 15-minute-long summaries of the most popular non-fiction books. Similarly, there’s a YouTube channel called Fight Mediocrity that shows video-summaries of books. The videos are pretty accessible in length, ranging from 5 to 10 minutes each.
Let’s say you go to work by car so you can’t read while commuting. Then could try listening to audio-books while driving your car; not everyone knows this but many books are also available in this format. Or you could try with podcasts, which are like radio shows you download to your phone and then listen at your own pace. The internet is full of them, covering every topic imaginable. I listen to podcast sometimes while I’m at the car, it’s a great way of learning stuff that doesn’t disrupt any of my other daily activities.
Whatever the channel, the key is to incorporate personal growth into your daily life, which will always be an iterative process. Find what’s best for you and be willing to experiment with new things every once in a while.
Start Reading Today
Books are a great way of growing, and you should be constantly growing or else you’ll get left behind, specially in today’s ever changing world. Reading will give you new insights and points of view, it will give you direct access to the author’s expertise and it will motivate you to get out of your comfort zone.
I challenge you to start reading a book today. Just pick any one you like and try reading it for just 15 minutes a day. After you finish (probably a month from now, hopefully less), you can leave me a comment below letting me know how the book helped you become a better person. Good luck!
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