Why you need to read, and how to do it efficiently
Reading isn’t just for writers. Reading helps us learn more about our craft — whether it’s marketing, management, engineering or teaching. It sparks new ideas and pushes us forward when we’re in a slump. And best of all, it allows us to think in new ways, and escape the patterns and assumptions of our lives.
Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, says he reads 50 books a year.
When asked the role reading plays in his life, Gates said:
“It is one of the chief ways that I learn, and has been since I was a kid. These days, I also get to visit interesting places, meet with scientists and watch a lot of lectures online. But reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.”
Fitting in reading time is tough. When you have an always-on job and a schedule that won’t quit, it’s easy to say I just don’t have time to read. But picture it as a light jog for your brain: reading will keep you sharp, spur creativity, and foster empathy.
There are strategies you can use to carve out quality nose-to-book time. After reading the equivalent of 45 books over the past year, I’ve learned how to read efficiently and still accomplish my goals. Here’s how to read more, even if you’re strapped for time.
Find the Time to Read
“The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” — Stephen King
How much time did you spend waiting today?
On average, we wait seven minutes each time we order coffee, 32 minutes before each doctor’s visit, and 21 minutes for a significant other to get ready to go out. Then there’s the time you wait for the train or in line at the DMV — not to mention the time wasted waiting for meetings to start.
We bet we know what kept you company during that wasted time: your smartphone. The average American spends 2 hours, 42 minutes per day on their phones according to mobile analytics company Flurry. We’re consuming content, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram and trying to keep up on Slack.
Fantastic! We’ve just found the time that it turns out you *do* have, time that could be spent reading.
You can’t curl up with a book for hours in those times, but you could read a bit. As Stephen King said, “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.”
Consumption isn’t bad. The wrong type of consumption is bad. Spend that time reading eBooks, quality web articles, newsletters and other informative content, and your spare time won’t be wasted any more.
Don’t Waste Time with Sub-Par Content
Ever notice how visionaries talk about “dots?” Steve Jobs, for instance, in his commencement speech at Stanford said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Dots are just ideas — from your life, experiences, mentors, and reading. The more dots you have, the more opportunities you have to connect dots and extract new insights.
But you also want to make sure that the right dots are making it into your matrix. Reading a wide array of content from a diverse group of sources is a great way to gather more dots to inform your work. However, if you aren’t making an effort to filter those ideas and voices, you might end up throwing away 7 minutes on a clickbait post. Which articles are actually worth your valuable reading time?
As David Allen, inventor of the Getting Things Done productivity system says, “The quality of a workflow’s outputs is fundamentally limited by the quality of its inputs.” Read great stuff, and you’ll output far better ideas.
That’s why you must cast a wide content net — and not a wide net amongst your Facebook friends. As Tiago Forte of Forte Labs points out, relying only on your network for ideas ensures that you’ll remain the dumbest person in the room.
Think outside the news. Don’t limit yourself to reading only the typical news sites you already read.
Where to Find Good Content
Industry Curation Sites
I’m a huge fan of niche curation sites, such as Inbound.org for marketers and Hacker News for developers. Sites like these list today’s most popular content about a particular subject, along with discussions about it typically from industry insiders and experts. They’re the perfect places to find quality content that’s applicable to your work.
Here are some of the most popular curation sites that might fit in with your area of expertise:
- Inbound.org for marketers
- GrowthHackers for growth hackers
- Designer News for designers
- Hacker News for anyone in tech and startup world
- Quibb for entrepreneurs
- AllTop for answers about what’s happening in your favorite topics
- Nuzzel for curated articles from the people you follow online
- Reddit for everything — there’s more than just puns and cat gifs, and you’ll find detailed Subreddits about almost any topic, as in this list of the 750 most popular subreddits
Struggling to focus in on a resource? Try UsePanda: it’s a browser extension that shows three to four streams of the top 10 pieces of content from your favorite curation sites in one page. That way you can spend less time hunting down content, and more time reading it.
Medium: “A Network for Ideas
Medium is designed for long-form articles and community discussion. It’s the simplest way to blog. That means there are tons of posts on Medium that won’t have anything to do with your interests — along with a number of high quality pieces that are perfect for you.
The Medium homepage collects the best posts of the day, and you can follow tags and specific publications to keep track of their best articles. Once you’ve connected the dots, you can share your thoughts in a Medium post of your own.
News Reader Apps
You should pay attention to the best articles about your industry, and perhaps follow the blogs that consistently write quality content on the ideas you care about.
For that, you need a news reader app. You could use a feed reader app like Feedly or Fever to follow the specific sites you enjoy, or use a news curation app like Apple News or Google News to follow general topics and trends.
A personal favorite of mine is Flipboard. It consistently recommends the best articles about topics a user is interested in, and then lets them share or save them into magazines to keep a record of everything you’ve read.
Read Quality Articles Anywhere
Now that you’ve found quality content to read, you’ll need a way to read it in those minutes of downtime throughout your day.
For that, you need a Read it Later app. These tools let you to bookmark and download interesting articles to consume on the go. Just press a button in your browser or app when you find an interesting article, and the Read it Later app will log the text so you can read it offline. Many tools even include organization and search features, so you can build your own content database.
There are tons of great read it later apps, but here are 4 of the best:
Pocket works everywhere, with apps for your phone and computer, a browser extension, and integrations with many popular platforms. Its best feature is its lightning fast, Gmail-like search capabilities. This makes Pocket a reference system, delivering pertinent links when you need them at the drop of a hat.
Instapaper is the original Read It Later service, one that lets you read articles with custom typefaces or have them spoken aloud to you from your phone. It’s great for keeping notes about the best parts of articles — just highlight them as you’re reading, add any notes you want, then browse through everything together when you’re looking back for inspiration. It also integrates with Kindle e-readers, for an easy way to read web articles away from your phone.
Readability is another similar tool, with its own Flipboard-like service. You can browse the most popular articles that have been saved to Readability, follow people and see what they recommend, then save them to your reading lists in a click.
Safari Reading List
Safari Reading List is your bookmarks bar on steroids. Save links from almost any app on your iPhone or iPad — or from Safari on your Mac — and you can then open the original page from Safari even when you’re offline. Tap the four-line button in Safari’s address bar to get a simplified reading view, too.
Collect Now. Filter Later.
Read It Later apps have one crucial problem: when you can save anything, it’s easy to save everything. That’s ok. You should try to only save the articles you really want to read to your list, but you’ll still end up with random articles that don’t seem quite so important after a day’s reflection.
You don’t need to go back and clean it up, though. The whole idea is to save time so you’ll have more free time to read. Here’s how I gather great content to read, and filter through it before actually reading.
Batch Collect Articles
I always start my day by responding to emails. I set a timer for an hour, knock out as many replies as I can, then take a much-needed break with a fun activity, such as collecting articles. I’ll go crazy, opening as many tabs as my little heart desires. This step is where OneTab, a browser extension that consolidates all your tabs into a page of links, comes in handy.
You might not even need to search for interesting articles to collect. If you have sites that publish content you know you’ll want to read later, Zapier can automatically add new posts from their RSS feeds to Pocket or Instapaper for you. You could even connect Feedly to Instapaper or Pocket with Zapier, then just star articles in Feedly to read them later.
These strategies will leave you with with loads of content to read later, but not all of it will be good content. That’s fine: Just delete anything you save that doesn’t directly add value to your life or contribute to the learning you seek.
As Tiago Forte explains, you’re creating a buffer by building up a pool of options and paring it down as you go. Decide whether or not the content is actually helpful, and delete accordingly.
Many posts look interesting in the moment, but with a couple days of perspective, they may not seem like the most important thing to read. No worries. Swipe to delete, and dive into the articles that still seem worthwhile.
Read Books in Bite-Sized Chunks on the go
Read It Later apps are fantastic for keeping you in-the-know, but books are often still the best way to thoroughly learn something new.
eBooks are perfect because they come with me everywhere (since they’re also available on my phone), so you can read entire books in bite-sized chunks. And if you have multiple devices — an e-reader or tablet in addition to your phone, say — you can sync your reading progress and pick up where you left off from any device.
All you’ll need is an eBook reader app on your phone. Here are some of the best:
Amazon’s Kindle app is the eBook reader I use. It taps into your Kindle books on any iPhone, iPad, Mac, PC, or Android device, as well as in a web app that works in any browser. And, if you prefer an E Ink screen, you can still read them on Kindle’s standalone devices.
I like Kindle because it works everywhere. Regardless of which device I’m reading on, the next device I use will sync to the furthest-read page so I don’t lose my place. You can also bookmark pages, add highlights and notes to text, and view your annotations online. And, Amazon’s Kindle store has almost any book you could want to read — many of which you can read for free with a Prime subscription.
Google Play Books
Google Play Books is similar to Kindle, but comes on Android devices, and has a companion app for iPhones and iPads. One advantage is that you can read up to 50% of most books in their library for free. You can also search through books in Google Book Search, read excerpts of sections you find interesting, and then purchase the book and read it entirely in Play Books.
That makes Google Play Books great for finding new content you want to read. Then, you can learn faster from your books thanks to its reference pages that allow you to quickly find relevant information.
Another alternative is Apple’s iBooks, a reading app that’s only available on Macs, iPhones and iPads. iBooks has essentially the same features as Kindle, though with slightly better organization. It includes folders to organize your books, and automatically groups series together to make it easier to find the next thing you want to read.
Many of the Spotify-style book subscription services have not worked out, butSafari Books is one that’s lived on. It’s a curated library from O’Reilly press and other technical publishers, with over 30,000 books, videos, training courses and conference recordings. Topics span analytics, programming, project management, leadership, design, innovation and much more.
Safari Books is a great option for learning, and at $39/month can be a good deal if you’d otherwise be purchasing full technical books.
Read Quality Newsletters On the Go
Awful newsletters ruin your email inbox. They only make it that much harder to get to Inbox Zero.
But newsletters can actually be one of the best ways to discover great content. And they don’t have to clutter your inbox, thanks to Unroll.me. It cleans up your inbox and consolidates email newsletters into one folder in your email app. Then, instead of opening Pocket or a book, I’ll read through some of the great newsletters Unroll.me has saved for me, deleting the non-interesting ones just as I would in Pocket.
Unroll.me also has a digest option. It can email you a roundup of all your newsletters at once. You can also use their app to swipe through newsletters and catch up on them quickly.
Another option: if you can read newsletters online, you can save them to Pocket or Instapaper to read along with your other articles.
Where to Find Good Newsletters
There’s a wealth of great newsletters today, most of which round up the best content and tips about niche subjects. They can be fun and informative and less distracting than most websites.
If you aren’t subscribed to any good newsletters, here are some sites that round up the best of the bunch:
- Out of the Ordinary Emails for exceptionally good creative emails
- Newsletter Stash for a list of the best email newsletters — and an email newsletter of their own about great email newsletters
- theSkimm for the most important news of the day
- Letterlist for discovering the best email newsletters, through a newsletter
- Product Hunt for the latest and greatest great newsletters
Takeaway: Learn something new to stay competitive
In a time when only three percent of adults spend any time learning each day, reading good content will give you a competitive edge.
And that is why you should stop browsing and start reading… efficiently.