These 3 Practices by Bill Gates Will Change How You Read

Get the most out of your books.

Eva Keiffenheim, MSc
Jul 14 · 5 min read

eading gives you access to the smartest brains on earth. Learning from the greatest people is the fastest way to become healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Charlie Munger, self-made billionaire, and Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner, once said that he hadn’t known any wise person who didn’t read all the time. None, zero.

Yet, reading per se doesn’t make you a better person. You can read 52 books a year without changing at all.

It’s about what and how you read that will improve your life’s quality and enhance your mind.

I read a book a week for more than two years now and continue to look for ways to improve my reading. Recently, I listened to Bill Gates sharing his free, yet priceless lessons on how he reads books.

Here are his top three reading practices and how to apply them:

1. Take side notes

In our distracting world, it’s tempting to shift focus at light speed. When phones are within a hand reach, it’s easy to switch tasks without even realizing it.

Taking side notes in the margins is a simple yet effective way to stay present. With a pen in your hand, it’s your default option to engage with the book in front of you. You’ll find it easier to focus on the thoughts at hand.

Moreover, scribbling on the pages will make it easier for you to remember what you’ve read. You ensure you link the new knowledge to what you already know. This helps you to think hard about what’s in the book.

Gates always aims to connect new knowledge to what he already knows. If he disagrees with the written word, he will take even more side notes:

“If I disagree with a book it sometimes takes a lot of time to read the book because I am writing so much in the margins. It’s actually kind of frustrating. Please say something I agree with so I can get through with this book.”

How to do it:

Take a pen in your hand before opening your next book. Cross out what you don’t like and write down what to do instead. Jot down a question if lines are unclear. Scribble your thoughts on the margins and connect what you learn with what you already know.

How can you link the words in front of you to your own experiences?

Which example can you add to the page that contradicts this claim?

Do you have any memory that proves the point at hand?

Soon you’ll realize that taking notes not only helps you to concentrate but also to remember what you read. The more you write in the margins, the more you’ll remember.

In learning theory, this way to remember things is called elaborative rehearsal. You make an association between the new information in the book and the information you already know. The more you elaborate, or try to understand something, the more likely you‘ll keep this new information in your long-term memory.

2. Finish every book you read

Gate’s second principle is simple: get to the end.

Read books cover to cover. He says:

“It’s my rule to get to the end.”

Huh? Seriously? It’s tempting to skip this principle since productivity coaches advise you not to complete bad books. We have to be careful here.

Bill doesn’t say you should complete a lousy book.

Instead, his rule indicates to decide what you read before you start. Consider whether a book is worth your time before you open it.

By doing so, you’ll become as intentional on reading as Bill Gates. Because it’s his rule always to finish what he starts, he’ll think twice before he starts a book.

Finishing every book you read doesn’t mean you should force yourself through a bad book. Instead, pick carefully and then commit to complete the book. Even if it turns out to be hard, contradicting, or daunting.

How to do it:

The internet allows us to access the libraries of smart minds. For example, Obama’s tweeted his favorite books from 2019, and Bill shares his recommendations once a year.

Start a want-to-read list with every book you intend to read. To do so, you can use listing apps like Google Keep, Wunderlist, or ToDoist, or create a profile on Goodreads.

I love using Goodreads for my want-to-reads as I see the covers and the overall rating. Before bulk-ordering, I’d browse through my list to pick the next books.

3. Read for at least one hour at a time

To get your mind around a book, Bill says, you should block an hour at a time every time you read. Here’s what he says:

“If you read books you want to sit down an hour at a time. Every night I’m reading, I’m reading a little bit over an hour so I can take my current book and make some progress.”

While Bill’s advice is applicable for retired billionaires, I’d recommend adapting his rule to: “Aim for one uninterrupted reading hour a day and also take every additional minute you get.”

How to do it:

Make it non-negotiable to read before you sleep. To do so, replace your smartphone with an alarm clock and go to bed an hour earlier.

Schedule a smartphone alarm every evening at 9 PM, which reminds you to switch off all your digital devices. Schedule a second alarm for 9:20 PM as a hard deadline and stick to it.

My bedtime ritual is reading. In bed, I can either sleep or read. That’s how I read one book per week for two years. The sooner you shut off your devices in the evening, the more you’ll learn.

Bottom Line

Following Bill’s principles isn’t complex, long, or exhausting.

On the contrary: These principles make reading fun and worthwhile.

  • Take side notes to engage with what you read.
  • Pick intentionally, and finish all the great books you read.
  • Make reading a bedtime ritual to have an undistracted reading hour.

Instead of feeling discouraged by all the ideas about what you could do to improve your reading, enjoy experimenting at your own pace. Keep the principles that work for you and screw the rest.

Choose one or two new reading habits until you find a pattern that helps you on your journey to health, wealth, and wisdom.

Do you want to stay in touch? Join my E-Mail List.

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Eva Keiffenheim, MSc

Written by

Education Enthusiast living in Vienna. I write about inner growth and business. Let’s connect:

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 120,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Eva Keiffenheim, MSc

Written by

Education Enthusiast living in Vienna. I write about inner growth and business. Let’s connect:

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 120,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.