How to Master Efficient Reading
5 steps to keep motivated and maximize effort to get through your book list.
Are you still reading the old-fashioned way? We all want to be well-read, but how do you get through a book list that’s a mile long without making it your full-time job? The bad news is most people can’t spend hours of every day reading, but the good news is you don’t have to. It’s the 21st century baby; work smarter, not harder.
If it takes you weeks, or even months, to finish a book, this article is for you. If you find it hard to stay motivated and consistent in your reading habits, this article is for you. If you find yourself losing interest in the books you’re reading, or not knowing what to read next, this article is for you.
How I Became a Master Reader
Until a year ago, I suffered from the plight of inefficiency that most wannabe-readers experience. I so badly wanted to be well-read, and I even enjoyed reading, but I just couldn’t get the plane in the air. If I was reading something I loved, I could plough through a book in a week, but once I was done my progress would come to a grinding halt. Over the past year, I’ve gone from finishing one book a month (on a good month) to finishing nearly a book a week.
Don’t be scared! No matter what your reading goals are, I assure you they are attainable — you just have to want it. I don’t mean you have to spend every spare minute pouring over any scrap of paper with words on it, but you have to be willing to spend some amount of regular time on it. Read before bed instead of watching TV, listen to an audiobook while you’re on the treadmill instead of listening to the latest Nickelback album (I’m not here to judge), take a book into the bath instead of staring into the candle-lit void.
If you can find just a few minutes every day to read, make sure to follow these 5 steps to maximize your effort and become a certified bookie.
1. Find Books You Like
No surprise, this is probably the most important thing you can do to inspire a reading habit. If you’re not interested in what you’re reading, it becomes a chore and it takes a tooth-and-nail effort to develop a habit that doesn’t feel good.
So what do you care about learning or reading? Are you trying to learn new skills and ideas or just have something to contribute in conversations? Do you like great works of fiction or are you interested in reading about the life of somebody who inspires you? These questions are a great way to get the gears turning, but how do you actually find a book to read?
Answer: You’ve got to cheat a little. Don’t wait until you’re halfway through a book to realize it’s hot garbage; take it from somebody who’s already done the legwork. Read reviews. Let me say it again for the lady in the back: READ REVIEWS. Would you buy a meat thermometer online without checking out its star rating? No, because that’s how you get salmonella.
- GoodReads: This website changed my life. Seriously. If you’re not hip to the online community of readers, you should acquaint yourself. It’s a super basic platform offering book ratings and reviews from a community of book nerds. Users have compiled book lists and forums making it incredibly easy to hit gold. You can also see what your friends are reading and, if your friends have good taste, that can be very helpful. If you’re not into GoodReads, you can find reviews on just about any website that sells books.
- Reading lists: Everybody has a reading list these days: book shops, blogs, even celebrities. Reece Witherspoon and Oprah have book clubs, and I’ve gotten some great reads from Bill Gates’ semiannual reading lists, I’m just saying. Or you can go it the old fashioned way and read the staff-picks at your local bookstore.
- Read several books at a time: There’s no law against cheating on one book with another and it can actually be super helpful. Make it easy to pick up a book any time, and when you’re in any mood. When I want to feel productive I read about social justice or learn a new skill, but when I’m getting ready in the morning I want something that takes it easy on my single firing neuron.
Bonus tip: If you do start a book and don’t like it, abandon that sucker. If you’re smart about selecting books, this shouldn’t be a common occurrence, but when it does happen don’t risk losing momentum on a book that doesn’t interest you. Audible offers free exchanges and a boring book makes a great gift for that neighbor you don’t really like.
2. Have a Book List
Everybody has a million books they want to read, but when they’re looking for a new read they draw a blank. If they’re lucky they remember one book their annoying coworker was talking about in the break room, but that’s no way to live. Accept that you just don’t have a mind to remember 100 offhandedly-mentioned titles and authors and just keep dang a list. Make sure when you’re itching for a new read you have a hearty selection to choose from.
- GoodReads: Spoiler Alert, GoodReads is going to be mentioned a lot in this article. Here’s where I talk about how easy it is to keep a booklist. When you’re sifting through reading lists, it could not be easier to see the book’s rating and add it to your virtual bookshelf with a single click. It’s miraculous and sometimes I go on benders where I find a dozen books in a matter of minutes. A digital note-taking app works well too, or even the classic pen-and-paper approach.
- Always have a book ready: Don’t wait to finish your book before you queue up the next one. Shipping takes time, your local bookstore has limited hours, or you could get distracted watching I Love Lucy reruns and before you know it you haven’t read in 6 months. I always have a short stack of 3 or 4 books on my nightstand and in my Audible queue so when the time comes, I’m ready.
3. Be Smart About How You Read
How you read books, I would argue, is just as important as what you read. Do you want to enjoy the book, or simply extract the information? How deep of an understanding do you want? It’s not the 1400’s when we were forced to lug around 15 pound Gutenburg bibles; we now have a buffet of ways to consume literature.
- Summary-only: We’re starting with the quick and dirty. Blinkest, or any number of other book summary apps or blogs, offer an easy-to-digest literary amuse-bouche, if you will. Many of them can be read in less than 15 minutes and just give you the highest-level bullet points. Hey man, I’m not above Sparknotes. I don’t do this often, but I will occasionally if I don’t care about reading the material, but want a basic understanding of the subject, or if I began reading a book that’s full of fluffy anecdotes and I want to cut to the chase.
- Audiobooks: I’ll be honest, I held out on audiobooks for years because I was a book purist who didn’t consider it “real reading”. Honestly, that girl hardly finished a book a month, and now I’m easily burning through 3 times that, so I can put my pretensions aside. Audiobooks allow you to read when you’re getting ready in the morning, when you’re cooking or driving. Mindless tasks now become mindful.
Many audiobooks take about 7 hours to listen to, so if you listen for only half an hour while you’re getting ready in the morning, you can finish the book in only two weeks. Throw in another half hour while you cook dinner or clean the cat box, and that time is cut in half.
PRO TIP: Audible allows you to play books at faster speeds and, while at first it sounds like a chipmunk, you’ll get used to it and you can plough through books in only a couple of hours. If you listen at 1.5 speed, you can complete a 7 hour book in less than 5 hours.
- Digital books: Are you traveling but don’t have room for a vast array of novels in your carry-on (especially since you’re already trying to fit 3 weeks of clothing in there to save the outrageous checked-bag fees)? Are you going camping and don’t want to carry a literal (figurative) brick of a book up a mountain? Digital books are a super convenient way to carry several books with you at all times. Plus, Kindle and other book devices have built-in note-taking features, huzzah!
- Hardcopies: You didn’t think I’d forget the original did you? I really only read real books when I’m looking to savor it. It’s by far the least efficient method (unless you’re going to go down the road of speed-reading), so it’s got to be a labor of love. I always snuggle up with a chapter before bed.
4. Challenge Yourself
Full disclosure: I’m a highly competitive person. I have family members who refuse to play Monopoly with me and I have to actively control my snarling trash talk at the bowling alley. It’s a disease. Anyways, a little healthy challenge can be tremendously helpful in keeping your focus. Make it a game or a challenge you can feel good about completing and you’ll be much more likely to keep on track.
- Track your reading habits: Have something to tick-off when you’re done reading. It adds a sense of accomplishment and reward to completing the task. I update my GoodReads bookshelf to show I’ve completed the book, and I also like to rate books online when I’m done, giving my star rating as my stamp of completion.
- Have reading goals: Have something you’re working towards and keep pace. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read 24 books in 2020, and completing that goal only halfway through the year was HIGHLY satisfying. GoodReads (yes I know, AGAIN) has a very simple “Reading Challenge” feature that tells you how far you are in your reading goal, and how many books ahead or behind you are. Having concrete targets will make it easier to visualize and stay motivated. Find what works for you and run with it!
- Friends: Tell people about your reading goals and have them keep you accountable. Have a competition with your friends or, if you’re feeling like a less oppositional approach, start a book club. Having regular check-ins will keep you on-track and it’s always fun to have somebody to talk about the book with. Don’t have friends who want to read the same books? There are countless online forums and book clubs you can join. *cough* GoodReads *cough*
5. Use What You’ve Learned
If you don’t use it you lose it, right? Now that you’re going to be reading loads of books, don’t let all that good information drift in one ear and out the other. Make sure you’re doing what you need to actually remember the information you’re consuming. I’ve found that reading so many books means I often get confused about which book I’m referencing in conversation, and I find myself misquoting an awful lot. Don’t be the fool who reads a lot but can’t recall those juicy tidbits when you’re trying to impress your coworkers at a wine-and-cheese soirée.
- Take (and review) notes: I like to take detailed notes, especially when I’m reading about a new skill or a particularly dense topic. Evernote is a great all-in-one information storage and note-taking tool, but use whatever you jive with. I would recommend a digital format though, to make it easy to search your notes later on (plus, if there’s a fire your notes are safe, yada yada). After I finish a book, I like to do the old learning double-tap and re-read all my notes. If you really want bonus points, revisit the notes a month later to commit the information to your long-term memory.
- Have a book club: This one’s pretty simple — book clubs allow you to have in-depth discussions about the books you’re reading and make new connections you may not have made on your own. Having to explain something to another person forces you to understand it more deeply. Plus, the pressure of knowing you’re going to talk about what your reading might scare you into taking really detailed and useful notes.
- Write reviews: Sure, you’ll be doing a service to the reading community by contributing to the endless pool of literary reviews, but the real reason you write a review is to get some serious book-nerd street cred. Jokes aside, it’s actually a great way to put your thoughts and feelings about a book into a succinct opinion nugget that you can draw from when you’re talking to that cute guy you’re trying to impress at the library.
Well that does it, you’ve made it to the end! I hope that, no matter what you’re taking away from this article, you also take away the feeling that you CAN do it. With a bit of inspiration, and the help of a few of these reading strategies, you can become the book nerd of your dreams.