Productive Reading

How to get more from the books you read


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Productive Reading

Reading for pleasure is one of life’s greatest gifts. But if you read for self-improvement, you should aim to become a productive reader.

Productive readers have an advantage because their work is informed by countless thinkers from the past. Humanity is where it is today because of the combined knowledge of generations. Thousands of years ago we were as mentally capable as today (or perhaps more so). What distinguishes modern productive people is they know how to harness the accumulated knowledge.

Unfortunately, consuming book after book is not the most effective way to learn. You may assume you’re slowly getting more intelligent with each book. But in reality, less information is sinking in than you might hope. The reason for this is explained by Dale’s Cone of Experience.

Why Reading is Not Enough

In 1969, Edgar Dale published Audiovisual Methods in Teaching, a paper on effective learning. He drew an image of learning techniques, with the least effective at the top and the most effective at the bottom. He called it the “Cone of Experience”. Here’s a simplified version of that:

Cone of experience

As you can see, retention rates for reading are astonishing – just 10%. This explains why devouring books is enjoyable but not productive for learning.

Each deeper layer in the pyramid increases the interaction with the material under study. Listening to an audio-book should double the amount of information retained. Watching a live demonstration is twice as effective again.

By far, the most effective method is practical experience. We retain a staggering 90% of the materials we learn through direct practice. The trick is embedding the key lessons from books into your life.

How to Retain More Information

If you read a great book and nothing changes in your life, an opportunity for growth has been missed. To move deeper within Dale’s Cone of Experience, you have to embed new knowledge into your daily experience.

At a basic level, this might involve taking notes about the book as you go. By writing about what you’re reading, you deepen your engagement with the material. But the greatest impact happens when you develop new habits based on what you’ve read.

Take this blog post as an example. You could read it, enjoy it and move to the next. Or you could make a concrete plan to approach reading differently, starting today. Perhaps you’ll commit to making hand-written notes about great books and articles, to help you retain the knowledge.

Here are some other approaches to deepen engagement with books (from least to most effective):

  • Read great books at least twice.
  • Highlight interesting passages. Re-read these passages from time to time.
  • Make hand-written notes while you read.
  • Create a book summary from memory.
  • Write a blog post about the book contents, from your own perspective.
  • Change what you do each day, based on the book.

For example, I made changes to my life after reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. Despite the corny-sounding title, this is one of the best books about human interactions and I was struck by the chapter on criticism.

Until that point I had been a chronic critic, pointing out everything wrong in my environment. The book helped me realise I was behaving like a chump. So I set a reminder on my phone every two hours that said: “Stop complaining”.

With the constant reminders, I learnt to bite my tongue. Over time I became considerably more relaxed about imperfections. And more fun to be around.

Don’t Finish Every Book

Another topic productive readers should think about is completionism. Life is brief when you measure it in books. I read one book per month, which means I’ve got about 600 left. That’s a meager number, so each one has to count.

You have to follow your interests and skip around books to find the nuggets of wisdom. And if a book doesn’t capture you, move on. This is especially important for celebrated books. People assume popular books must be worth reading or they wouldn’t be famous. Yet, you can kill a reading habit by getting stuck in great books that aren’t doing it for you.

For example, here’s a list of books that didn’t click for me, despite being must-reads:

  • The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. I understood the idea in the first chapter or two and got bored.
  • Sapiens by Yuval Harari. I was hooked at the beginning, then it dragged on and I started reading something else.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. An interesting idea, but it didn’t capture me.
  • Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. I started to glaze over after the fifteenth scientific study.

Be a ruthless critic when it comes to reading. Only complete a book if it entices you, page-by-page to the end. Don’t be afraid to read chapters out-of-order and skip things that don’t interest you or apply to your moment in life.

Focus On Just-In-Time Learning

Reading is a sneaky form of procrastination. Before you start a new adventure, it’s tempting to read a variety of books to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

I’ve fallen into this trap many times. When I was considering a low-carbohydrate diet, I read countless articles and a whole book on the topic. I kept reading way past the point where I could’ve started. Researching the diet was giving me a false sense of progress, plus an excuse to avoid jumping in and trying it.

A bit of preparation is certainly helpful, but wherever possible try to delay learning until it’s needed. This is known as just-in-time learning and it’s a common trait among productive readers.

Instead of beginning with a research phase, you jump straight into the task. When you get stuck, you do targeted research to find the answer. This means the majority of your learning is happening in the “doing” phase, so it’s retained at a much higher rate.

Sprinkle In Some Fiction

Finally, make sure you’re reading for fun from time-to-time. Business books can be addictive, so it’s important to relax into the world of fiction on occasions.

Above all else, enjoy your reading.