For most of my career as an entrepreneur, I’ve consumed a few new books each month. Its one of my most valuable habits and creates new learning opportunities for me all the time.
Over the years I’ve tried speed reading, memory exercises for comprehension, book summaries, audiobooks, and book focused mastermind groups. In each of these I learned a valuable skill, but in total, nothing was more profound than what I share with you below.
These strategies are specifically focused on reading business books to learn a new skill. These are almost exclusively non-fiction books. I generally ignore all these techniques when reading for the fun of the story.
Does speed matter?
If you research speed reading you’ll find most of the advice is centered around how to improve your words-per-minute speed. There are certainly benefits to getting faster, but this isn’t an indicator I think you should care about much.
For me, the speed at which I learn the lessons from the book is more important than how fast I can read all the words. In my experience, a faster words-per-minute doesn’t correlate to learning faster. Actually, the opposite is usually true.
There are cases when speed matters — usually involving hard deadlines. For example, I work with lawyers who have stacks of documents to read through before a court appearance. In those times, reading speed can make or break you. But for most entrepreneurs, the speed of consumption just isn’t very important.
When you read too quickly, you don’t give yourself time to consider how the material applies to your unique situation. You need time to think critically about the information in order to anchor it in your mind as useful.
Focusing on words-per-minute turns speed into a game, sacrificing speed for comprehension. It's better to slow down in order to learn more.
When do you get value from the information?
I was recently out at drinks with a friend who was struggling in a business negotiation. After sharing some basic advice with him, I suggested he read a great book on the topic, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss.
He pulled up his phone, looked it up on Amazon and bought the book. “This looks great, I can’t wait to get through it.”
At what point do you think he learns the lesson he needs from the book? It’s easy to think that the learning happens when you read the last page and close the back cover, but this is wrong. The lesson my friend needed was in Chapter 2, less than 30 pages in.
Even at the slowest of paces, after just a couple of hours, he would have walked away with valuable new information he could immediately apply.
Imagine a book of infinite length with a promise to answer all of life’s mysteries. You could spend every moment reading this book, and never finish it. Was that time wasted? Of course not, with each page you read you learned more.
I like to think of my non-fiction library as a single big book that is meant to be referenced more than read. Pick up a book that “speaks to you” in your current situation, flip through the book till something looks useful, and read that section. Read the whole book if you want, or don’t, who cares… If you got what you needed from it, be grateful and pick up the next one.
Finding a books ROI
As I glance over a bookshelf of my favorite books, most of them cost $25 or less. Some of these books have taught me lessons that made me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Yet when I talk to my fellow entrepreneurs, they relent the number of unread books in their library. “I just don’t have time to read a 300 page book right now”.
Fair enough, but how much value could you get from one insight in one of those books?
When I first read David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2002, I learned about his “2 minute rule.” That concept is mentioned only as a brief aside in a chapter with more in-depth productivity advice. It’s a single bullet point on page 36. But that lesson has given me a profound amount of time to be productive that would have been otherwise wasted.
I’d estimate this piece of advice has saved me upwards of 500 hours of lost time over the last 15 years, which is worth over $200,000 at my hourly rate. All from that one bullet point in a book that cost $8.99.
Making Time to Read
Speed reading instructors love to rip on the time wasted watching TV. They lament that people don’t read anymore because they spend their time with TV instead.
There’s some truth to this, perhaps it would be healthier to spend time reading instead of watching TV. But for me, the two are not competing for my time. I enjoy Stranger Things as much as the next guy, and I’m not going to read a business book instead of watching Netflix with the family after work.
Instead, I invented a new technique that I call “reading in the gaps.” It's so simple, obvious and effective that I can't believe more people don't do it.
Here's how the technique works:
Our professional days are full of 10 minute gaps. We wait for someone to arrive for a meeting, take a short mental break from your work, wait for someone to finish a task that has you blocked. Even at home, waiting for your significant other to come home get have dinner.
For me, those were stale moments which provided little value. When others might pick up their phone to check Facebook, I pick up my Kindle and read a few pages.
That's it. That's the big secret. 5 of those breaks each day turn into an hour of reading, which sums to enough time to read a full book in a week.
Build a Reading Habit
On average I read 4 to 5 books each month using this technique. I do this while traveling constantly, running two growing organizations and having a great life with my wife. Ironically, if I didn’t have this habit, I wouldn’t have the knowledge and experiences I do today. And thus, I’d work longer hours and be less productive overall.
When it comes to your time, reading is one of the most valuable investments you can make. A few hours in a book will return years of wisdom. There are few investment opportunities with that kind of ROI. That newfound knowledge will make you more effective with the limited time you have.
Warren Buffet famously spends 80% of his business day reading. While that's more extreme than most of us are willing to commit to, it's clear that his insights and good fortune are at least partially because of this habit.
You cannot truly experience the benefits of reading every week until you have done it for at least a couple of months. There's a transition period, where you force yourself into the habit in order to desire it later. But once you get accustomed to it, it's as natural as putting on your shoes each morning. You feel naked without a Kindle in your bag.
To ease the transition, do what you can to make it enjoyable. If you find yourself reading a book you don't enjoy, put it down and pick up another one. There's no reason to force yourself to read something you don't like, when there's so much out there that you will enjoy.
What Book Will You Start With?
If you aren't sure where to start, take a look at my library. I share a small collection of the professional development books I've read that are pertinent to entrepreneurship.
Make sure to send me a note on Twitter, @joshwalsh, with the book you selected to start from. I'm cheering you on.