How I doubled my reading speed

giphyBefore I was 30 I could count the number of books I had read cover-to-cover on one hand. Six years on and I count reading as one of my great joys in life. My only problem is that I have always been a slow reader. On a good month I’d be able to read three books, but often I’d just get through one. In the last year I have managed to increase my reading output to at least three a month, and in the last six weeks I have more than doubled it to around seven or eight a month.

My desire to read more came as I began to realise what a great investment it was on your time. Ramit Sethi has a book buying rule of ‘if you are thinking about buying a book, just do it’. His reasoning is that for the price of a couple of beers, a book is often the sum of one, two or ten years of the author’s wisdom. If you can come away from the book with just one lesson you can apply to the rest of your life, it’s been well worth the investment of money and time. Also if someone has gone to the effort to spend a year or more of their life writing a book, it likely is about a subject worth reading about.

We all read, a lot. Most of the time we are not reading books, we are reading Facebook, Buzzfeed, CNN.com and so on. There is a difference between reading books and reading everything else available to us. My other reason to want to read more books is because I have become increasingly aware of how useless most of the clickbait type content is. One of the biggest industries in the world today is distraction. We read not to learn or relax, but to satisfy a very real addiction to novelty and arousal. Author Danah Boyd thinks we are heading towards a potential epidemic of psychological obesity if we continue to consume content in this way, and I agree with her. If short and shallow content is causing this mental obesity, then reading long and deep books is surely like a workout and a healthy diet.

How I did it

Parrot ZikSo how did I increase my ability to read so much? Amazingly I have barely improved the speed of my actual reading, which is still probably slower than average, but I have made the act of reading easier overall.

  1. This Tim Ferriss Blog Post on Speed Reading: This classic blog post claims to boost reading speed by 300%, which wasn’t the case for me, but as it boasts, I definitely did see an immediate increase in my overall reading speed. I won’t bother laying it all out here, but I’ll just say that the thing that helped me was a new way to use your finger as a marker when you are reading. The common sense method is to put your finger under the first word in a sentence and move to the end, however as Tim points out, if you start with your finger in the centre of the line of text, about three words in, and move to three words before the end, then your peripheral vision catches the words your finger misses anyway, and you can actually read faster as a result.
  2. Noise Cancelling Headphones: More than anything this took away my excuses for not reading. I am completely unable to read if I can hear someone talking in the background. Whether it is two people in conversation, the TV or even the lyrics of a song (I can listen to instrumental music and read). I bought a cheap pair of noise cancelling headphones for £15 on Amazon and put a White Noise app on my phone and now my wife is able to watch TV in the same room as me while I read. Rather than increasing my speed, it simply increased my opportunity to read.

Deep work

deep-work-cal-newportThe first two things improved my reading to the point of guaranteeing I’d get through three books in a month. The next changes saw the most dramatic increase in my reading so far this year. I owe them all to the excellent new book Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal addresses the points I have already made about the distracted society we live in, but goes on to make a more important point of the value of ‘Deep Work’, which he defines has uninterrupted, difficult work, which demands concentration, for long periods of time. In an age of ‘Shallow Work’, that is lots of small cognitively undemanding tasks like sending emails, the person who is able to work deeply has something valuable to offer. I was fortunate enough to interview Cal about this very topic for The Mental Game Podcast and you can listen to it here.

Cal believes that we can train our ability to do Deep Work and after reading his book, I made two big changes to my working life as a direct result. I started doing two hours of uninterrupted deep work in the mornings (Which most of the time is writing) and I put an app on my laptop called Freedom which blocked distracting websites like Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and Reddit most of the day (I only have a handful of hours at set times where I can check these, I haven’t eliminated them entirely). Neither of these changes I did with any intention of boosting my reading, but as an unexpected side effect I more than doubled my reading rate. In January I read eight books, which is double my previous record. It’s February 15 at the time of writing and I’m already on my third book of the month.

  1. Eliminating Distracting Sites: As mentioned, blocking out distracting sites like Facebook and Reddit had a similar impact to the noise cancelling headphones. It provided me more time in my day to read books in the evening. Social Media is very time consuming, you can log on quickly to check in on things and two hours later you have probably clicked on 20 sites and wondered where your evening went. Not only did this free up more time to read, it also significantly reduced that craving for novelty and arousal that comes with Social Media, one so addictive sometimes it would stop me from even picking up a book in the first place. I still do check all these sites, in part because they are necessary for my day job and also just for fun, but I now ration my use of them.
  2. Deep Focus: The big surprise from changing the way I work was the noticeable improvement in focus I had when reading recreationally. Most human traits which we assume to be innate, like focus, can be improved and I saw an improvement quite quickly. I’ve been writing uninterrupted for long hours every day so far in 2016, when I would previously write in 30 minute blocks. Likewise I tended to read in 30 minute blocks at the most before I started wondering what else I could distract myself with. Now I can easily read non-stop for an hour or more. Like the other changes to my reading, my actual speed has not really improved, but I am simply able to do it more and my comprehension has improved. I am not, for example, having to reread certain lines over and over because I lost my train of thought.

The advice above seems quite common sense and obviously you have to take it all with a degree of skepticism. I am just one man after all and this is by no means scientific ‘proof’ that it should work for you.

I am also very aware of some placebos that are likely taking place on my end. First of all, we are still at the start of 2016 at the time of writing. There is no doubt that part of my ability to read more books and less distracting sites is born out of the goodwill that comes with wanting to make this the best year ever. There is also clearly a degree of momentum taking place too, in that I was so pleasantly surprised how much I was reading, it gave me the desire to see how far I can take it. Finally, and most interestingly, one of the books I read quickly was indeed Deep Work by Cal Newport. When you are reading a book emphasising the value of deep concentration, you inevitably concentrate on it deeply when you read it. The book only took three sittings for me as a direct result. I am fully expecting a drop in my reading output as the year goes on and these placebos wear off, but even if I just drop down to five books in a month that is still a significant increase compared to the one book a month I’d read two years ago, or three in a month one year ago.  Again, Cal and I discussed this at length in my interview with him.

If you liked this post and want to see more, including the latest on the third book I am working on with Jared Tendler, please sign up for email updates. No spam I promise.

* = required field

powered by MailChimp!