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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
There is no question I’m asked more than “how do you find the time to read so much?” or “how can I find more time to read?”
Let me share with you how I find time to read, learn, and give myself an advantage.
Everyone looks at my reading list and assumes that I either have no life or speed read.
When I tell people I do have a life and I don’t speed read the question becomes: what’s your secret? How do you find more time to read than the average person?
Well, first, there is no secret. As simple as it sounds, finding time to read boils down to choices about how you allocate your time. And allocating your time is how successful people increase productivity.
On a good week, I can read 3-5 books. Sometimes fewer. I’m an average reader, likely within one standard deviation in terms of speed and retention. In short, I’m no different than you when it comes to how fast I read.
For example, while remarkably enjoyable, Blood and Beauty consumed almost a week. I was incredibly slow reading Seneca’s Epistles 1-65, and even slower with Antifragile. These are books I don’t want to rush.
On the other hand, I can cruise through something like Fate of the States in an afternoon.
When reading, I generally take notes. I’m underlining, synthesizing, asking questions, and relating concepts from other things I’ve read. I use a hybrid of the how to read system developed by Mortimer Adler.
After I finish a book, I let it age for a week or two and then pick it up again. I look at my notes and the sections I’ve marked as important. I write them down. Or let it age for another week or two.
Let’s look at this another way. Rather than say what I do, I’ll tell you what I don’t do.
What gets in the way of reading?
I don’t spend a lot of time watching TV. (The lone exception to this is during football season where I watch one game a week.)
I watch very few movies.
I don’t spend a lot of time commuting.
I don’t spend a lot of time shopping.
These choices are deliberate. I don’t even have cable TV. I watch NFL through gamepass, which also saves time (if you don’t watch games live you can watch the full game in under 30 minutes).
I live downtown; I can walk to the grocery store, purchase a bagful of groceries, and return home all within 15 minutes.
If you presume that the average person spends 3-4 hours a day watching TV, an hour or more commuting, and another 2-3 hours a week shopping, that’s 25 hours a week on the low end.
25 hours. That’s 1,500 minutes. That’s huge. If you read a page a minute, that’s 1,500 pages a week.
Few things are as rewarding as making friends with the eminent dead. Reading isn’t something to be done once a week to check a box, it’s something to do everyday.
If you’re a ‘knowledge worker’ you’re paid to use your brain so it’s in your best interest to make that brain as big as possible.
Wherever I go, a book is not far behind.
It might be on my phone, or physical, but there is always a book close.
Finding time to read is easier than you might think. Waiting for a bus? Stop staring down the street and read. Waiting for a taxi? Read. On the train? Read. On the plane? Read. Waiting for your flight? Read.
What I read depends on the situation.
If I know I only have a few minutes, I’m not going to read something that requires a lot of mental context switching to get back into. I’ll keep it simple, something like Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success or Grow Regardless. Waiting around is also a great time to read magazines and printed copies of articles from the web. These tend to be short, rather disposable, and easily digested.
Early in the evening, say around 8 or 9, I’ll grab a glass of wine and sink into something serious. Something I want to read without interruption. Some nights I’ll read well past midnight, other nights I’ll stop reading around 10 or 11.
I’ll then do a little bit of blogging and plop myself into bed and read till I fall asleep.
Sometimes I’ll read something light before going to bed and sometimes I’ll read something requiring more thought so I can ponder an idea while I’m falling asleep.
When I’m not reading, I’m trying to think about what I’ve just read. I don’t pull out a book while I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store. While everyone else is playing the ‘which line is longer game’, I’m toying with something I’ve read recently.
The biggest problem with reading so much is money.
Books are expensive. I often joke that the only thing I’m in the 1% of is Amazon customers.
I made a choice after I graduated from university that I’ve rarely deviated from: I don’t worry about any money spent on books. I’m not alone. Ryan Holiday has basically the same rule (he was also the inspiration for this post.)
The first thing I did when I started making money was to call my younger brothers and tell them I’d buy them whatever books they wanted until they graduated high-school as long as they promised to read them. As many as they wanted; Whatever they wanted.
Some people read for entertainment. Some people read to acquire knowledge. Some for both.
To me, reading is more than a raw input. I read to increase knowledge. I read to find meaning. I read for better understanding of others and myself. I read to discover. I read to make my life better. I read to make fewer mistakes.
To borrow words from David Ogilvy, reading can be ‘a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life.’
Remember the tagline of this website: Mastering the best that other people have already figured out. That’d be nearly impossible without reading. In fact, it is largely through reading that we walk this path.
We’ve been recording knowledge in books for a long time. That means there’s not a lot that’s new, its just recycled old. Even Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile, points out that several ancient philosophers grasped the concept of antifragility. Odds are that no matter what you’re working on, someone somewhere, who is smarter than you, has probably thought about your problem and put it into a book.
In The Prince, Machiavelli writes “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.” That’s not to say this is the only way, but why not start with the best thinking that has come before you. Seneca, on the same subject, wrote, “Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.”
When I get into detailed discussions with people on my book buying habits, they often ask why I never use the library.
Think of all the money you’d save, they say.
The truth is I keep most of the books I read and I go back to them. “If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks,” writes Ryan Holiday, “you might want to examine what you are reading.” I take that one step further: If you’re not keeping what you read, you probably want to think about what you’re reading and how.
While not impossible, it’s harder to have conversations with library books. You can’t pull out a pen and write in the margin. You can’t highlight something. Conversations with books are one of the ways that I learn.
If you wanted to look something up again in a library book, you’d have to get in your car and drive back to the library. But how much time have you spent now driving back and forth?
How do you value your time? We can make more money, we can’t make more time.
Charlie Munger, voracious reader, billionaire, and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, once commented “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”
It’s pretty simple: You either read or you don’t. If you read you probably want to do it more. If you don’t read, I’m not going to convince you to put down the remote.
Reading more isn’t a secret. It comes down to choices.
Warning: Side effects of reading more may include (1) increased intelligence; (2) uncomfortable silence when someone asks you what happened on Game of Thrones last night and you say “Game of what?”; (3) better ideas and (4) increased understanding of yourself and others.
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