In the personal development world, there is an obsession with productivity and growth. Also when it comes to learning.
Bigger, better, more. How can I read more books? Listen to more audiobooks? And how can I do that while not doing less of all the other “high-performance habits” that I’m already doing?
There are a couple of approaches that I’ve come across in order to achieve that:
Speed Reading: Using different techniques to increase the number of words that you can read per minute while supposedly not losing comprehension.
Skipping stuff: Not reading books from cover to cover, but skipping parts that aren’t interesting or aren’t providing new information to you.
Use time idle time: Every time you have to wait somewhere or you’re commuting you use the time to read.
Increase the speed: I’ve heard of people listening to 3x speed. I personally can’t do more than 2x.
While doing other stuff: Similar to reading, you can also listen to audiobooks or podcasts, while you have some idle time. In addition, you can also listen to something while you do activities that don’t require mental engagement. For example, doing the dishes, walking, or working out.
Ok, so there’s a lot that you can do to read or listen to a lot more books.
But is it worth it?
Anne-Laure Le Cunff describes in The speed reading fallacy: the case for slow reading some very good reasons why speed reading might not be as good as you think. The main point is that you lose comprehension and retention. Slower reading also helps to make connections between current and past content.
On the other hand, Mark Manson makes in one of his newsletters pretty convincing arguments on how and why to read more. He states that you don’t have to actively recall the information, but that you’ll recall things when you need them. He also points out that it’s enough to remember where you saw it and go back to that book if needed.
It’s not either/or
There are some valid points in both and I do agree with Mark Manson that we don’t have to remember everything, but just remember where we read it.
So, why would I nevertheless say that we might want to question the approach of trying to read as many books as possible?
There are a few questions to consider.
How do you feel when you speed read or speed listen?
In a world that’s constantly stressed, most of us need more time where we relax and calm down.
How do you feel when you’re speed-reading (or trying to) or speed-listening? As opposed to taking your time? I notice for myself that I get more anxious. There is this feeling of not having enough time. Having to do things now. And quickly.
It’s difficult to get into a state of calm and focus when you’re telling yourself at the same time by reading as fast as possible that there isn’t enough time.
Reading can be amazing to release stress, but I doubt it is if you’re making it into your own personal speed-reading contest.
When we’re stressed, we won’t retain information effectively and make connections to our existing knowledge.
I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are very well-regulated in their nervous system, while speed-reading or -listening. But if you tend to be on the more jittery side, it’s something that you might want to consider.
Why are you reading or listening to books?
I absolutely love learning. I love reading. And I think it’s beautiful to learn from other people. But there is a risk of doing it out of lack. Falling for the idea that more is always better. That we need more from the outside. That we don’t yet know enough.
Doing that, we sometimes forget to go inside and see what are our own answers. Let me tell you, you have your own answers to a lot more questions than you think.
It’s about finding the right balance.
Do you apply what you learn in your own life?
How much of what you read and learn do you actually apply in your life? Do you give it some time to integrate? There’s only so much that any of us can practice or implement at the same time.
We don’t have to apply everything that we read. But the risk is that we don’t apply anything because we’re already reading the next books, immersing ourselves in different topics or a different perspective.
I read many personal development books for which I never did the suggested exercises. Because I didn’t have time. I thought I’ll do it later. When I have time. And guess what. That time never comes.
What is your ratio of input vs. output?
Applying what you learned can also mean using what you have learned to create something. Most of us consume a lot and create very little. Doing research on a topic is a valuable part of creating something. But researching too much can dim our own inner voice. Being too focused on what everyone else has to say about a topic, it can be harder to be clear about what we think about it and how we want to express that.
The secret is awareness
The secret is to be more aware of why we read and its impact on us. Then we can choose what’s best for us because there is never a one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone.