How to Get the Most Out of Reading a Book

September 1, 2010

I was reviewing the list of books I’ve read (so far) in 2010 this morning, and it got me thinking about usefulness. As most of you know, I read quite a bit. I don’t read every day, and when I do read I don’t sit for hours on end. I read most days in one or two or three 20-minute chunks. Regardless, I still cover quite a few pages over the course of several weeks/months/years.

Be Careful Not to Push

How do I know I’m getting the most out of what I’m reading? Making the best use of my time? How do I walk the fine line between spending the page-turning time for pure entertainment and enjoyment purposes and spending it to move my business or my life forward in some way?

It’s a tricky question. How I answer it? By not pushing.

How to Get the MostIn my experience, the key to getting the most out of any book is directly related to your engagement at that time with its specific topic.

Here’s what I mean: say you’ve done nothing lately but dream of leaving your dead-end job. If you pick up Escape From Cubicle Nation, you’re probably going to lick up every, single detail that Pam Slim writes in that book. It might spark you to more specifically dream of quitting, it might give you confidence and inspiration; you might take notes, and you might even take action. The subject of the book is interesting and applicable to you right now. And you know what? If it’s applicable and interesting, it’s also entertaining. You’ve walked the fine line.

Further, you could also be a lover of Jodi Picoult novels, but if you’re inspired and passionate about your future self-employment, Ms. Picoult’s words might not keep your interest right now and sitting down with one of her books probably wouldn’t be the best use of your time. At least not today.

(There’s a critical time element here, you see?)

It’s Realistic, Not Logical

So. Back to pushing. Don’t force yourself on to a book because you logically think it’s what you should be reading right now. It’s like sales – if you push a product on someone, they might bite, but they’re not going to last long. Simmer for a minute and be honest with where you are.

I’ve had books sit on my shelf for months – even years – until one day, because of whatever circumstances were happening at the time, it finally catches my eye and I turn page after page ferociously. A recent example of this? I’ve had friends recommend Born to Run for months, but until I had a blast in June completing a 10k race I didn’t have any interest. Shortly after? I not only read Born to Run but Ultramarathon Man and 50/50, too. I was engaged with the topic and learned a ton. Reading those books was a fantastic use of my time, both entertainment- and education-wise. On the flip side, I’ve tried to read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People a half-dozen times over the past few years. Can’t get into it. Logically, I want to consume it so badly, but for some reason it just isn’t a topic that’s engaging my brain cells right now (what a contradiction, eh?). Anyway, I’m not going to push it. Some day it will pop off that shelf and transform my business and my life. But not today. Today it’s not worth my time.

People ask me often how I find so much time to read. Quick answer, I prioritize it. Taking the answer further, I prioritize it because I make darn sure that what I am reading is doing some kind of good. If I need to relax, a fluffy novel from Jane Green or John Grisham. If I’m bored, a generally-interesting read like Freakonomics or 1 Dead in Attic or Dewey. If I’m motivated, Delivering Happiness or The Last Lecture or The Traveler’s Gift to keep the motivation going. If I’m business focused, maybe Social Media 101. Whatever. You get the point. If I need to relax, Social Media 101 is not going to cut it. If I’m itching to push my business forward, Grisham probably isn’t the best use of my waking hours.

Use Your Time Wisely

Entertainment or education or both; determine what’s engaging you at the moment. Be honest, and get the most out of your reading time.

And now I want to know what you think. Agree? Disagree? Comment!

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