A practical way to read productivity and self-development books

I have been sharing book titles with my colleagues for over a year now – to help them increase productivity, building up habits, defining goals, etc. Unfortunately, I found a common pattern which is very ineffective – reading as fast as possible. Most of us tend to complete a book as if they were reading a story, or they are supposed to finish it. Here are some facts that we need to remember when reading these kinds of books:

  1. You don’t need to finish a book. There is no such thing as completing a book.
  2. Your goal is not to finish the book. Goal is to learn something out of it.
  3. Brain needs time and repetition to absorb new ideas or change habits.
  4. Each book has a goal, not a set of goals. We need to read it until we find that. If a book has more than one goal, it should be avoided. But it’s rare.
  5. Finally, it’s not a story, even if it may look like one. It’s rather a textbook.

Before I share how I read a book, I would like to introduce you with a research Spaced Repetition and Learning. Basically, for brain to learn something, it needs to repeat the experience a few times over a period.

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My method

  1. Maximum 1 chapter or element of surprise a day and 4 chapters per week.
  2. Sometimes take a week gap with the book.
  3. Read two books in parallel.
  4. Maximum 4 books per year.
  5. Repeat once if possible.

Maximum 1 chapter or element of surprise a day and 4 chapters per week

If we plan to read out a whole book in weekends, we are pretty sure to forget everything in the pressure of work on week days. It just does not work.

If we read multiple chapters a day, it will be too much to remember the background when next time you are going to read it next.

So, what happens when you read maximum 1 chapter per day –

  • It becomes very easy for you to remember or have a quick look at what you have read before. “Remembering with ease” helps your brain to spend time on “thinking”. Brain is burdened when you have to struggle with two things simultaneously.
  • It gives your subconscious parts to spend more time with few inputs. So, quality of learning gets better. When we give too much input to our brain, the defense mechanism filters out most of the new things as the brain was not expecting it.
  • I stop when I come across a big surprise. I stop right there and take a break. Then I think for some time and close the book. These surprises form our brain. So, you may even take a long break before you read the book again. This break can span for a couple of days to couple of weeks.
  • You would have enough time to build up a plan to exercise based on the chapter.


Sometimes take a week gap with the book.

Some book may represent a world completely new to you. So, it will have many surprises. If you read such a book continuously, you risk of taking your brain to an unstable state. It’s like being half-sleep and half-awake. It’s pretty dangerous way of reading. I read such books with great intervals. That way, my brain gets enough time to reconcile new ideas with old ones and get to a stable operating mode.

Read two books in parallel

There are few good reasons behind it:

  1. I normally choose different kinds of books to read simultaneously. So, ideas do not overlap to confuse brains. I usually have a main book which is very thought-provoking, and a book which is an easy read and develops some specific skill.
  2. As I read a book very slowly (2-3 months), I can inject a different book in the gaps.
  3. One book is the main book! The other book helps me to get a respite from the main book.

Maximum 4 books per year

It may be surprising, but I would not recommend reading more than 2 life-changing books in the first year. You have got to use it, right? It’s far rewarding to read a book well in a year, than reading 10. Most of the books I most learnt from are UNFINISHED. Replace “more” with better.

Repeat once if possible

It’s important to get back to good books a few times in life, and this repetition is not for memory.  First time we read, we see a set of apparent ideas, and surprises. Second time we read we start to catch the nuances, and hidden ideas. This hidden ideas are what this book about.

There is a scientific basis why it happens. You see our brain have expectations based on its internal model. So, it fails to perceive all the new things that it is not expecting. You would be very surprised to discover so many things the second time you read a book.

Just remember this:

In a nutshell, if you are fast and furious, brain is in an action mode – it needs to perform a feat. It just reacts and is essentially blind. But when you are slow but steady, you can choose to see.


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