Rules for Reading

What we read has a significant impact on our life. The perspectives we read shape our thoughts, our actions, and our way of seeing the world. Thus, improving the quality of information you consume is a good way to get ahead and to think more efficiently. There are millions of books out there and billions of articles, essays, and other such content and we don’t have enough time to read everything. We need to develop a set of rules which govern how we read, what we read, and how we choose what we are going to read. If you carefully select what you read, you will be able to acquire knowledge more effectively and improve your comprehension over subjects in which you are interested.

Rule #1: Build a Habit

Reading is not something you should do occasionally — you should make as much time as possible to read. Good books and articles will help you improve your thought patterns, which, over time, will allow you to work harder and smarter. Indeed, what you read matters a lot, but if you don’t read enough, spending a lot of time on choosing what to read doesn’t matter. Many of us don’t spend a lot of time reading long-form content like books — instead, we opt for shorter-form articles, Tweets, and other such content. I blame school for some of this — the summers reading the Great Gatsby can be enough to put people off books for years. But contrary to what you may think, reading can be fun, if you build a habit around it.

The first rule is to find some time in your day, every day, to read. Show up every day. Make sure that your environment is arranged so that you can focus solely what is on front of you. There are so many distractions out there that if you don’t eliminate them, you will easily fall prey to their calls for your attention and interaction. When you are building a reading habit, make sure technology is out of the way and that you are solely focused on what is in front of you. I read books for around 45 minutes before I fall asleep, and during that time I turn off my computer and everything else — no notifications can get to me. I sit and immerse myself in words. The great thing about building a habit is that once you have built it, your mind will automatically switch contexts to reading when you usually read. If you have read a book for an hour every day at 9pm for the last month, your brain will want to do the same for the next month.

Rule #2: Read, then Write

Don’t stop reading. This is not a rule about how you should choose your content, but rather how you should digest that content. A lot of us get into the mindset where after we have read something, that is it finished — we no longer need to spend time focusing on that thing. However, this is a bad strategy to adopt. After we read, we should be doing as much as possible to revise and recall that information. If we stop thinking about a book as soon as we have finished reading it, we will forget most of the wisdom the book has imparted.

After you have read something, you should try to write about it. Even better, write about what you have read publicly. Share your thoughts on what you learned from the book, what you disagreed with, and discuss what you think the book should have mentioned but didn’t. Use your experience reading that book to produce something of your own, and allow anyone to read it. Doing so not only helps you stay accountable to your goal, but it also gives your mind some time to digest the information you have read and think about it in more depth. Reading is only step one. You have to do something with the knowledge you have acquired; otherwise, you will easily forget what you have learned.

Rule #3: Make Time for Long Reads

While it can be tempting to read dozens of short articles, doing so is suboptimal. Reading 10 short articles in one day may sound productive. And it may give us a dose of dopamine every time we finish — we have accomplished a goal. However, if I were to ask you to remember one fact about each of those 10 articles, would you be able to? Almost certainly not. I would challenge you to even remember the titles of each article. Why? Because the brain needs time to digest information, and reading too much at once causes the brain to go into overload. The brain cannot process all of that information at once, and so it only retains a small sample of what you have read.

Therefore, you should try to incorporate more long-reads into your day. I like to save a few long-reads that last between 20 minutes and 40 minutes in a folder in my bookmarks, which I come back to in the evening. During this time, I am solely focused on reading what is in front of me — one article. I am not switching between dozens of different samples — my mind is focused on one thing. After I read that article, I may take five or ten minutes to think about what I have read, take some notes if it had some good ideas I may want to come back to, and process all of the information in the article. I take a moment before I switch to my next task. Make as much time for longer reads — long-form articles, essays, books, et cetera — as possible, and don’t consume only short-form content.

Rule #4: Short-Term vs. Long-Term Content

Yesterday I was discussing the Lindy Effect with a friend. In essence, the effect says that the life expectancy — how long something will last — of things like books is equal to their current age. If a book has been read for 200 years, it is relatively safe to assume that people will be reading that book for the next 200 years. When you are considering what to read, it can be good to look into the past for books which have survived the test of time. Doing so allows you to read what humankind has relied on in the past. The Lindy Effect is essentially the past’s stamp of approval of the future viability of something — if people in the past liked a book, one can reasonably assume that people in the future will like it, too.

More broadly, you should filter out short-term vs. long-term information. Books, long-form essays, and other such content are written to stand the test of time. The idea behind most books is not to respond to some micro change in society which will not be relevant in a month, but rather to analyze a topic in-depth for the edification of society. When I am thinking about what to read, I always prioritize long-term information over short-term information. Reading books about philosophy is great because the information you read is never going to be fully obsolete, even if some concepts have been iterated upon. Reading a book about education may be obsolete as things are changing quickly, but the information you will acquire will help you gain a firmer insight into that topic.

Short-term information is not as useful. I must say that there are many situations where short-term information can be useful. Reading about the Democratic Debates if you are a Democrat, for example, can give you a good insight into the candidates who are considering running for the presidency — key information if you are intend to vote Democrat. But short-term information is by definition only useful for a limited period of time. This is why I avoid most news. I read education news because it helps me make more informed arguments in my writing, but I stay away from politics, business, and other types of news. Most of what I read will be useless in a week. Does it really add value to my life to know how Apple’s Q3 report was? Will I derive a lot of value from reading about the latest political scandal?

My rule is that if something is important enough, it will flow back to me. If you unplug yourself from short-term content, you will realize that all of the important stuff ends up coming back to you. Long-term content, unlike short-term information, is built to last for a while. It is not reactive. It is about fundamental knowledge. If you read a long-form book about the underlying economics behind insurance companies, it is safe to assume that knowledge will be useful in the future, even if not directly in the context of insurance. If you read an article about an Executive Order that has no real impact on the country, you will most likely not be able to use that information in the future.

Rule #5: Value Recommendations

I firmly believe in the power of recommendations. When someone recommends a book to me, I am more likely to read it. If they are recommending something, a few things have to happen. They have to: read the book; think the book is great; and think the book is worth my time. How much content other people read will meet all three of these prerequisites? When I am talking with friends, I often ask for book recommendations. I hold trust in the fact they have enjoyed that content, and that they think it is so good I should read it as well.

One thing to note is that you shouldn’t hold too much stock in recommendations. If you only read what other people recommend, you will always think in the same way as those other people. Seek out unique content that nobody has recommended. Take a risk on a new book. Read unknown content that you think could be interesting.

Rule #6: Philosophy and Biographies are Safe Bets

There are two types of content I know I will enjoy: biographies about interesting people, and philosophy. Many people will go onto Amazon and look for self-help books or time-management books — books written by “gurus” who are supposed to hold the magical key to unlocking a better life. Most of these books are bad, and indeed are diluted versions of their antecedents — philosophy and biographies.

Biographies are the story of people who have reached a certain level of success. They outline the barriers someone has faced, how they overcome those obstacles, and how they became the person they are today. Biographies tell you the story of another person, and navigate the various details of their path. I like to think of biographies as a way to level up your mind because they contain so much wisdom about how other people have achieved success. Biographies give you a strong insight into how someone thinks, and how they life their life. No other book can do this.

Philosophy is also a safe bet. Philosophy represents some of the best wisdom in the history of humankind. Written in books and essays are the key on how to improve your life, which have been developed based on thousands of years of thinking. The Stoics built a strong set of rules on how to live a good life, and those are still being considered today. Some philosophers even spend all of their day thinking about these topics. Philosophy is a great way to learn more about who we are as humans.

Reading is Powerful

Everyone has their own rules for reading, and I assume many people’s rules will deviate from mine. Above all else, you should be aiming to build rules that allow you to read what makes you happiest — what engages you. If you are currently reading articles and books you are forgetting about shortly after reading them, you should consider revisiting your rules for reading. Improving the quality of content you consume is a great way to level-up. Go out there and make a change, and read what interests you the most.

Blog, EssayJames GallagherComment