On Reading Well — How to Read a Book a Day and Retain it All
Note: If you want to jump right into the “how-to” section, I’ve included instructions in the 2nd half of this article.
First, A Quick Background
According to my friends, the number of books that I read is quite insane. I typically read 2–7 books a week. I’ve read ~50 books in 2017, ~100 books in 2019, and ~150 books in 2020. My reading speed accelerates each year as I get better in the art of reading. I anticipate that I will read well over 250 books by the end of 2021 — especially given my recent transition, and having a lot of free time to think earlier this year. However, it took me a decade of “fine-tune” this process to get it right. The collective wisdom of humanity is distilled in books — and I am here to share with you how you too can access this source.
Reading is a talent that needs to be cultivated in order to experience the benefit.
My “Learning Disability”
As a child, I read slow, had trouble focusing, and struggled with comprehension. I can not “tune-in” to what I read when people are speaking or if there’s TV/radio playing in the background. I also can not understand anything that I read out-loud because the sound of my own voice overpowers my ability to process information.
If I was diagnosed with today’s hyper-sensitive prognosis, I most certainly would have been diagnosed with an unique learning disability. None of that really occupied my concern, I simply had an obstacle that I needed to overcome.
Why I Thought I was a “Slow Learner”
I could read at the speed of an 8th grader, while my classmates in university read at twice my speed. During those years, I spent significantly longer time finishing my assignments and tests. I read at 150 while my classmates read at 350 words per minute. I was always the last one to submit my exam — often times leaving half of my answers blank because it took me too long to read the multipage reports. I hated being time-pressured in this way — and it took me many years to heal from this traumatic learning environment.
People who had a learning disability got more time on their exams than me, and I often contemplated on seeing a psychologist to qualify me for this handicap. I never did go through with it however. I simply persevered, graduated, and swore I would never pick up a physical book again.
Introducing Audio Books
During the Spring of 2014, I lived in Vina del Mar, Chile, and interned for ASUS Computers in Santiago, Chile’s capital. It took me 3 hours to commute from one city to the other. I would leave my house at 5am every day to catch the earliest bus to get to our office by 9am. I got bored on this bus and found entertainment by listening to podcasts. I listened to podcasts during my 6-hour long commutes each day and clocked in 150 hours of listening time during that period. I first started at 1x the speed but then quickly increased it. I realized that my information bandwidth for audio tracks were faster than visual — so I tested my limits. I soon amped up the track speed to 2x, and after clocking in another ~70hrs of listening time, I eventually graduated to the maximum 3x speed limit on my podcast app. Today, I can process podcasts and Youtube videos at 4x the speed.
After reaching this level and then decreasing the track speed back to the standard 1x, it felt like the whole world winded down to slow motion. I trained my mind to process information faster than others. Using this skill in a social setting, I can anticipate and visualize a web of contingent responses based on conversation flow. This is how it works: when I recognize a family speech pattern, I can accurately anticipate the second half of what someone will say, construct multiple response options, anticipate what others will say based off these responses, and also anticipate the counter response that can be used in opposition to the retaliation responses given. This is a nice skill to hone in the art of debate, but needs to be toned down or completely turned off to not put people on the defensive. Abusing this ability also obstructs my ability to empathize with others or fully “listen” to someone beyond the words that are being said. I also lose out on the wisdom behind what is being said when I process information this quickly — only reaching a surface level appreciation of people’s responses.
Harnessing Concentration Rhythms
After studying the science of chronotypes, I learned that my “peak performance window” is between 9:00am to 1:30pm. If I focused my mental bandwidth to “speed listen” during this time, I can process a 200-page book in 2 hours. This is extremely taxing, however, and significantly shrinks my attention span for the rest of the day. I also then need to schedule out a couple of days thereafter to integrate my learnings. This method isn’t replicable given normal day commitments.
However: without busting a vein, I can absorb information at 2–2.5x speed while hiking, driving, or working out during most times of the day. I lose this ability after eating a heavy meal — so I typically fast during my most pressing days. This is the most sustainable routine that I follow in order to process 1–2 audio books a week. I “speed listen” during my mental downtime between 1–4pm after a morning deep work session.
Why I Started Reading Physical Books Again
Recently, I’ve found a way to hack my visual reading speed as well. Again, I’ve spent several months to test out all the speed reading methods out there and NONE of them helped me in the past. Here’s the trick that ultimately worked for me:
- Review Tim Ferriss’s speed reading advice and this blog to learn speed reading basics
- Go in with the intention of finishing the book the same day. Whenever I try to “casual read” — my attention wonders and I end up reading the same book for 6 months and eventually giving up. So now I go in with the strict intent to finish the book in that same sitting (sometimes it takes me two days, but the intention’s there).
- Turn off ALL distractions in the house — Wi-Fi, phone, TV, and any source of noise. Consider yourself “off-the-grid” until the book is done.
- In order to do the above, I often go completely out of my way by booking a wooden cabin in the wilderness without any electricity.
- Start reading when you have your highest mental energy. Know your chronotype and when you are able to do the most amount of “Deep Work”. For me, I am an “Early Bear”, which means that my energy and mental capacity spikes between 9:00AM-12:30PM and 4:30PM-7:00PM. This is the timeframe of when I will read. I’ve clocked back my dinner time from 6pm to 7pm to take full advantage of my last “high-functioning” hour of the day.
- In order to not get mentally fried reading during the first “deep work” window, it is important to spend the in-between time doing “active recovery”. I spend this time eating a carb-free lunch that is light on my digestion such as a smoothie or salad; enjoying a 20-min nap with binaural alpha wave frequency; getting physical with Yin Yoga, doing 20-min of Soma breathing, meditate using Anapana breath awareness taught to me by S.N. Goenka or Heart Lock-in /Freeze Frame technique designed by the Heart Math Institute; and going out for a nature walk barefoot to rebalance by base chakras and to discharge.
- Read books in larger prints. Books are often sold as either soft copy or hard copy. Usually the hard copy books, albeit more expensive, have larger font sizes. Otherwise, you can get the Kindle version and enlarge the font sizes to what best suits you (I can now absorb a page of content on kindle within 10 seconds).
- For optimal results, schedule an entire week to read “off the grid”. This is often a pretty intense week for me. By the end of the week, I come out in a daze… so absorbed in my learnings that I’ve forgotten who I am. It will take me another week to reconstruct and piece back my own identity while incorporating my new learnings into it.
- During your reading week, it is best to batch books together — reading several books in a category of interest. This allows you to bridge connections immediately, which helps with long-term memory conversion and to build general interest in a topic. I studied “Flow Psychology” by reading various books on it during my last sprint, and I intend to focus on the intersect between the Hero’s Journey and Jungian Psychology during my next reading sprint.
With the above method, I was able to read 7 books in 7 days (books listed below).
A Word of Caution:
- 7 books in 7 days is EXTREMELY taxing. It is paramount to couple reading with the active recovery exercises, such as the ones I’ve listed above. My attention span trailed off and worsened as the week progressed. I saw diminishing returns by the 4th day.
- Avoid watching TV, scrolling social media, or any form of technological distractions. These activaties exert blue light which takes a toll on your mental bandwidth (basically reduces your IQ), and addictive design elements that lure you to excrete excess serotonin and dopamine — two feel-good chemicals are needed to induce the state of high concentration when reading known as “Flow”.
- The middle-of-the-day active recovery protocol as I stated earlier replenishes this reservoir, but not as fast as it is depleted. This reservoir fully depletes within 5–6 days of repeated use. During this time, you can no longer maintain the state of intense concentration. I recommend spending the entire seventh day on active recovery practices in order to rejuvenate. I’m not religious, but maybe the bible was right to say that “even God rested on the 7th day”.
My Reading Regiment Today:
- I read 1–2 books a week through audio during my morning yoga sessions, daily morning & afternoon dog walks, car rides, and sometimes during my strength training workouts
- When the books that I want are not offered on audible.ca, I will order the physical copy — sometimes having to order them from off-site vendors and import them from dealers in other countries.
- I reread certain books every year. I reread 20% of my audiobooks AGAIN in their physical form — while taking copious notes and highlights. I only reread physical books that I want to dissect and internalize.
- I will summarize specific books in my own words for anything that I would like embedded into my modus operandi.
Books I’ve Recently Read:
I don’t like recommending books publicly because I am a deep believer that you should read books to solve your current most pressing problems. Everyone has different problems, and therefore everyone would have a different appreciation for the content recommended.
As I mentioned earlier, I like reading in batches based on current areas of interest. I will list below the three batches that I’ve explored during the first half of 2021 and the 12 months prior. The general theme is optimizing my own psychological state of being.
The Psychology of Flow
- The Art of Impossible — Steven Kotler
- The Rise of Superman — Steven Kotler
- Positive Intelligence — Shirzad Chamine
- Deep Work — Cal Newport
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast — Josh Kaufman
- Creativity — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The Effective Executive — Peter Drucker
Intersection between Jungian Psychology, The Hero’s Journey, and Accessing the Mature Masculine:
- King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine — Robert Moore
- Water of Life — Michael Meade (The Audio version is AMAZING)
- Iron John — Robert Bly
- The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work — Joseph Campbell (available only in audio)
- The Hero Within: 6 Archetypes We Live By — Carol S. Pearson
Systems Thinking and Life Optimization
- Course: Life Optimization System Course on Youtube — by August Bradley
- Boundless: Upgrade Your Brain, Optimize Your Body & Defy Aging — Ben Greenfield
- Primal Blueprint — Mark Sisson
- Own the Day, Own Your Life: Optimized Practices for Waking, Working, Learning, Eating, Training, Playing, Sleeping, and Sex — Aubrey Marcus
- Head Strong, Game Changers, and Super Human — Three books written by Dave Asprey
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy — William Braxton Irvine
- 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today — Stephen Le
- Course: Lecture Series on Pornography, Gut Inflammation, Health on Youtube — by Paul Chek
- Tao Te Ching — Lao Tze (Stephen Mitchell Translated version)
- Tao of Pooh — Benjamin Hoff
- Personality Types — Don Richard Riso, Russ Hudson
- Becoming Nobody — Ram Dass
- Awareness — Anthony De Mello
Business & Life:
- Course: Lean Startup webinar series — by Ash Maurya
- The Third Door: The Wild Quest to Uncover How the World’s Most Successful People Launched Their Careers — Alex Banayan
- How to Win Friends and Influence People — Dale Carnegie
- The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It — Michael E. Gerber
- Never Lose a Customer Again: Turn Any Sale into Lifelong Loyalty in 100 Days — Joey Coleman
- Remote: Office Not Required — Jason Friedman (you should also read his other books)
Click here to get access to my private library catalogue of books and personal ratings
Closing Thoughts & Advice for Beginners:
My current process may seem strange, obsessive, and daunting to most. Consider that “reading a book a day” or “a book a week” is not achieved overnight. It took me many years of exploring and feeling like a dumbass in order to find my own unique approach to it. I first learned that I can process information a lot faster auditory than visually. I learned that I can tap into my chronobiology and the Flow State to improve my visual reading speed. Finally, I picked up a few tricks here and there from people like Tim Ferriss and the plethora of other authors that I’ve encounters during my earlier days of research.
You will need to find your own path. Perhaps you learn best while reading on a treadmill, or you may need to watch a YouTube video summary of the book prior to tackling it head on. Whatever your method may be, just know that you are a unique learner, and it is up to you to unlock your own potential. And once you can figure this out, reading becomes so much more fun and fulfilling. It is no longer a dreadful chore, but rather a healthy addiction and source of joy.
I hope that you too can invite the joy of learning back into your life. Remember what it was like as a child — how your eyes sparked with the curiosity to discover the unknown.