Are You a Productive Reader?

I know you can read. You’re reading this, aren’t you? (If you’re not reading this, never mind.)

But are you productively literate? That is, when you read, do you learn anything that you can apply immediately to your life, or do the words and ideas just bounce around your brain’s pleasure areas for a while before disappearing like so many wisps of morning fog?

Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure now and again — by all means, grab a novel and hit the beach. But too often we read important stuff — how-to manuals, business and personal development guides, science and current affairs treatises, and yes, even personal productivity blogs with the same mindset. We read to make us feel good, about what we’ve done or what we could do or what others have done — even about what a smart person we look like reading such a smart book on the subway — and not as an exercise in personal growth.

This post is inspired by Seth Godin’s post, How to read a business book, which I linked to earlier this week in our link round-up. Godin — the author of quite a few business books — offers these three tips for reading productively:

  1. Commit to making at least three changes in your life as a result of your reading.
  2. Create todo lists as you read, instead of notes.
  3. When you’re done, give the book away, so someone else can learn from it.

Godin’s advice applies to more than just business books, I think — imagine committing yourself to making at least one change a week based on your reading at Lifehack, for instance.

Here are a few more tips about reading productively:

  • Use an index card as your bookmark. That way you always have something to write on while you’re reading. Go ahead and stick a few post-its to the back for marking significant passages, too.
  • Have expectations. Not about quality, but about content. Before you start, ask yourself, “What do I expect to gain from reading this?”
  • Keep a reading journal. When you finish a book, write down a quick summary of the book, any quotes you highlighted or flagged, and what you learned from it. Or keep a collection of chapter-by-chapter notes — maybe on a blog or wiki. Thursday Bram has some tips on journaling in one of her Lifehack posts.
  • Talk about it. Tell you boss about the new working strategy you just read about. Tell your friends about the interesting history you’re reading. We labor under the misconception that we learn by reading; we don’t. We learn by using what we’ve read.
  • Teach it. You don’t have to be a formal teacher to share your knowledge with those around you who might need it. When you can, take the opportunity to present the information you’ve gleaned: set up a seminar at work, organize a workshop at the local library, etc. This may not be for everyone, but let me tell you: nothing will help you make better sense of a topic than teaching it to others.
  • Pay attention to structure. You can often learn as much from the way the author has organized their information as from the text itself.
    • (Let me give you an example: for several years, I taught anthropology from a textbook that promoted a view of humanity as defined by a group’s relationship with the natural environment. The central part of the book had a chapter on foragers, one on horticulture (small scale farming), one on animal herding, one on agriculture, and finally one on industrialist societies. Then I switched to a textbook that saw political organization as the key element in understanding human behavior. This book devoted its central chapters to the different kinds of political structure: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.)
  • Google it. Nowadays, it’s easy to find authors on the web, who often post new material expanding or correcting their work after it’s published. Check out their websites — even strike up a conversation with the author if you feel like it.
  • Take a moment. People want to read fast, to get it done. That’s why speedreading courses are so popular, despite the fact that you almost never come across anyone who can successfully speedread. The reality is, reading takes time, and learning takes even more. If you only have 20 minutes to read, read for 15 and spend 5 minutes thinking on what you’ve read. If you’re not pressed for time, take long breaks between chapters, even between sections, to reflect.
  • Interrogate. It’s a cliche, but not everything is true just because it was in a book. While developing a Stephen Colbert-like distrust of books is probably overkill, it’s a rather good idea to ask from time to time, “How does the author know this?” and even “Does what s/he’s saying really mean this?”
  • Make a list. Always carry a list of books you want to read or topics you want to read up on. You never know when the opportunity might arise — maybe you stop into a Borders to kill some time between obligations, maybe you notice a new used book store in your neighborhood and want to check it out, maybe someone in your office clears out a box of books from their office, whatever. As you read, add books recommended by the author to your list. (P.S. Mine’s in a tabbed page in my Moleskine. Of course.)
  • Switch it up. Every now and again, read something you wouldn’t normally read. Check out an aisle of the bookstore or library you’ve never been down. Take a friend’s recommendation even if it doesn’t sound very interesting. You might be pleasantly surprised — or you might be challenged to your very core. Either way’s a net gain.
  • Accept defeat.On the other hand, if a book isn’t doing it for you, drop it. Some books are over-hyped pabulum, and there’s no need to feel guilty if you got caught up in the hype. Other books, you just aren’t ready to read yet. Whatever the case, if you’re forcing yourself to get through a book page by page, drop it and move on — you’re not being productive reading like that.

    (Of course, if you’re a student and it’s a required text, you’ll need to read it somehow — make sure you talk to your professor or teacher about the trouble you’re having.)

Any other advice for more productive reading? Let me and your fellow Lifehack readers know in the comments!

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