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Are You a Productive Reader?

Are You a Productive Reader?

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.)

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on March 21, 2019

    11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

    11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

    Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

    You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

    But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

    To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

    It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

    “What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

    The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

    In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

    Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

    1. Start Small

    The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

    Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

    Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

    Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

    Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

    Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

    It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

    Do less today to do more in a year.

    2. Stay Small

    There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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    But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

    If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

    When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

    I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

    Why?

    Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

    The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

    Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

    3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

    No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

    There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

    What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

    Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

    This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

    This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

    4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

    When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

    There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

    Peter Drucker said,

    “What you track is what you do.”

    So track it to do it — it really helps.

    But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

    5. Measure Once, Do Twice

    Peter Drucker also said,

    “What you measure is what you improve.”

    So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

    For reading, it’s 20 pages.
    For writing, it’s 500 words.
    For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
    For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

    Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

    6. All Days Make a Difference

    Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

    Will two? They won’t.

    Will three? They won’t.

    Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

    What happened? Which one made you fit?

    The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

    No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

    7. They Are Never Fully Automated

    Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

    But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

    What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

    It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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    The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

    It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

    It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

    8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

    Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

    Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

    When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

    The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

    Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

    9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

    The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

    Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

    You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

    But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

    So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

    If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

    This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

    The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

    Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

    10. Punish Yourself

    Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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    I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

    It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

    You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

    No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

    The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

    But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

    11. Reward Yourself

    When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

    Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

    The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

    After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

    If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

    Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

    If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

    In the End, It Matters

    What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

    When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

    And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

    “Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

    Keep going.

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    More Resources to Help You Build Habits

    Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
    [2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
    [3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
    [4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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