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Weekly 3: HOW you read matters


Idea Journal Weekly 3

December 6 · Issue #168 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: How you read matters just as much as what you read. This issue explores a few ideas to help you read more effectively.
(~5 min read)

#1. With reading, less is more
How much do you remember from the last book you read? 
Odds are not much. 
Author and researcher Rolf Dobelli writes in The Art of the Good Life that the reason we retain so little from the books we read is that we’re reading wrong. 
He suggests the following two tips to remember more of what you read: 
1. Be more selective: Dobelli gives a book 10 minutes before deciding whether to continue reading. If the book doesn’t capture his interest during that time, he puts it aside.
2. Read books twice: For those books that Dobelli does choose to read, he reads them twice in succession. 
The result is that you read fewer books, and you read them better.
Maybe reading a book twice seems strange. But we listen to songs more than once. Why should it be different for books?
After all, what’s the point of reading a book when so much of the content slips away?
Dobelli adopted this practice of reading fewer books twice after reflecting on how little he remembered from the thousands of books in his personal library. 
He didn’t know what was more shameful: “my Swiss-cheese memory or the apparently negligible impact of so many of these books…”
As Dobelli puts it: “If a book leaves no trace in your brain – because it was a bad book or you read it badly – I’d count that as a waste of time.”
#2. Train your brain to read more efficiently
Productivity expert Josh Kaufman writes on his blog that, “Effective non-fiction reading does NOT start with picking up the book.”
Kaufman notes that you can multiply your reading effectiveness by doing two things before you start reading: “purpose-setting” and “priming.”
This is the act of deciding what you want to learn by reading a given book.
As Kaufman puts it, by figuring out what specific information would help you, the questions you want answered, and how you plan to apply the material, “you’ll make it much easier to recognize useful information when you find it.”
He suggests that the best way to purpose-set is to write down 8 to 10 questions before opening the book.
Kaufman writes that priming involves “programming” your brain to notice certain things in your environment. 
Have you ever been interested in a certain type of car, only to start seeing it everywhere you go? 
That’s what priming feels like. It’s not that there are all of a sudden thousands of new cars everywhere. They’ve always been there, but your brain previously filtered them out as irrelevant.
As Kaufman points out, “Your interest changed the filters, so you actually notice when they appear.”
Priming happens unconsciously, but you can control it if you know how. That’s the benefit of purpose-setting before you start reading. It works because it gives you a chance to prime your perceptual filters. 
Together, purpose-setting and priming take only a few minutes but they will help you read more efficiently and faster. 
“It feels like magic, but it’s just your brain doing its job.”
#3. You are what you read
Author and university president Steven Sample writes in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership that what you read can be as influential as the people you surround yourself with.
Both sets of choices inform your thoughts and behavior.
But with so many options and limited time, how do you make smart choices about what to read?
For Sample, one way to measure the quality of reading material is to consider its influence over time – how relevant and widely read it is after it was first published.
Imagine different types of published reading materials existing on a continuum of durability:
On the left are the lowest quality reading materials with the shortest lifespans
Daily news articles are the most obvious example. Even a front-page story in a national news outlet, which might be read by millions of people when it’s first published, has essentially no readers 24 hours later.
Magazines, industry publications, and most newly published books are also in this category. As Sample notes, fewer than 1 in 200 of all books published in the US are still in print and being purchased 10 years after they were first released.
Near the middle
This part of the durability continuum includes influential journals and textbooks, as well as biographies, essays, and pieces of literature that are still being read 50 years or more after they were first published.
At the far right of the continuum are what Sample calls “supertexts”
These are the few dozen or so works that were published more than 400 years ago, and are still widely read today.
For Sample, the first 5 supertexts are obvious: the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon of Buddhism, and the Analects of Confucius. But supertexts also include works that aren’t religious or spiritual in nature: from Machiavelli’s The Prince to the plays of Shakespeare.
You may or may not agree that such books are great works of literature. But from the standpoint of their usefulness to you as a leader, that doesn’t matter.
They are important because they have been read by so many people over such a long period of time, and continue to exert extraordinary influence over the culture.
In an age of increasing change and turbulence, “a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or changing only slowly.”
Sample offers 3 tips for developing healthy reading habits:
1. In general, spend more of your time reading materials on the right end of the continuum rather than the left.
2. Try to filter daily news through your closest advisors or friends instead of getting it directly from news outlets. This assumes your advisors and friends are a group of varied and intelligent people, whose biases you know, and who have your best interests at heart.
3. For publications related to your industry, here too you should rely on your closest advisors or lieutenants to keep you informed of important developments and stories.
A good rule of thumb for a contrarian leader is to “go where your competitors don’t go and read what they don’t read.”
Do you think Warren Buffett or Bill Gates got ahead by slavishly reading the press in their fields?
Quote of the week
“These days I find myself rereading as much or more as I do reading. I think this was a tweet from an account on Twitter … and he basically said, ‘I don’t want to read everything. I just want to read the 100 great books over and over again.’
I think there’s a lot to that. It’s really more about identifying what are the great books to you, because different books speak to different people, and then really absorbing those.”
CEO of AngelList and investor Naval Ravikant in an interview on the The Knowledge Project podcast
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