How to Get the Most from Your Reading Habit
Reading is not enough. Even rereading doesn’t help much, especially if you’re reading a book to learn a skill or understand an idea.
Mark Joseph Aduana
In a podcast, Naval Ravikant talks about his strategy for reading books, where he said:
I no longer care about the number of books I’ve read. What I care about the most now are ideas I’ve understood.
This line reminds me of a lesson that took me six years to learn.
In 2015 I wanted to start a blog.
I was an insurance salesman then, and I wanted to write blog posts about personal finance to share with my clients. Having no experience writing, I read books to learn it — from Stephen King’s On Writing to William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to E.B. White’s Elements of Style.
But I still haven’t written anything six years later, not even a single blog post.
I may have quit my job as an insurance salesman after a few years, but I kept reading and collecting books on writing. “I need to learn more about writing before I write anything,” I thought. But the more I read, the more I discover things I need to learn.
My “need to know” and “need to read” lists kept growing. I already know many things about writing, but why can’t I still write? I felt stuck.
One day, in March 2020, I decided to just do it. I grabbed a pen and sheet of paper and started writing my thoughts. I shifted my focus from reading more to practicing more.
It took me six years to learn this lesson:
The only way to learn how to write is to write. The only way to learn a skill is to practice.
Reading is not enough.
Even rereading doesn’t help much, especially if you’re reading a book to learn a skill or understand an idea.
As Sonke Ahren writes, “Rereading and reviewing does not confront us with the things we haven’t learned yet, although it makes us feel like we have.”
Reading broadens our perspective. It gives us new ideas and possibilities we were not aware of before. But reading leads only to familiarity.
And familiarity comes with a dangerous side effect: the more we become familiar with an idea, the more we believe we also understand it.
The Power of Digesting Ideas
“If we don’t try to verify our understanding during our studies, we will happily enjoy the feeling of getting smarter and more knowledgeable while in reality staying as dumb as we were.”
— Sonke Ahrens
Effective readers don’t just read books.
They don’t just feed themselves with information. They isolate them and reflect on how they relate to problems they care about the most.
- Naval Ravikant distills his notes into tweets. “My notetaking is twitter,” says Naval. “If I have some fundamental ‘ah-ha’ insight or concept, writing a Tweet forces me to distill it into a few characters.”
Tim Ferriss converts ideas into “next action steps.” He creates a box on the first few pages of a book and writes a list of “experiments” to try.
- Charlie Munger collects the most powerful principles from different disciplines and relates them to his experiences. This habit helps him understand human behavior and the market, resulting in better judgment.
- Richard Feynman forces himself to teach an idea he wants to understand more. “If you can’t explain an idea clearly, you don’t understand it yourself,” he said.
We can now consume more information than Shakespeare took in over his lifetime. Access to information is no longer our problem. Making sense of them is.
“The more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them.”
— Pico Iyer
Don’t just read. Engage.
It’s easy to get trapped in reading more and more.
We move forward to the next book that talks about the same idea without asking ourselves why we’re reading the book in the first place.
We can do better than that. We can do some things to engage with ideas more.
- Explain the idea you want to understand more to other people. Doing it reveals gaps in your understanding and forces you to fill those gaps. You don’t need to teach an actual person to do it, though. You can do it through writing. Just get a piece of paper and write about the idea like you’re talking to a friend.
- If you’re reading a book to acquire or improve a skill, convert ideas you’ve highlighted into drills you can practice and monitor. Say you’ve highlighted this passage from a book: “A gratitude practice is one way to boost your happiness levels. The happier you are, the better you can perform at work.” Your drill might be: “Every night before I sleep, I’ll write down three things I’m grateful for.” Do the drill repeatedly until you build a habit. Then the skill formation takes care of itself.
It is one thing to become familiar with an idea. It is another to understand it and translate it into a skill.
Mark Joseph Aduana
2x Top Writer. Loves reading about creativity, thinking, and effective learning strategies.