The Art of Reading More Effectively and Efficiently
It might seem odd to have a blog post devoted entirely to reading more effectively. After all, if you’re reading this, chances are you can read. But reading effectively and efficiently is its own skill – one that we’re never really taught how to do.
Throughout our academic life, we’re programmed to believe that effective reading is measured by speed and breadth. The more we can read, the smarter we look. And the more broadly we can read, the more intelligent we seem.
In fact, I’ve fallen prey to this myself, making a clickbait video called How I Read 100 Books a Year. Full disclosure: I don’t actually. It’s closer to 50. But that makes for a less clickable video (sorry, not sorry).
Because of this obsession we have with reading more, we miss out on a lot of valuable insights. Wisdom from across the ages, the lessons mastered by people who’ve overcome extraordinary challenges, and the chance to gain knowledge that challenges our beliefs. All because we’re never taught the ultimate meta-skill: the art of reading.
Reading more effectively and efficiently means developing a watertight process to capture ideas, analyse arguments, and ask the right questions. It means identifying the right books to read, understanding the different reading goals, and using evidence-based techniques to increase reading productivity.
In many ways, improving the way we read is the number one skill that can change our lives for the better.
The Importance of Effective & Efficient Reading
“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read” – Mark Twain
Books have had an enormous impact on my own life. They’ve acted as a personal mentor, and as a vehicle for compounding knowledge.
🤓 Books have been my Personal Mentors
If someone asked me to name the most influential people in shaping my life (outside of my immediate family), I wouldn’t find it too hard to identify a group of people who’ve transformed my thinking through their incredible actions, ideas, and journeys. But the number one influence in my life wouldn’t be people at all. It would be books.
By reading lots of books (and by trying to read effectively), I’ve managed to accumulate decades worth of knowledge and experience from the world’s most incredible minds, with minimal personal effort. I’ve learned from mistakes without having to fail, I’ve learned from successes without having to take huge risks, and I’ve travelled thousands of miles without leaving the comfort of my bed in Cambridge.
Reading is the mentor without the cost, the pain, and the discomfort. I honestly wouldn’t have started 6med, my YouTube channel, or decided to write a book without the encouragement, motivation, inspiration, and boundless insights offered by my paper friends. Seriously. My only regret is that I didn’t learn to read properly sooner.
🧠 Books help us Compound Knowledge
“Compound interest is the 8th Wonder of the World” – Albert Einstein
Just as money accumulates exponentially, so too does personal knowledge as it snowballs and branches out over time. In other words, the more we read and the better our reading processes are, the more our ideas, beliefs, and opinions begin to develop at an ever-increasing rate.
Not only does our brain begin effortlessly creating connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information, but cohesive and creative solutions to some of our most puzzling and perplexing problems gradually emerge. It’s a personal superpower that all of us have the opportunity to discover.
“To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else” – Da Vinci
The Reading Objective
Increasing our ability to read more effectively, as a means to unlock our own personal potential, begins by deciding on a reading goal. After all, we’re probably going to have a different objective and experience reading Paradise Lost compared to our favourite Harry Potter book.
Many brilliant authors talk about books as having a rather loose objective of success, happiness, and personal fulfilment. Roald Dahl, for instance, said that “if you are going to get anywhere in life, you have to read a lot of books”. And J. K. Rowling once said that “something very magical can happen when you read a good book”.
But I’d agree, these opinions are abstract, subjective, and largely unhelpful in guiding the way in which we should read. Instead, it’s easier and more useful for our purposes to segment reading objectives into three distinct categories, as identified by Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book.
🤪 Category 1: Reading to Entertain
In this category, we read books purely for enjoyment. It’s how we spend the majority of our time as readers. There are no rules and there’s no need to think too deeply or critically about what we’re reading. The goal is simple: we can relax and immerse ourselves in the story.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading to entertain ourselves.
It’s a healthy way to escape from everyday stress and, if you’re anything like me, a perfect way to finish a productive day of work. In particular, I enjoy reading (or listening to) fantasy novels (with the Brandon Sanderson books being a personal favourite). I even created a video on My Favourite Fantasy Books, which you can check out if you’re interested.
🗞 Category 2: Reading to Inform
In this second category, we read books to learn specific facts or information about something. These books are typically easy to navigate and simple in their layout and structure. This lets us consume them effortlessly and jump around to relevant sections without losing the gist of what’s being said. The goal is to learn without judgement.
For example, we’d read the newspaper, a tourist guide, or the Guinness World Records, all to inform. Although we may find aspects of each of them entertaining, we primarily read these things to develop a factual picture of current affairs, a particular location, or some other snippet of knowledge.
Again, for most of us, reading to inform isn’t too problematic.
📖 Category 3: Reading to Understand
It’s the final category of reading – reading to understand – that most of us (including me) tend to struggle with. It therefore deserves most of our attention when it comes to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our reading.
The problem is that out of the three reading categories, reading to understand requires the greatest cognitive effort. It forces us to challenge our preconceptions, critically analyse the status quo, and directly confront ideas that we may not be immediately comfortable with. This is hard. It can be uncomfortable. But it’s the only way for us to level-up our thinking and personal growth.
Ultimately, this is a skill that few of us have mastered. But it’s at the very heart of meaningful productivity and improving the way we read. Therefore, we need a method that takes us from reading at an elementary level (like when we’re reading to entertain and inform) to reading at an analytical or syntopical level.
Let’s dive into how we can do this.
The Four Levels of Reading
While the three categories of reading help guide our reading goal, the four cumulative levels of reading help guide our reading style. These levels were again devised by Mortimer Adler and operate to help us understand a book at a far deeper level than what most of us are used to. As we move up the levels we’ll not only find ourselves more capable of grasping the author’s perspectives and forge deeper insights, but we’ll have a process that works with every single book we decide to read.
This is great stuff.
👶 Level 1: Elementary Reading
The first level of reading is the style of reading that everyone knows how to do, as it’s what we’re taught in school. As an elementary reader we can easily understand the words on the page, follow the plot, and have a solid grasp of what the book is trying to say.
However, even at this elementary level, it’s easy to screw it up by trying to read too quickly.
As you know, I’m all about increasing productivity, but trying to improve reading speed before understanding the fundamentals of effective reading is only going to hinder our capacity to learn new information.
My advice – we should try and first improve our reading level. Then, once we’ve mastered the art of reading analytically, we can worry about reading faster (and we’ll talk more about this later).
“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension” – Adler
🔎 Level 2: Inspectional Reading
This second level of reading requires marginally more skill than at the elementary reading level. As an inspectional reader we’re tasked with unearthing the overall framework of the book and mapping out the general picture the author is trying to paint. The idea is that we’re making some preliminary calculations about the book’s content and worth before delving into it properly.
There are two aspects to inspectional reading: systematic skimming and superficial reading.
With systematic skimming our aim is to decide whether or not this is a book we actually want to spend the time reading. I like to ask myself “is this one of the greats that I’d happily spend the next few hours of my life looking at?”. If the answer is anything less than “hell yes!” then I won’t bother reading it.
To help me answer this question, I first look at the title, the blurb, and the contents page to determine what the book is about and understand its high-level structure. I then flip through the book concentrating on each chapter’s introduction, conclusion, and any sub-headings that interest me. In other words, I do a surface level examination of the book before writing a couple of sentences that neatly summarises everything.
Another way to systematically skim a book is by reading a book summary. My favourite way of doing this is with the service Shortform. If a book’s available on Shortform (they’re always adding new titles), I’ll read through the summary first, and if I think it’s interesting, I’ll buy the book on Kindle and read it properly.
The objective of superficial reading is to quickly read the book without stopping to reflect or analyse. Speed reading isn’t a problem here as we’re still not reading to understand, but seeing if it is interesting enough to continue onwards to level 3. This process shouldn’t take too long. And if the book doesn’t instantly grab us, we can just put it down. There are plenty of better books we could be reading.
A quick note – Sometimes, a book might be really good, but we’ve just encountered it at the wrong time. That’s okay. We don’t have to read it if we don’t find it interesting right now. We can always come back to it later.
🎓 Level 3: Analytical Reading
The third level of reading is about examining the book in-depth. I’ll be honest – I’m not great at this level of reading, but I’m always trying to improve.
Analytical reading involves discovering the book’s central meaning, evaluating the author’s arguments, and developing a thorough understanding of the book.
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” – Francis Bacon
In particular, this level requires us to actively read the book and “the more active the reading the better” (Adler). I’m a big fan of just making the book my own by highlighting text, linking arguments, and synthesising information through marginalia.
“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him” – Edgar Allen Poe
However, perhaps the most critical component of active reading is continually questioning what we’re being told. Specifically, there are three core questions that we should be asking when reading a book analytically:
The Holistic Stage: What is the book about as a whole?
We largely uncover the answer to this question during the systematic skimming and superficial reading within level 2. The main difference is that, in the holistic stage of level 3, we’re tasked with identifying the questions the author is asking and trying to solve. Put another way, what was it the author was trying to answer by writing this book?
Furthermore, our written summary of the book is going to be more comprehensive than a couple of sentences. Think about how the structure and ideas flow in general, helping to guide us to the given conclusion.
The Specific Stage: What is the book saying in detail and how is it being said?
While reading the book, we need to ensure we’ve fully understood the author’s approach and be comfortable with interpreting their thinking. We should take the time to identify the special keywords that the author has chosen, verify our understanding of them, and try to appreciate their perspective.
In each chapter, the author will also make certain claims and propositions, which we should restate in our own words and decide whether or not their argument is strong. We should carefully evaluate how these claims and propositions are connected, and check to see they flow logically from one point to the next.
The Veracity Stage: Is the book true, whether in whole or in part?
In the veracity stage, our task is to constructively analyse. To show where the author has been uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete in their arguments, clearly explaining what the shortcomings are and how the author’s reasoning could be improved. If we can’t do that then our criticism is unlikely to be constructive or valid.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks” – Adler
📚 Level 4: Syntopical Reading
The final level of reading is about our understanding of a subject more generally. Whereas analytical reading focuses on our comprehension of a specific book, syntopical reading helps shape our opinion and increase our overall fluency of the wider topic through understanding how different books relate to one another. This may sound a little abstract, but bear with me.
“The benefits [of syntopical reading] are so great that it is well worth the trouble of learning how to do it” – Adler
The first step is to begin by deciding the subject we want to tackle (eg: productivity or habit-formation). We can then draw up a bibliography of books on the topic, and select just a handful of them that we believe to be most relevant.
Having compiled the list of books, we can begin reading syntopically. This means reading each of the books analytically and building mental connections between each of them. I try to define common subject keywords in my own words, identify and answer the most pressing questions that the books collectively address, and make an informed decision about the strengths of each author’s argument.
“Creativity is just connecting things” – Steve Jobs
Through syntopical reading we’re connecting the best ideas on a subject, which acts as a powerful catalyst giving rise to creative solutions and real insight. It’s truly game-changing (when we actually do it).
How to Read More
Only once we’ve mastered how to read effectively, by working up the four levels, should we think about reading efficiently.
Reading more exposes us to more opinions, helps us build connections between different ideas, and entrenches our existing knowledge. Think of effective reading as a well constructed rocket, and efficient reading as a necessary upgrade to its performance. It just takes things up a notch.
There are three steps to reading more:
❤️ Step 1 – Love to Read
The first step of reading more is having the willingness to read more. And falling in love with the act of reading itself.
If you don’t already love reading, Naval offers some valuable advice:
Read what you love until you love to read
In other words, don’t just pick up the classics because “that’s what clever people do”. Find the books written on topics that fascinate you and by those people you admire most. Just as we can fall in love with exercise by finding the sports we enjoy, we can fall in love with reading by finding the books we enjoy. The ‘fun factor’ is essential to productive reading.
Similarly, if you begin reading a book and you aren’t enjoying it, then there’s no obligation to continue. Just stop. We don’t need to finish a book just because we started it. Otherwise we’d be committing to a classic sunk cost fallacy, investing further time into a book simply because we’ve spent valuable time on it already.
The truth is most books won’t deserve our attention. So find the books you love and discard the rest.
📱 Step 2 – Make it Easy to Access Books
Make it as easy as possible to pick up a book and read it.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d recommend here, it would be listening to audiobooks – particularly when reading to entertain rather than to understand. Personally, I’ve found audiobooks to be pretty awesome when working out or driving in my car, as this allows me to incorporate ‘reading’ into my life where I’d previously have been “too busy”. There’s literally no excuse for not reading.
However, when reading to understand and analyse, we’re going to want to actually carry the book around with us. Even a Kindle would suffice. That way we no longer have to waste time in queues, on public transport, or even when going to the toilet. Throughout the day you’ll find numerous opportunities to spend 5 or 10 minutes reading. So keep a book nearby. You don’t know when the next great reading opportunity will arise.
Other than that, try minimising distractions. One study in 2009 found that we’re exposed to approximately 100,000 words each day from all the media and information we consume. By comparison, that’s about the same length as one-quarter of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s a constant stream of disturbances that impede our ability to think and limit our desire to read well.
If you’re struggling with this, try creating a comfortable reading space, downloading a productivity app, or just being more mindful with your note taking. Anything that increases your focus.
👀 Step 3 – Work on Improving your Reading Techniques
The final, and least important aspect of effective and efficient reading, is technique. This is typically where most articles on reading begin but I’ve realised that this stuff is pointless unless everything else is in order.
If there’s one reading technique that’s going to help the most, it’s improving our consistency. Consistency really is king. Just as the key to YouTube growth is posting 1-3 new videos every week, the key to reading growth is picking up our book for a small chunk of time every day. Although James Clear recommends reading 20 pages at the start of our day, I think it’s easier to set a time target of 20 minutes. And if we have an average reading speed of 250 words per minute, we’ll roughly get through a book every week by doing this. Small actions really do lead to big results (see my video review of Atomic Habits for more on this).
Making a public commitment to reading is also incredibly powerful. In one study, it was found that the simple act of betting on a horse to win, and publicly committing to it, elevated the punter’s confidence in their chosen horse’s chance of winning. Taking a stand placed pressure on them to behave consistently with that commitment. Similarly, by using a site like Goodreads (please follow me lol), we can remain accountable and place reasonable pressure on ourself to stay true to our reading goals.
The final reading technique is speed reading. However, this comes with a word of warning: only speed read books that you don’t want to understand. Why is that? Well, when reading at speed we’re not going to have the time to think about what is being said or develop the insights necessary for true comprehension. As Woody Allen humorously observed: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
Despite this, reducing subvocalisation, reading the middle, and using a pointer are all valid speed reading techniques that may be appropriate with inspectional reading or when reading to inform.
“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you” – Adler
Reading is hard work, but if we want to rapidly build our knowledge and have high-impact ideas then it’s a crucial skill to learn. No true genius has got to where they were without understanding the importance of effective and efficient reading. It really is the number one factor that will change your life forever. I promise.
If you’re ready to commit to levelling up, why not check out the Notion template I use to take notes when reading. It incorporates the advice in this article and gives you a simple framework to capture your thoughts as you read.
You’ll never look at books the same way ever again.