How to Increase Your Professional Reading

We all can agree that reading is good for the brain. Leaders from George Washington to General Patton leaned on books to fill their knowledge gaps, and their efforts paid off on the battlefield. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis reflected on the impacts of self-study in a 2004 email that went viral:

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

But, many of us struggle with finding time to read or even get through more than a handful of books in a calendar year. Seven years ago, I averaged about five books a year. Now, I read between 25 and 40 books a year. While this increase can be partially attributed to my deeper commitment to my development, I believe that the practices I adopted helped as well, and I would like to share some of them with you.

1. Read Three Books at Once

I used to tackle only one book at a time. And if I attempted a dense book, it might take me months to finish. Sometimes I struggled to pick it up if it was boring, so by the time I finished, I was burned out from reading (and lost 3 months in the process). Now I might read one dense book (10 pages at a time), one fiction book, and one popular leadership book. For instance, I might finish three to four books before I finish a dry 350-page book  packed with great knowledge. I found that this helps me keep pushing forward with my reading goals, while not sacrificing the quality of the books I read.

 2. Develop a Habit

We are all creatures of habit, so the quicker we can develop one, the more likely we are to stick with it. I read every morning and every night. I’m a morning person, so I get up at 5 am, brew a cup of coffee, and read a few pages before working out. I’m also sharper in the morning, so the material I tackle tends to be heavier. I always try to get in 10 pages before I leave for the day. At night, I read lighter material and try to get in 20 to 30 minutes of reading before bed. I also read fiction at night, because I find that it helps me escape the stresses of the day before I go to bed. There is even research that suggests that 6 minutes of reading before bed reduces stress by 68%. Whatever your rhythm might be, I recommend finding a good reading schedule that works for you.

3.  Track Your Reading

 Most runners track their mileage and weight lifters track their workouts, so why should readers be any different? I found that once I started keeping track of the number of books I read, my volume started to increase. Goodreads is a great way to do this. The site allows you to set reading goals, track your reading, see what your friends have on their bookshelves, and rate your books. I’ve grabbed several books after seeing a friend read them first. If you aren’t keen on letting the Internet know what you are reading, keep a notebook. I started out doing this, and I would even use it to write additional recommendations I came across in other books.

4. Try Audiobooks

If you have a commute to work or enjoy listening to podcasts while running, audiobooks are a great way to knock out a book and make time go quickly. Last year I subscribed to Audible, which gives me a book a month to work through in the car. They allow you to return books you don’t like. Once or twice, I’ve returned a book I couldn’t get into. Also, most military libraries and local public libraries have great audiobook selections if you don’t want to pay extra for audiobooks. Finally, if you’re worried about retaining what you listened to, keep a notebook in the car. When I listen to books on my commute, I typically write down a couple of insights in my notebook once I arrive at my destination. And if I really like the book, I will buy a physical copy to keep in my library.

If you are looking for book recommendations, check out my reading list from this past year or join over 4k other readers who sign up my monthly Read of the Month email list. Each month I send out some thoughts on the books I’m reading. It’s a great way to learn about new titles. Click here to sign up.

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5 comments

  1. Great post and advice to start the new year! I’ve used all of these in some form to up my reading and comprehension. I’ve found that, in addition to reading multiple books at once, I like to have a different book in each format (hard copy, audio, electronic). I normally prefer hard copy, but it’s nice to have a reading app on the phone for the 10 (ok, 60…) minutes waiting at the DMV or in between picking the kids up from activities. You also alluded to iterating quickly, which I’ve found helps me to get to the books that I really love. I used to slog through a book that I didn’t enjoy just to say I’d finished. While no one likes to be a quitter or miss out on a gem in the next chapter, our time is limited so calling it quits on a bore or skipping to a chapter that is relevant works for me.

    Thanks again and best wishes for 2019! Give a good book to someone this year.

  2. Joe–thanks for this. A few tools that have worked for me:

    When using public libraries, Libby by Overdrive (https://meet.libbyapp.com/) is a great tool. Once you have a local public library account, you link Libby and can download e-books and audiobooks directly to your phone or tablet, free of charge, without setting foot in the library. There is also an option to crossload the e-books over to a Kindle for the designated loan period. A waiting period for popular books is common, but like most of us, I always have a long reading list to work through in the meantime. (Free.)

    While I ‘get’ the hardcopy/tactile book thing for some people, a Kindle or other e-reader is amazing, once you adjust. Being able to carry multiple books along wherever you go really helps to stay on track with reading goals. It also makes it easy to go back and refer to past books and your notes in them. It crossloads to the Kindle app on your phone, so you will always have your books with you, synced to your current reading progress, for hip-pocket reading opportunities. You can also crossload PDFs or use a browser bookmarklet to put online articles directly into the Kindle, rather than being stuck at your computer. (A refurb device can be pretty inexpensive, and e-book prices are reasonable.)

    For Kindle users, clippings.io is useful. It organizes all your Kindle notes and highlights into a searchable, sortable, filterable database which can be downloaded into a doc or spreadsheet or backed up to Evernote. (Free or just a few dollars a month, depending on your sync options.)

    Finally, I strongly agree with you on http://www.audible.com as a great use of driving and PT time–particularly fiction and the bigger-picture stuff that doesn’t drive note-taking or highlighting. (Reasonably priced.)

    And I’m just a standard issue, slightly OCD, cheapskate Army officer. I’m not receiving anything in exchange for the recommendations on these commercial tools.

    Keep up the good work on the site!

    • Sir- Thanks for your response and great supporting thoughts! I love the ability to search text on the kindle app. It helps me quickly find that phrase or idea I’m looking for.

  3. Great post!

    My problem is I’m reading 17 books at a time!

    I average about 25 books a year, including audiobooks (I have a two hour daily commute, and find Overdrive contains far too many interesting books for me to want to sub. to audible).

    I also found that writing reviews on Amazon (or Goodreads) helps me recall facts and arguments from books years after reading them. I’ve been reviewing books on Amazon for about 10 years now.

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