Slow Reading How-To Guide [With Pictures]

It’s sad. Sad that society believes that slow readers are dumb. That slow readers should become fast readers. That in the hurried age. You should not only think fast. But read fast as well. But what if I tell you that slow reading is not a curse. Not a reason to buy an extravagantly expensive online course to begin reading like an automatic rifle – fast and inaccurate. What if I tell you that slow reading is the right way to read, not something that needs fixing.

What used to be the most enjoyable part of my Saturday afternoon is something I now consider a chore. Reading, and more particularly reading lengthy books, gets me annoyed.

My concentration often starts to drift after only a couple of pages. I get irritated. I lose the thread. I begin thinking about something else to read. Something shorter. Or entirely cease this activity.

Not that the content is bad. Quite the opposite. The feeling of resentfulness is generated mostly because I know that there is so much else out there. So much content. A tiny voice appears in my head that nags “What if I can be reading something better at this moment?”

And after the above thought gets registered by the brain, I switch gears. I turn ON ultrasonic speed hoping to finish the book faster. I shut thinking about the content and I solely focus on finishing the content. Never actually immersing myself in the words. I only surf through them. Where does this lead me? I finish the book all right. But I never actually understand the book.

It’s not only me. It’s a widespread disease.

And how could this not be the case?

Fast! How fast you read seems to be the most praised quality of our time. With a gazillion of articles existing online and 2X speed being the norm of listening to podcasts, it’s no surprise.

Why do we desperately pursue consuming more content instead of enjoying the content we consume?

The logic in our brain is quite simple. It goes something like this: “The more I read, the more I’ll know. Therefore, I’ll make better decisions, complete my reading list, brag on Twitter that I’m a reading prodigy, and eventually I’ll dominate the world!” OK, that last part is not necessarily something we all say, but you get the idea.

But there is a major flaw in this way of reading – and thinking about reading. When your goal is to finish the content as fast as possible, you never actually think about the content in a practical way – plus you don’t enjoy the content.

This is where slow reading enters.

The slow reading movement ditches the fast lane. Gets out of the car, goes to the nearest park, throws the smartphone in a pit, and shuts off the world outside. Its main goal is to get your mind at rest. To help you get away from pinging electronic devices that want to interfere with your current reality and help you read, uninterrupted. Help you think about what you read and inspire you to find pleasure in the content you’re holding now. Not daydream about consuming other types of content.

In this post, my aim is to get you inspired. Inspired about taking it slow. Detaching yourself from the fast-paced world and finally start actively think about what you’re consuming.

Welcome to my Slow Reading How-to Guide.

Let’s begin with identifying what exactly is slow reading.

What is Slow Reading?

We can identify slow reading as the ability to completely concentrate on the topic we’re reading right now. Intentionally slowing down so we can increase comprehension. Pause, to think about the text, take notes, and consider how the content translates to our lives. Help us return to the prehistoric era without smartphones and without social media. Overall, better understand the content we are consuming.

Slow reading is like eating a dessert with a tiny little spoon. You don’t want to rush to finish your chocolate pudding, do you? You want to enjoy every little bit of the dessert. Slow reading is the same. You take your time. You chew on the content. You digest first, and then you swallow. It’s a very thorough type of reading. You completely focus and your imagination transfers to the place the author is presenting. It’s like playing a video game. You don’t only play the game. You are in the game. You see the book. You understand the characters. You feel them. You are in the book.

And as you can imagine, it’s not about finishing the title, fast. The pleasure comes from the focused activity of reading it. Therefore, we start to appreciate the text we are consuming much more.

But if slow reading is so pleasurable, why we have turned reading into a contest? Why do we feel “rewarded” solely by the number of books we read?

Because our society instilled a dangerous ideal in our heads. That reading slow means that you are behind. That slow reading is the equivalent of slow thinking.

In today’s economy, the knowledge economy, your salary largely depends on the content you’re able to consume. On your ability to do a lot of things at the same time (multitasking). That’s why we see the ability to finish more books and articles in less time as more profitable.

But are we indeed more valuable to the economy if we train ourselves to become robot-like scanners of information that focus mainly on the amount of content we consume, not the quality of the consumption?

Let’s see by defining the opposite of slow reading – fast reading. Let’s observe what’s the goal of speed reading.

The Goal of Fast Reading?

The goal of speed reading, or fast reading, is obvious. By using proven techniques – or at least that’s what course creators are saying – you get to finish a piece of content faster. The more content you consume, the more muscles you add to your brain. This way, your mind power should increase and your value as an employee should increase as well because you, theoretically, should solve problems faster.

Image showing the goal of fast reading - is to finish books.
The goal of fast reading is to finish books as fast as possible.

The conviction of why speed reading is valuable relies on simple mathematics. If you can read more books, articles, the now extremely famous Twitter threads faster, you introduce yourself to more stuff. And in the digital age, the more you know, the better.

We can even include the formula for speed to get the idea better in our brains. As you probably remember from school, time = distance ÷ speed.

So, if we increase the speed of reading, we’ll travel faster through the content and therefore reduce the time it takes us to read something. The less time it takes us to read something, the more we can read.

However, speed reading directly contradicts what scientists report about how the mind actually stores information. And as I noted in my previous article – what we know about forgetting – we are unable to hold newly introduced information for a long period of time especially if we simply surf through the content.1

If I can conclude, the goal of fast reading becomes finishing the book, the article, the video, the post. Not so much understanding the valuable insights mentioned inside. Even if we want to remember the content, we can’t. We simply forget it because we don’t give our brains the time to construct an internal web of pathways that we can later recall.

I don’t want to completely trash the concept of speed reading. There are times where skimming the content is useful. After all, you don’t want to waste time on every random post you see online. But if you want to acquire knowledge and actually expand your intelligence, you want to focus on slow reading.

The Goal of Slow Reading?

Imagine that you’re visiting the Vatican Palace. It’s your first time there. I actually had the pleasure to go there a couple of years ago. The place is huge. Full of art. Amazing.

And one of the most famous works is the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo. It’s something you definitely want to see while you’re alive.

So, imagine that you are entering the room. You are excited. You are thrilled. You politely push others so you can get to the best spot in the cathedral. And once you’re there, you don’t want to simply quickly glimpse the paintings on the ceiling and move on. You want to stay there for a while. To examine every stroke of the brush. To think about what Michelangelo was thinking about when he was creating this masterpiece. What’s the meaning of this painting? What’s the meaning of that painting? Of the other one? How he did all of this? How long it took? What I can do to make all of these people go away so I can just lay down and stare at the paintings alone?

The goal is the same when you are reading slow. You don’t just skim-read the content. You actively think about the words that unfold while you go through the pages. You continuously ask questions while you consume. Think about what type of problems you can solve with the information. Think about the goal of the author while presenting what you’re reading. Each page becomes a goal for digestion.

Image showing the goal of slow reading - to understand books.
The goal of slow reading is to understand what the books you read are all about.

This way of consumption is powerful because you transfer to a place of deep thinking. You start to see the content from different angles. It’s like holding something tangible in your hand – in this case, an idea – and inspecting it from all sides. You start to ask questions about how this idea can be incorporated into your life. Then, you change it. Mold it. Finally, this idea changes you. If you give it enough time, the way you think and the way you act will alter.

This is only partially what you get from the slow reading activity.

What Are The Benefits of Slow Reading?

We appoint all of the bad stuff that happens to us these days to social media. We think that social media is the root cause of our inability to concentrate. But the problem is not what’s happening in the Twitter threads or the Facebook comments. The problem is the way we consume the content that is presented.

It’s like driving a car.

You can drive fast. You can drive without your seat belt on. You can drive recklessly. This won’t only threaten your life, but also the life of others.

The same tool, our car, can be approached differently – with care. We can drive reasonably slow. Ensure that we’re safely buckled up. And stop to look every time we see a stop sign.

The tool is not the problem, but the way we manage it.

Our modern world is built upon the concept that fast is the only option if we want to move up in the world. In the same way that we believe that if we drive fast, we will get where we are going faster. We believe that consuming content fast will make us smarter faster. But that’s not really the case. Driving responsibly, as you know, is way better.

Similarly, slow reading is the safer bet when you are reading at least if you want to expand your knowledge. And comes with a lot of perks.

Here are some of the benefits of slow reading:

  • Relax the mind: Since there is no one forcing you to finish the article or the book in record time, you feel no pressure. You read without thinking about how long it will take you to finish the material. You simply read to understand it.
  • Concentration improves: The reason we can’t concentrate on a book for more than 10 seconds is simple. We’re bombarded by buzzing sounds. On a daily basis, we get tons of notifications. Emails. Slack notifications. Calls. Social media engagements. Conversely, if you regularly clear your schedule to do nothing besides reading, your mind will get better at focusing.
  • Deep thinking: What do you think will happen to your brain when you give it more free time with a wise companion – a wise fellow or an interesting book? That’s right, it will produce thoughts that were previously unimaginable. We’ll start to think beyond our current limiting beliefs. We will experience joy from having the conversation, not from trying to end it.
  • Make connections: Imagine putting together a jigsaw puzzle the same way you approach reading – fast. What’s the fun in that, right? And not only, but it will also be extremely hard to assemble the pieces if you move quickly through the puzzle. Only by slowing down, we can make proper association. By reading slow and taking more time to think about the content, you predispose the brain to invite different concepts in your working memory. This, ultimately, helps you play with different ideas in your head. Find new solutions to difficult problems.
  • Invent new things: There is a good reason people have their best ideas under the shower – we are alone and uninterrupted.2 Slow reading is the equivalent of taking a shower. Since there are no distractions, you get to become more creative.
  • Take notes: Copy-pasting passages from a book is not the best way to take notes. Writing down how the content you consume translates to your life. How you can use the content. What problems the text is solving is the best ways to take notes. All of this takes time.
  • Get smarter: 24/7 content consumption will make you more informed. There is no doubt about that. But being a know it all guru is surely not the same as being smart. You can win the arguments at the water cooler at work. But this won’t mean anything. You’ll simply gain the status of a smart-ass, which everyone avoids.

How Can You Improve Your Slow Reading?

Slow reading now sounds like the best cure for our hectic nature?

You’re absolutely right. It is.

It’s like your physically locking yourself in a closet with nothing more than a book and probably a lamp.

But how can you become a slow reader? And how can someone improve his slow reading?

The answer to this question is painfully simple.

You just block more free time with yourself. You pick a good book. You cancel all meetings. You place your phone inside the oven and you get to read and think.

It sounds child-like easy, but it’s not.

You can design your environment to become distraction-free, but the biggest producer of irrelevant thoughts is not the smartphone. It’s the brain. Therefore, to quiet the mind you also need to shut the irrelevant thoughts. Calm the monkey mind. Cage it. Throw a banana at it so it can leave you alone for a while.

On a more serious note, here are 3 simple ways you can use to become better at slow reading:

  • Schedule “thinking time”: Our brain is our greatest weapon. But it needs sharpening. You can’t produce good ideas on demand. It’s not like pressing a button and voila, you have a bagel. Thinking requires time. Uninterrupted time. Bill Gates is actually famous for taking solo “think weeks” in a cabin in the woods. You probably don’t have time to take a whole week. But you can surely afford a couple of hours per week to just think.3
  • Meditate: The power of meditation sounds too spiritual to some – me included in the past. But don’t imagine candles and awfully cheezy Instagram posts when you think about meditation. The goal of sitting on your buttwhole for a while is to make your mind more resilient to noise. Allow yourself to focus better for a longer period. To improve, I recommend reading this book: Waking Up by Sam Harris.
  • Get an accountability buddy: We are at war. The enemy is the busyness of our every day. The almost impossible to conquer incoming mail coming from different angles and the useless notifications piling up. Detaching yourself from all of these things can help, but it’s hard to do it all by yourself. The solution? Get help. You can convince your spouse to enter the battle with you. This way, you can reduce the noise together. Or, you can join groups where alone thinking time is the norm. Or, you can even join my membership program. By paying for the content you’ll be more willing to read the content.

Slow Reading Techniques

OK, we covered a lot of ground. All the way from what is slow reading to what you can do to become a slow reader to how to travel outside of your noisy neighborhood to become a boring librarian who fills notebooks full of thoughts.

But how to actually do it?

Here enters the practical, step-by-step guide teaching you how exactly to slow read. What follows is the equivalent of an Ikea instruction manual that aims to guide you from having an empty space in your home to having a well-arranged living room. Or in our case, a separate room in your brain holding the arsenal of tools that will help you get the most out of the books you read, reduce mind-wandering, and fight the outside spam with finesse.

In short, you get to understand what steps you can take to become a practical slow reader.

The technique is basically one.

It’s based on the famous note-taking method called SQ3R. I know, this sounds like a combination of strange letters Elon Musk would use to name a child. But there is actual meaning in the abbreviation. SQ3R stands for: survey, question, read, recite, and review.

This reading method was designed by Francis Robinson.4 His goal was to equip students with the mental tools they will need to better understand what they are reading.

Here is the whole process and how to use it while consuming content:

Slow Reading Technique: SQ3R Method:

1. Survey (S):

SQ3R-Method-phase-survey

The first step is easy. It’s even fun. You don’t start reading the book. You examine it. You skim through the pages. You go through the table of contents. The headings inside the chapters. Your goal is to get a sense of the content. To form an impression about the book. To spot what are the key questions the author is trying to answer and at the same time, formulate your own questions so you can later look for answers to them in the text.

What to do?

  • Read the introduction.
  • Skim through the book – see the headings, the images, the chapter summaries.
  • Think about the main problems the book is tackling.

2. Question (Q):

SQ3R-Method-phase-question

You can do this step before each chapter. The goal is simple, you form a set of questions for each section. The easiest way to do this is by converting the headings into questions. For example, one of the headings in Thinking in Bets is “Organized Skepticism: real skeptics make arguments and friends.” Based on this, we can ask the following questions: “What is organized skepticism?”; “How I can make arguments and at the same time friends?” This simple task creates a purpose for your reading.

What to do?

  • Before each chapter stop, and outline the main questions.
  • Turn the headings into questions.
  • You can also use the following general questions: What question is this chapter trying to answer? How can this information help me?

3. Read (R1):

SQ3R-Method-phase-read

Thanks to the background work you’ve done in the previous steps, you’ll now have a clear idea of what you should be doing besides reading. While you read, you won’t simply go through the text. You will look for the answers to the questions you’ve set. Basically, you transition from a passive to an active reader with a clear purpose.

What to do?

  • Stop often to think about the text so you can answer the questions.
  • Question the text and try to find arguments that both support and dismiss the idea.
  • Highlight the most important ideas. Don’t go overboard with highlighting because you’ll lose the main point.

4. Recite (R2):

SQ3R-Method-phase-recite

After you’re done with a chapter, take some time to do the following: Speak out loud about what the chapter is about. Answer the questions from the Q phase. Use only your memory. Don’t look at the notes yet. Additionally, you can also try to explain to a friend what the text is trying to explain. This simple task will strengthen your understanding and organize the thoughts in your mind. After the above, identify what you’re missing, go over the missing pieces, takes extra notes if needed.

What to do?

  • Recite the major points from the chapter before you look at your notes.
  • Summarize the chapter in your own words.
  • Rewrite what you wish to remember.

5. Review (R3):

SQ3R-Method-phase-review

The third and final R stands for Review. After you’re done with the book. Or, at the end of a section. Conduct a general review of the material. Look at your notes. Do they make sense? What is missing? What can be added? You can even go as far as creating flashcards with the major questions and ideas in the text. Since our memory is fragile, it’s important to read and reread our notes periodically. This way, the new information will find a permanent place in our heads.

What to do?

  • Review the questions and your notes.
  • Create flashcards to improve retention.
  • Schedule time to take action based on the text and review the content again.

Some Closing Thoughts

The lack of time to sit down and have an uninterrupted internal discussion about different ideas worries me. It worries me because failure to think about important questions about the world or our lives leads to superficial existence – and unsolved problems. You start to measure your life based on the number of things you possess. Based on your followers on Instagram. Based on how fast you consume articles.

I advocate for the opposite. A life where you mostly live slowly. Where you’re not rushing to read the next big trend or purchase the next flashy item that will make you feel good just for a short moment.

Reading slowly and making more time in your life to think shouldn’t be just something you occasionally do. These are essential components for a happy life. A life where your mind is actively thinking about ideas and new solutions to bigger problems.

Regardless of what the online gurus tell you. No amount of Twitter threads can make you richer, more productive, better at writing, or whatever. It’s about actively thinking about the content you are reading and doing something with it. In this avenue, slow reading can surely help.

If you’re interested in finding more time to think about important topics, you may also consider my membership. It’s about slowing down. Inspire you to read more big books. Challenge your assumptions and forced you to think about big questions.


Footnotes:

  1. Thielen, Joanna. Read Smarter, Not Faster: Reflections on a Speed Reading and Reading Retention Workshop for Engineering Graduate Students. Researchgate Publications.
  2. Widrich, Leo. Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity. Buffer Blog.
  3. You can read more about this topic by simply searching online for “think week Bill Gates”.
  4. Wikipedia. Francis P. Robinson. Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia.
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