Let me paint a scenario we’ve all experienced: You’ve just finished reading a great book. A highly praised, award-winning book that after the initial investigation, seemed like the most appropriate remedy. The cure you were looking for to fix your life in a specific area. But after a while, it becomes apparent. Your life is still not fixed. As if reading the book itself was a waste of time.
When you finish a book that promised to help you change for the better, and when you don’t change. Is it the author’s fault, or yours?
Usually, we’re quick to criticize the content of the book without ever questioning our reading technique. Or even more importantly: what we do after we’re done with the book.
The uncomfortable truth is that the inability to incorporate the suggested tips in the books we read is always our fault.
And it all starts with how we approach reading in the first place.
As an obsessed book lover and regular producer of actionable book summaries, reading is kind of the work I do. But, to be perfectly honest, up until recently, I didn’t pay much attention to how I approach reading.
Technically, you can read and understand a book without needing a meta reading game – a strategy that helps you read books better.
You can simply do this: Buy the most recent book that caught your eye. Come back home. Brew a cup of coffee. Put a do not disturb sign on your door. Play calming music, but not too calm, you don’t want to fall asleep. Finally, behold the book – smell it, hug it, take a picture, and immerse yourself in the fantasy world of reading.
Do you think this is enough to get the most out of the printed pages?
Well, it depends.
We can say similar things for running, for instance.
A professional athlete who hopes to win a gold medal can, technically, simply go on the track and run. But that’s not what professional athletes do, right?
They run, train, eat, exercise… strategically. Professional athletes don’t visit the track wearing pajamas and flip-flops. They don’t check their phones while they are running. And most certainly, they don’t complain that it’s too hard to run.
After all, that’s what they’ve signed for. Running is something they consciously decided to do. Therefore, approaching the task of running mindfully with respect and dedication is how they get better. And that’s why they can outrun a gazelle.
Similarly, having a reading strategy, a pre-reading set of activities, a meta reading game, can greatly impact what you do after you’re done with the book.
Not only that. It can completely change the way you approach books and along with that the way you comprehend the information you ingest.
In this article series, I approach becoming a better reader.
If you want to see the first post, check how to select your next book.
Specifically in this article, we’re going to observe something uncommon. Something not a lot of people consider. More precisely, what to do before you actually open the book and start reading it.
Why You Should Have a Strategy Before You Start Reading?
Why do people stretch before exercising? To stretch their muscles and to avoid cramps, right?
Having a pre-reading routine is a way to get in the mood for reading.
After all, reading books is often considered – and I also personally think it is – an exercise for the mind.
Books help you flex your mind. But if you’re not ready and if you try to “lift” a complicated book, you’ll “injure” your brain.
It’s like trying to lift more weight than what you can physically endure. Plainly, it hurts.
In the book-reading world, you’re not physically damaged. It means that you’ll stop reading. Or worse, if you’re not ready for reading, you won’t understand anything. You’ll just go through the text. See words but don’t make sense of them.
I’m saying this based on my experience.
If I just watched TV and I open a book, it’s really hard for me to concentrate. My brain is not prepared. Foggy. Still processing everything that happened on the screen – all the bullets and explosions. Thus, I can’t focus and I can’t really comprehend what I read.
If you’re often feeling the same way – glancing through the text without understanding a single word. You can try this:
What To Do Before Reading?
Obviously, you’ll need a book. And time.
Yes, you need both a good book and enough time to read the book.
I’m not going to mention selecting a book here. At this stage, I assume you’re already reading something.
If you want to know how to properly choose a book based on what you want to learn and stop asking yourself, “Should I continue reading this book?” read my article about strategically reading a book.
Back to the steps…
Considering the amount of time we have at our disposal, we can make the following categorization when we attempt reading: shallow reading and deep reading.
Let me explain these two briefly:
Shallow reading is when you stand in line, waiting to pick up a big latte at the local Starbucks, and you have a few minutes to spare.
Given the circumstances – all the noise and hopefully the short period of time we are going to wait – we can squeeze a few pages instead of further deteriorating our mind with mindless scrolling.
This, I call shallow reading.
When I have a few minutes to spare, I read. A couple of paragraphs, a page, probably two.
I don’t expect a lot here. Actually, my expectations in these situations are extremely low. I don’t expect to read a lot of text and I don’t expect to deeply understand what the author is saying.
In these cases, I want to either: 1) Remind myself of the last page I’ve read; 2) Make tiny progress; 3) Read instead of consume irrelevant information online.
This was shallow reading.
Let’s look at deep reading now:
Deep reading is a whole other game.
It’s like going to the gym.
After all, you don’t end up in the gym by accident. You go there with intention. Fully aware that you’re going to exercise for around an hour, or more.
Deep reading is deliberately scheduling time to read.
Personally, I set aside at least 30 minutes per day for reading during the workweek and around 2 hours per day during the weekend.
This depressingly predictable schedule ensures that I’ll read enough books to be able to write the summaries I promised to my members. And not only. I just prefer books to any other medium to learn.
Obviously, I’m not a robot and things often change.
A lot of times the desired 30 minutes per day are actually 10. Sometimes even 5. You know, one thing leads to the next and then the next and in the next scene, you find yourself in the bed. Your head is resting on your pillow wondering what the hell had happened and why you couldn’t get anything done.
We all have these days.
Seemingly doing a lot but without producing anything meaningful.
If you feel the say way frequently, don’t fret. Don’t let discouragement get you. Keep going even if the progress is painfully slow.
On these occasions, I promise myself to do this: I read one sentence.
If I had a super busy day and I didn’t have the chance to read for 30 minutes as I usually do, I just tell myself that I should read one sentence. I open the app on my phone and I read exactly one sentence. Usually, this turns to 2, 5, or more. Sometimes even a whole page. But I don’t go overboard. The goal is to preserve the habit of reading. To remind myself that I’m a person who reads every day.
Yes, it’s not like I’ve read a whole volume. But something is better than nothing.
The above, however, covers when and how to read.
Let’s now discuss what I think you should do before you start reading that can hopefully increase your comprehension and time spend reading.
What I do before I Start Reading a Book?
Here’s my process:
- Put reading on your schedule: Schedule when you’re going to read. Preferably in the morning. While your mind is still fresh, decide when you’re going to read. You think about your day for a minute, and you state that you’re going to read for X amount of time right before lunch. Or right after lunch. This verbal and/or mental scheduling will help you stick to your desired behavior. Or at least this works for me. If that sounds too unofficial, you can add reading to your actual schedule – I mean, literally, add it to your calendar app.
- Clear your head: If you had a busy day and if a lot of things have happened, write them down. Take a couple of minutes to get them out of your system. Sometimes I discuss things that happened during my day with my wife. The conversation helps me process these experiences so I can let them go. If you don’t do this and if you try to read, you will simply bounce between random thoughts. All of this, preventing you from concentrating.
- Calm down: If you just watched an action movie and you open a book, I bet you won’t get much done. Similarly to what happens to your car when you drive with 140 miles per hour and you suddenly hit the brakes – you overload the whole system. Watching an intense action movie with a lot of explosions and fight scenes, or a YouTube video at 2X speed about “is life meaningless” and then opening a book will confuse your brain. It will be difficult for you to concentrate. Our minds can’t make such drastic changes for a short period of time. We need a buffer. We need a couple of minutes to calm down to prepare for reading.
- Go to your quiet place: When my son was still a baby, I had more time for reading. I used to read out loud while he was playing with something right next to me. Now, this is not possible. He has a favorite literature genre (comics) and he doesn’t allow me to read anything else. That’s why I read either while he’s asleep or when he’s at kindergarten. Here, by quite place, I don’t want to say that you should have a dedicated room only for reading – while I’m sure it will be helpful – or that you should neglect your kids. Mainly I want to say that you should consider the right time for reading. Based on how a typical day of your life looks like, think about the perfect moment. To make things even better, sit in your favorite chair and prepare your favorite drink (coffee, tea, cappuccino).
- Block distractions: Buzzing sounds will only disturb you. If you still use social media, you can easily block all distractions by turning on the airplane mode on your phone. That I consider the focus button on my phone.
- Play some music: I have a reading playlist called While You Read. When I pump up the volume, I know it’s on. Reading time baby!
- Previewing: Before delving deep into the book, spend the first few minutes reminding yourself what happened. I mean, maybe you forgot where you ended yesterday. Spare the first few minutes of your reading time to familiarize yourself with the context. At this stage, you’re still not deeply reading. You’re getting up to speed with the content.
- Get your notebook: I use Google Keep to take notes while I read. Meaning that my notebook is always with me because I read on my phone. I rarely read physical books these days. But the point of this bullet is not only to get your notebook right by your side. It’s to get everything you use while you read within arm’s reach. After all, you don’t want to interrupt your session because you forgot your pen or your favorite reading toy.
After all the above is done, I want to point out one important, but often overlooked fact about improving your reading:
Consciously decide that you’re going to read.
This is something that I think a lot of people never consider.
It’s not commonly shared. And it sounds obvious.
This is what I mean: You need to convince your mind that you’re actually going to read the book in your hands.
To which, you’ll most probably reply: “Yeah, duh! Since I’m holding the book, I’m obviously going to read it. What are you talking about?”
It’s not that simple.
There is always an inner battle happening.
Our mind wants to save energy, while the only way to make progress is to waste energy.
Here’s how things look for me:
Obviously, if I’m waiting in line to get a coffee, I won’t have enough time to read a lot of text – the shallow reading mode I mentioned above.
In these situations, my mind usually says something like: “OK, looking at the line, we probably have around 5 minutes. What should we do, human? Personally, I prefer a quick snack of motivational quotes I’m fairly familiar with but always make me feel good, accompanied by an appetizer of clever Twitter threads. There is no point in trying to read your book, dude! You can’t make substantial progress in 5 minutes. Just give me irrelevant info that will make us both feel good, will ya?”
The mind always wants less friction – and it’s quite persuasive as you can see. And for good or bad reasons, the online world is full of bite-sized snippets of information that are perfect for these situations in our days.
I’m talking about… When we are in the elevator. When we are commuting using public transport or Uber. When all of our coworkers are staring at their phones during lunch and we decide to do the same.
If you don’t actively think about what you want to do, you’ll end up doom scrolling.
And I’m not going to lie, a lot of times I struggle myself. The short snippets of text are like tasty snacks that are great when you have just a few minutes to spare.
“We can just check this one thing or read James Clear’s newsletter that is super short and sweet,” says my mind. Trying to prevent me from opening my reading app.
To win the argument with my lazy brain, I often have to summon all of my willpower. Force myself to read my book of choice. Yes, it’s only a couple of sentences, two pages at most, but it is still progress towards the end of the book.
Some Closing Thoughts
I imagine for many people the above sounds and looks like an unnecessary complication of the topic of reading.
Who needs steps, tricks, or guidance on what to do before you read?
“You just need to sit quietly and read the book. This should work, why did you just waste my time?”
I wish it was that simple.
The modern busyness attacking us from all sides is making us deeply flawed individuals who are unable to properly concentrate.
Precisely concentration is what we need if we want to read more and read better.
And all of this starts with the conscious decision that you’re going to read and not do anything else.
Continue improving your reading game by checking my third post in the mini-series on how to become a better reader: What To Do When Reading a Book? (8 While-Reading Activities)
Do yourself a favor:
Join Going Further: A 13-day email series on how to keep progressing in a world tirelessly pushing toward regression. Great for people who feel stuck in the endless loop of not doing.