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If You’re Trying To Speed Up Your Reading, And Squeeze It Into Every Cranny Of Your Life, You’re Doing It Wrong

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Ryan Holiday

I love books. I love reading. I do it as much as I can. I tell people they should do the same and have for a long time. But when I hear that people are now actively working up their tolerance to listen to audiobooks on higher and higher speeds, try ‘hack’ reading through courses or apps, when they listen to snippets of books while they walk to the fridge, I just shake my head.

Guys, you’re doing it wrong! You’re missing the point!

Reading is like eating, sex and meditation. The whole point is that it’s pleasurable and meaningful. It’s like listening to music. You’re not supposed to rush through it.

But this is apparently the next big trend for entrepreneurs. As Quartz detailed earlier this week,

“I probably started reading ultra hardcore about seven or eight years ago,” says Tom Bilyeu, an entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. “Ultra hardcore” means that Bilyeu reads everywhere: While he brushes his teeth, while he gets dressed, in the 30 seconds it takes to cross rooms in his house, he’s reading.

“My big secret is,” says Bilyeu, “I read in all those little transitional moments.” Plus, for the last eight years, he’s optimized his intellectual consumption by listening to audiobooks at three times the normal speed.

I know Tom. We’ve even worked together before. He’s a great guy and a lover of books. But he’s doing it wrong and if you follow his example, you will be too.

The article goes out to talk about how with the advent of audiobooks, not only can people listen to books faster, they can ‘read’ while they do other things. Multitasking while reading is nonsense. It reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where George tries to incorporate food and watching sports into making love. Reading is good enough on its own man, and it’s not only justifiable on its own—it’s one of the best things you can be doing with your time.

There are only two other tasks that when added to reading improve it: 1. Sitting in a beautiful place. 2. Listening to a great soundtrack. Everything else isn’t additive—its subtractive.

The sad truth about the search for productivity hacks is that the logic is almost always penny wise and pound foolish. People spend an hour developing an email template that will save them 20 seconds when they respond to something…but then they willingly fly across the country for a three day conference where nothing gets accomplished. They scout out the best writing software and then procrastinate the act of actually sitting down to use it. They hire a virtual assistant to manage their schedule but they never question whether the meetings and phone calls even need to happen.

Take Tom’s strategy for example. People who use it make it sound like they are somehow getting a ton of reading done. Like way more than the rest of us Stone Age, analog humans. All the time you spend brushing your teeth and in other transitional moments add up—especially if you’re consuming at triple speed—seems like a compelling argument. Yet in the article it says he reads just 50 books a year. That’s only one a week!

If it was like 500, I think we might have to look at it and go, “Maybe they’re onto something.” I managed more than a book a week when I had two full-time jobs and was writing a book of my own. That’s not a brag, it’s just a fact. There was plenty of time because it was important to me. I made it part of my job. There are single mothers struggling to make ends meet that go through four library books a month, I’m sure of it. No hacks required!

There are so many things that can be cut out or de-prioritized before you ever need to start reading in the shower. There are so many things to optimize first (what books you’re reading, what you retain from those books, what you do with those books) that will have a bigger impact. But I’ll put it simply: You don’t need to squeeze reading into the in-between moments of your life, you need to squeeze the other crap out and make reading and reading well the priority.

Yesterday, I flew from Chicago to Austin. I had a first class upgrade and was surrounded by business people—all of them the exact type of person who would say things like “I’m too busy to read.” And what were they doing on this flight? Watching movies on their iPads, answering emails, chattering about bullshit. I was the only one who had a physical book open and actually reading. In two and a half hours of concentration, I got almost all the way through the book I had brought.

But getting close to finishing a book is not what I am proud of. I’m proud that I had a couple hours of quiet, reflective time. The book I am reading is about a man’s attempt to retract Coronado’s expedition through the Southwest on horseback. I was transported from that plane to the desert. To 500 years ago. I was away from the distractions of the world. I was moved by the writing. I was fully engaged. I was learning. I was still.

We have to remember, we don’t get a prize at the end of life for having churned through as many books as possible. Remember: quality over quantity. Always. It doesn’t matter how much you end up reading—your collection will never be bigger than a County Branch Library. But the selection can be better—it could be a lot better. The time you spend reading them, the time you carved out and gave to the process—that’s what you’ll remember at the end of your life. That is the prize.

So as someone who loves to read, who reads a lot and think people should read more, as someone who gets nice big checks at the end of the year from the sales of my own audiobooks, I’m begging you, please don’t deprive yourself of one of life’s most important experiences. Don’t pursue efficiency at the sake of efficacy. I get that these folks mean well—but they’re going about it wrong.

There is just one rule that great readers share: They value reading. They make it a priority. They don’t squeeze it in between their other priorities. They make it the priority. They know that from this, everything else follows—the more you read and the more time you make for it, the better you are at it. The more time you end up having for it (it creates success which creates leisure). They love it so much they aren’t trying to shove themselves full of it until they’re sick. No, they savor it.

And so should you. TC mark

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