Deep reading, or full engagement in a book, is an absolute joy. It is good for mind and spirit, and it is also a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy. Increasingly, people struggle to pay attention to just about anything, let alone a book. Yet deep reading confers many benefits above and beyond watching a YouTube video or skimming an article. These benefits include developing a richer understanding of a topic, increasing your ability to pay attention itself, and enhanced creative thinking.
Here are seven principles for developing a nonfiction deep reading habit. All are based on the latest research and real-world practice.
Use a hardcopy book.
Research shows you comprehend and connect information best when you read physical pages. There are two predominant theories for why this is the case: First, when you read physical pages there are no distractions, which e-reading and audiobooks inherently invite (there is nothing wrong with these modalities, but they are not the same as deep reading). Second, the brain retains information better when it’s associated with tactile experience.
Have no digital devices in the room.
Even if your phone is facedown on silent, or your laptop is closed and asleep, the mere sight of these devices and everything they represent—not to mention the willpower it takes not to check them—is a huge distraction. Keep them in a separate room.
Read with a pen or highlighter.
The more you engage with a book, the better. There is a big difference between passive reading (being read to) and active reading (being in conversation with). The latter promotes further absorption in the material and more associative thinking and subsequent creative insight.
Keep a notebook nearby.
Even if you are fully engaged in what you are reading, random thoughts will pop into your mind: emails to write, groceries to get, conversations to have, ideas for your next big project, etc. Jot these thoughts down so you do not lose them but can offload your brain from trying to hang on to them. Then, get back to the book.
Read for at least 30 minutes.
It takes time to get into a groove. There is nothing wrong with reading in the nooks and crannies of your day, or listening to an audiobook while walking your dog or doing household chores, but this is not the same thing as deep reading. It’s similar to exercise. There is nothing wrong with doing 10 push-ups here and there (actually, it’s great) but that’s not the same thing as a focused and deliberate workout.
Think of deep reading as a muscle: you’ve got to train it.
The ability to pay full attention and get absorbed in a book is built over time. It may be hard at first (especially if you are rusty), but it gets easier. Eventually, it becomes enjoyable. Be patient and stick to it. It’s worth it. In my coaching clients, I find it takes anywhere from three to four weeks for them to get into a solid deep reading habit, where it doesn’t feel to them like they are just constantly fighting off distractions. If you are feeling rusty, be sure to start with books that really draw your interest. These make the best inroads to developing a consistent deep reading habit.
Read as much as you can.
Books are the best bargain there is. There is no better place to get a rich distillation of insights and wisdom. I’ve helped 4-time Olympians move on from sport simply by recommending books. I’ve helped founders navigate rough waters the same way. From Bill Gates to Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the individuals whom people tend to deem wise and discerning all read a heck of a lot.
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