You can train yourself to read and listen 300% faster. Being able to consume content faster is the ultimate productivity skill in three ways.
First, you learn more per unit time (read 3 books in the time someone else reads 1).
Second, it frees up time for every other part of life.
Third, it increases the rate at which you can think. Once you learn to listen at 4x speed, a normal speed conversation provides so much extra thinking time.
The underlying assumption in this article is that you are reading primarily for learning. For me, learning leads to enjoyment. However, I recognize that this isn’t universal.
Only 40% of speed reading is about reading words faster. The remaining 60% comes from the method you apply to reading. I’ll first, explain my ‘method’, and then how to ‘read words faster’.
Success in reading isn’t defined by # of pages read. It’s defined by insights gained per unit time.
To maximize insights, non-fiction books shouldn’t be read word-for-word. Instead:
To measure insights gained, observe your compulsion to take notes. If you are compelled to take lots of notes, that’s often a sign of an insightful book.
However, there are many exceptions to the ‘note-taking rule’. Biographies and fiction typically fall into the exempt category. “Dune” and “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman” have had an enormous impact on my life, yet I didn’t take many notes on them.
To have more insights from a book:
Typically, the main reason I’m not having insights is that the book is boring or repetitive. The solution? Read faster or read a different book.
Your knowledge base determines how quickly you can comprehend complex information.
Bill Gates can read 100s of challenging books because he has a large knowledge base.
If Bill and I read the same thing, he will learn more.
To build your knowledge base, try to gain multidisciplinary knowledge.
An example is Elon Musk. In his teenage years, Elon would read two books per day. His reading spanned philosophy, programming, science fiction, religion, engineering, physics, product design, and more.
This allowed for learning transfer. Learning transfer is taking knowledge from one domain and applying it to another.
Some of the best insights come from reading multiple books simultaneously. For example, reading Dune alongside Steve Jobs’ biography alongside Jeff Bezos’ shareholder letters was like chocolate ice cream with olive oil and salt; it sounds stupid, but is mind-blowing in practice.
Another way I increase insights is to consume similar content in concert. For example, I listen to 20 of one person’s podcasts in a row whilst reading their book. This is because (a) you get a complete picture of someone’s thinking, (b) repetition hammers home the key points, and (c) you can increase listening/reading speed since parts are repetitive and you are adjusted to the person’s style.
Speed reading is a useful tool. The problem is when we apply speed reading before first learning the right reading method — there’s no point speed reading what need not be read at all.
In any case, here are my top speed reading tips.
Use your left pointer finger, a pencil, or some other pointing device to pace yourself when reading. This is useful for a few reasons:
In every line we read, our eyes fixate on a certain number of words. We might fixate on 12 words, 8 words, or 4 words. The goal is to fixate on around 3 groups of words per line.
To make fewer fixations per line, you can try to use your peripheral vision. To force yourself to do this, you can indent an inch on either side of the book when reading and trust your peripheral to pick up the rest.
Lack of focus is one of the primary reasons for slow reading. Speed reading requires intense focus. I enjoy this focus since it allows me to have more insights per unit time.
Reading faster can increase comprehension because it forces you to focus.
Reading is like gym training — you need to stress your ‘reading muscles’ to grow. When reading unimportant content, force yourself to read above your current ability. You will comprehend a bit less, but it will pay off in the long run.
I don’t have any special hacks for learning to listen faster. It’s simply practice. Particularly practice outside of your comfort zone. If your comfort zone is 1.5x speed, listen to some content at 2x. If your comfort zone is 3.5x speed (as it is for me), listen at 4x speed. My friend claims to comprehend 6x speed.
To get to these speeds, you need to use specific apps:
It’s important to be selective about which content you listen to at faster speeds.
If it’s a new or complex topic, it pays to slow down.
If you’re tired, it pays to slow down. I notice my HRV and recovery scores correlated with my ability to listen quickly.
If it’s an audiobook of a biography or a more story-based podcast, it works to speed up.
It’s also easier to speed up when the audio quality is good, which is a combination of (a) your headphones, and (b) the speaker’s microphone.
So that’s it, if you take away one thing from this article it’s that success isn’t defined by # of pages read. It’s defined by insights gained per unit time. Learn what works for you to optimize that. Or don’t. It’s up to you!