For many years, I suffered from the ‘bored book-reader’ syndrome.
I guzzled Gladwellian books like beer. But others were tough to read. Sometimes, I’d read just twenty pages of a book in a month. Then I’d get bored and move on to the next one.
But in April 2017, all that changed.
I read this amazing post by Tim Ferriss, and started training myself to read faster.
On day 1, my reading speed was 221 Words Per Minute (WPM). But by day 4, I could read at the speed of 483 WPM. That’s a 118 percent jump in less than a week!
More on how I got there in a bit. First, let’s talk about a problem as widespread as McDonald’s joints.
The Causes of Poor Reading Habits
Many people want to read. Or they want to read more than they already do. But they run into two major roadblocks — boredom and lack of time.
Both these roadblocks are genuine. But they’re also excuses which will go down in the Bible of Procrastination as the ‘plagues which destroyed man’s potential to improve.’
When I thought I lacked time to read, I was lying to myself. In reality, I was bored because my mind didn’t perform at its peak state.
On looking around, I found that I wasn’t alone. Other people suffering from the same ‘illness’ as me. In fact, many were worse off. They knew what would happen in the following season of Game Of Thrones. But when it came to reading, they never could find time.
There are self-professed social media ‘influencers’ who struggle to find time to read. They love to write ‘bibliophile’ and ‘book-lover’ in their Twitter and Instagram bios. Ironically, sometimes they get the spelling of ‘bibliophile’ wrong.
This post isn’t about them.
If you’re one of the people who genuinely wants to read more but struggles, it could be because of one (or all) of the following reasons:
a. You read when you’re tired. At such times, the mind screams for an escape from anything that makes it think. Or, you keep your phone close. A single notification ringtone seduces you into media multitasking. One notification leads to another, and before you know it, ten minutes have passed. According to a study, bringing your complete attention back after getting distracted takes up to 25 minutes. The result? Boredom.
b. You read aloud. Loud reading makes people feel like they can retain everything. But it also slows them down. And a slow mind gets bored faster than a toddler with a toy.
c. You re-read sentences. How do you feel when you have to do the same task over and over again? Isn’t that why work bores the hell out of you? Your subconscious mind feels the same way when your re-read sentences.
The key while reading is not to understand every word, but to capture the essence.
The average human’s reading speed is around 200 WPM. But the mind is capable of reading faster — much faster. You can read up to 200 percent faster!
Don’t believe me? Check out this 15-second clip.
— Larry Kim (@larrykim) January 30, 2018
How I Doubled My Reading Speed In 4 Days
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how I did it (how I followed Tim’s tips to the ‘T’):
Step 1: I downloaded the free Metronome Beats app. Since I’m also a guitarist, the app helped me improve my speed at reading AND playing the guitar.
Step 2: I picked the book Sapiens to train myself. I began using a pencil — a tracker — to read, instead of merely relying on my eyes.
A tracker can be anything which guides your eyes to follow a word. It can be a pen, a pencil, a marker or your finger. It also serves as a pacer to maintain speed and reduce the time for which you fixate on a word.
I kept (keep) the pencil’s point below each word and moved it along the line (without marking the words).
Step 3: I started reading in saccadic movements.
A saccade is a quick movement of both eyes between two or more phases of fixation in the same direction. While reading it’s a temporary snapshot of the text within your focus area. Each fixation lasts ¼ to ½ a second for an untrained reader.
Here’s how I learned saccadic jumps while reading:
Technique — 1 minute
I used the pencil to track and pace one line per second.
Here’s where the Metronome app came in handy. I set the speed to 60 beats per minute (BPM) and the timer at one minute. I began reading from the first word of each line and ended at the last within one second.
Until the third day, I could comprehend nothing. But Tim forecasted it. Hence, I didn’t linger for more than a second per line.
Speed — 3 minutes
I repeated the above technique, reading each line for half a second. For this, I set the Metronome app to double speed (120 BPM), and the timer to three minutes.
If the previous exercise was tough, this one was exasperating. But it was important to condition my perceptual reflexes. You see, we use our peripherals often. While reading, we get distracted because our peripherals draw our attention to elements outside the book. Hence, it’s important to train your peripherals as part of this exercise. (Below is how I did it.)
I ended up daydreaming here. A lot. So will you. Become aware quickly and pull yourself back.
Training to Strengthen Perceptual Reflexes
If you focus on the center of your laptop screen, you can still see what’s on the sides, thanks to your peripherals. Here’s how I trained them to strengthen my perceptual reflexes.
Technique — 1 minute
I read each line for one second. I focused on the first and the last words of each line, and tried reading everything I could in between.
Technique — 1 minute
Next, I read the first two and last two words of each sentence. The time per line was still one second. Just like in the previous exercise, I set the Metronome app at 60 BPM for one minute.
Speed — 3 minutes
I began reading three words from the first line and ended with the last three. For this, I set the Metronome app to 120 BPM for three minutes.
Let alone meaning, I couldn’t even understand words for most of this exercise. I felt tempted to stop reading. But I knew I could return to the book after the exercise. When I did, I noticed I was already reading faster.
Do not worry about comprehension. This exercise is purely to train your peripherals and your mind. Follow these exercises with an open mind. Stick to it even if you doubt the results. If you don’t comprehend anything, you can always return to the book after your training.
I now read at around 500 words per minute.
Can I Read Faster?
Do I want to? Not right now.
I’ve met readers who boast of reading 1,000 WPM. They claimed to have read 30 books in 28 days. But when it came to retention, or just holding a conversation, they were as empty as my locker.
For me, reading is not about numbers. It’s not about how many books I’ve read in a year, or whether I’ve read titles which everyone raves about.
For me, reading is the cheapest investment in myself. (Okay, the second cheapest, after introspection.)
Through reading, I learn from authors. I apply their lessons to make my life slightly better than the day before. Through reading, I evolve as a person.
So I’ve plateaued at around 500 WPM. This speed is fast enough to be double the average, yet slow enough to let me ponder on how I can apply what I read.
My Current Reading Habits
I read twenty pages a day. This number varies sometimes. And I still use a pencil.
The pencil helps me in two ways. One, it’s a superb pacer. Second, it lets me mark insightful sentences and make notes in the margins. At the end of each session, I reflect on what I read.
Two weeks after finishing a book, I return to it and skim through the marked sentences and marginalia. Then, I transfer the concepts which resonate with me, to notecards. I’m currently using an empty shoebox as a makeshift storehouse for them. (h/t Maria Popova and Ryan Holiday for these tips.)
A good book educates you each time you read it. It makes you widen your horizons. You discover something new not just in the book, but in yourself too. If you don’t read a good book twice over, you haven’t done it justice.
That is why I love returning to books which impact my life. I skim through the marked sentences and notes. Or I just re-read the book in hyperspeed. Each time, something new reveals itself.
For instance, when I read India Unbound for the third time, I recognized how history is repeating itself. This taught me to look further into the past while forming an opinion, instead of relying on facts from the recent decade.
When I read the Power of Habit for the second time, the concept of keystone habits became clearer. Not just that, I figured out how I could use it in my life. I’ve read the book twice again after that.
Align your reading goals with those you’ve set for self improvement. For 2018, my reading goals are:
- To re-read books which have impacted me deeply.
- To read books which the authors have referenced in their literature and dive deeper into the subjects.
- To maintain notes and practice what I learn.
Goal for 2018: I don’t want to read 100 new books. I just want to reread the ones which have changed my life.
— Vishal Kataria (@Vishipedia) December 28, 2017
Where will your reading journey take you?