How to Read A Book in 45 Minutes

If you’re anything like me, your reading list is longer than the number of hours in several days, and possibly longer than any human being could ever realistically consume even if she were able to spend all her waking hours in a lifelong Bill Gates-style think week. Every time I think about Eric Schmidt’s 2010 observation that we create more information every two days than was created in all the time before 2003 combined, I break out in hives.

When I co-founded Outside Angle, I wanted to be intentional about addressing the multitude of bad habits—or at least bad work hygiene practices—I’d allowed myself to develop in previous roles. No more days filled with calls from 7 am to 9 pm. No more cutting into precious sleeping time just to get exercise. No more sacrificing family time for any number of work-related reasons. And no more allowing my reading aspirations to badly outpace my actual reading. Easier said than done.

By the end of our first two quarters in business, my reading list was longer than ever and the books in my house started to outnumber the surfaces available to store them. Not only was I failing in my reading intention, I seemed to be careening backwards into a bottomless abyss of unread tomes filled with essential knowledge that I somehow neglected to consume, day after day. It was stressing me out. I knew it was time for a personal innovation, so I did a little research.

With due acknowledgement to Neil Pasricha and the awesome folks over a Book Riot, no one seemed to have devised a solution to my particular problem. And yes, I am aware of the techniques of speed reading. And I even became aware that there is a book about reading, but that seemed a lot like pounding coffee to forget your caffeine problem so I didn’t pick it up (turning over a new leaf!). In the end, I devised my own technique. Here it is.

Step 1: Read a book that you don’t want to savor.

This may seem obvious, but don’t apply this strategy to a book you want to experience in terms of putting yourself in a character’s environment (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale), paying attention to critical detail (e.g., A Study in Scarlet), or genuinely enjoying the unfolding of the story (e.g., The Call of the Wild or Black Leopard, Red Wolf). Do pick a book that has information you care about (or potentially care about), which generally falls into the non-fiction realm–although this also works if you want to get a general sense of a fiction story arc but don’t care to get into it. It’s an excellent strategy for identifying books that you want to spend more time with later.

Step 2: Get a print version.

This is key. If your Kindle is exploding with unread works, take a hint: You don’t like digital books. If this is the first time someone has spoken that truth to you, I am sorry to break it this way. It doesn’t matter that Kindle books are cheaper and faster if you never actually read them. If you care about those things, use a library. If you only consume books in audio form because you think it is just more efficient reading, you are probably wrong. And finally, if you have ever tried to scroll through an eReader to find something non-specific, you already agree with me.

Step 3: Read the table of contents.

You don’t have to have any kind of technique for this step; all you need to do is read the table of contents to understand two things: (1) How is the book organized?; and, (2) What specific content does it cover? Sometimes authors like to get cute and name chapters things that tell you nothing about what’s in them. If that’s the case, you will see that very quickly and should skip the table of contents and read the introduction–and, if that is filled with autobiographical or self-righteous nonsense then you have permission to get rid of the book without reading it at all.

Step 4: Anchor on headings and skim.

But first, make a choice: Option 1 is to identify the chapters that interest you most and focus your attention on those. Option 2 is to proceed with reviewing the full book. Either way, navigate to the first chapter of interest and read the first heading. For each heading of interest, skim the first paragraph. Skip further paragraphs (unless your interest is piqued), additional details, or sections that don’t add to your understanding. Make a note of anything you may want to come back to, and consider creating a journal dedicated to ideas that really strike you like I do (one journal, with ideas and citations, from anywhere you find ideas you want to come back to; NOT a diary).

Step 5: Close read segments of greatest interest.

Note that in step four I offered a conspicuous caveat: “Skip further paragraphs (unless your interest is piqued).” This is important; you should not make this into an excruciating exercise of not reading interesting things. One reason this process works well is that it helps you separate the wheat (stuff that violates your current assumptions and/or adds to what you know) from the chaff (stuff that conforms to your existing logic model or in no way makes you curious). Follow your curiosity. If, also like me, you can be curious about pretty much anything, do exercise a modicum of self restraint and prioritize that which makes you truly better off for having read it.

Pro tips

Give yourself at least 15 minutes, but ideally set aside 45 minutes to complete this in one sitting. It helps get the full picture and consolidate what you’ve learned. Practice this technique with 8-10 books; you may be able to go faster or slower after that, depending on the nature of books you’re reading and what you’re hoping to get out of them. And, finally, try to let go of the idea that you have to read every word. Think back to books you\’ve read before. How much do you actually remember? Chances are, not much. Maybe two or three big ideas. Why not get those ideas in 45 minutes instead of six or eight or twelve hours?

If you try this, let me know how it goes for you. I’m always excited to learn about even better innovations. Happy reading!