Reading Efficiently


This post summarizes what I think are some effective ways to read with the specific goal of gaining the information written in the text as fast as possible. This should only really be done when you’re trying to learn something factual from the book, because doing this to fiction is a great way to make it unbearable to read.

Pain = Profit

Generally speaking, you learn more when you have to actively engage your brain. Actively engaging your brain is painful. Learn to embrace some masochism.

If you don’t actively think about what you’re reading, you’re just wasting your time. There’s a difference between reading and parsing text.

Lazily Evaluate the Book

Lazy evaluation is a term in computer science that refers to skipping computations until another computation requires them. This is also an efficient strategy for the reading we’re trying to do.

The mental model to keep in mind is that you should skip as far as you can until you get to a section that has some sort of dependence on the material you skipped. Once you hit that point, you should go back. If you never hit that point, then that book should have been split off into multiple independent books. However, you can always read each section separately.

Skimming is your most powerful tool. You’re only interested in learning new things, so reading what you already know is a waste of time. The exception to this is if you’re specifically reading a book that has a unorthodox view on some subject.

You Can Always Go Back

If you think you get the idea in some chunk, skip the rest of it. You can always go back. Reading a book in linear order is rarely that much more helpful than jumping around. (As a side note, that’s kind of sad. You’d hope a book would be better organized.)

In fact, you don’t want to really read the book the first time around. You want to skim it for big ideas and then (only if it seems worth reading deeper), drill down into those ideas in the 2nd pass. You can iteratively deepen your reading as necessary.

Review and Compare to Existing Knowledge

Make sure you take copious notes and link it to things you already know. I like ebooks because they allow for easy annotation and you can export annotations and compare them later.

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