Over the last few years on my journey of intentional self-improvement, I have read hundreds of books. If you are not yet including some daily reading time in your life, I urge you to do so. Regular reading has the potential to broaden your horizons and enrich your life in ways you hadn’t thought possible – I know this because I have experienced it personally. But all reading is not the same. If you’re a reader, there are some ways to seriously stuff up the benefits you can gain from even the greatest of books….

Reading to Self-Improve

photography: Florida Memory

(Note: Obviously – I hope – I’m not encouraging you to stuff up.  I’m highlighting these areas so that you can intentionally avoid them!  Hopefully my British sense of humour translates here.)

So here’s how to read great books really badly:

1. Read too much fiction

Fiction books are a great way to relax and disconnect for a while.  I love a good story, particularly a crime thriller or a sci-fi novel.

But as an intentional Self-Improver, reading non-fiction is generally more valuable to you.  There is a wealth of Self-Improvement information available in the form of books, eBooks, self-help websites, blogs, podcast transcriptions and more.  You won’t agree with everything you read, but the process of consuming and evaluating it will help you to organise and focus your thoughts.  You will undoubtedly find some ‘gems’ that will help you along your journey of Self-Improvement: ideas that challenge, quotations that inspire and stories that motivate.  Brain food indeed!

Consider adjusting your fiction/non-fiction balance.  On average, I read at least ten Self-Improvement books for every one fiction book.

2. Read too quickly

There are times when you need to read things quickly.  But during your daily reading time it usually isn’t a good idea.

Of course, there are specific skills, such as skimming, scanning and speed reading.  Each of these has a purpose (getting an overview, locating a particular section, consuming content as quickly as possible)  but they are not ideally suited to reading for Self-Improvement.  Take your time reading, allow your brain to soak up all the meaning.  Stop from time to time to consider what has been said.  Re-read a sentence, paragraph or even a whole chapter if you feel there is more to be absorbed.

Reading too quickly is like eating too quickly.  You miss out on some of the experiences of taste and texture (meaning and nuance).  In your hurry to get as much eaten as quickly as possible (finish the book) you have a poor experience (miss things) and end up with indigestion (information overload).  You do a disservice to both yourself and the cook (author).

3. Read cynically

I have heard it said that “some people’s minds are so open their brains fall out”.  This means they are easily influenced by every new piece of information without taking time to evaluate its accuracy or relevance.  They soak it all up and their opinions change with every new book, article or email they read.  This is not Self-Improvement!

However, some degree of open-mindedness is important when you read.  If you start reading a new book whilst cynically exclaiming, “Well this sounds like a load of New Age nonsense” or, “Looks like typical personal development mumbo-jumbo to me” there is little chance you will gain much from it.

Remember: yours is not the only way of looking at the world.  The book you are reading was written by someone whose opinions are valuable and deserve to be heard, whether you agree with them or not.  Reading their book is like having a conversation with them: it would be rude to dismiss their words out of hand or assume you already know what they are about to tell you.

Reading with an open mind is about striking a balance between
a) being confident in your own knowledge and beliefs, and
b) allowing other people’s perspectives to influence your thinking.
It’s a delicate balance, and one which is gained by allowing time for new ideas to percolate in your brain before accepting or rejecting them.

4. Read once

My daughter can happily watch a movie or musical more than once.  She has seen “Wicked” at least 5 times and would probably jump at the chance if you invited her again.  I’m the opposite:  I watch a film or see a stage show just once.  Then it’s time for something different.

However, I do very occasionally go back for a second viewing.  For me this is the definition of a ‘classic’ – if it’s good enough to see twice!  Examples would be the “Back To the Future” trilogy, any of the “Star Wars” or “Matrix” movies and (I can’t believe I’m admitting this in public) Abba the musical…

The truth is, we never get the full value of something the first time around.  My daughter has the right idea: re-watch a movie and you’ll spot something you hadn’t noticed before.  You already know the plot and so your attention will focus on something different such as nuances of character or a detail in the dialogue.  There is simply too much to take in the first time around and so our brain (apparently using something called the Reticular Activating System) notices just those things it thinks are important.

It’s the same when we read.  Unless you consider a particular Self-Improvement book to be totally unhelpful or irrelevant to you, I recommend you read it at least twice.  Not necessarily straight away: you might come back to it  after reading another.

I sometimes get halfway through a book and choose skip back to get more juice out of it before moving on to the next section.  Reading doesn’t have to be entirely linear: read actively and creatively.  Think of a good book like a good recipe – one you revisit often and experiment with.

5. Read without annotating

The second time you read a book, you might not want to go through the whole text.  This is why annotation is important.  As you read for the first time, find a way to make notes to guide your second reading.  If you’re reading a paper copy of the book you can add marginal notes, underline headings, or add small Post-It tabs to important pages.  I recommend you do this the first time through (as well as in any subsequent readings) because the things you notice straight away are often the most important and relevant to you.  If you’re reading an electronic copy of a book, there are annotations tools you can use within the Kindle reader or in other applications such as Evernote.  if all else fails, simply open a paper or electronic notepad and make a note of important page numbers or sections.

By adding these annotations you create a highly useful ‘road map’ for future readings of the book.  I also makes life easier when you are searching for that one section or quotation that you ‘know is in there somewhere’…

Even if you never return to the book to use your annotations, they are nevertheless a good way of crystallising and summarising your thoughts as you read.  ‘Noticing what you notice’ can give you interesting insights to guide your path of Self-Improvement.

6. Read without swiping

All great books contain quotations you will want to remember.  Having a library of inspiring, challenging or otherwise personally meaningful quotations is immensely valuable to the Self-Improver.  Don’t just annotate great phrases and sentences – “swipe” them!

A “swipe file” is a physical or electronic notebook intoi which you copy these valuable nuggets of meaning for future reference.  I use Evernote to keep my quotations together; use whatever works for you.  (Swipe files are often used by internet marketers to keep effective sales copy to hand, but they are equally valuable to the Self-Improver for keeping inspirational material close by)

In addition to noting down the quotation itself, always make a note of the book and author, too.  Then, when you want to re-use the quotation in your own content, you can attribute it to the author and give your reader a place to look for further ideas.  Always give credit where credit is due!

7. Read without taking action

The act of reading can be a valuable thing in and of itself, but as a Self-Improver, it’s rarely enough: you need to take action on what you read.  After all, why take time to gain valuable insights into ways to Self-Improve and then not go away and put them into practice?  Crazy!

Of course, it’s not always this easy.  There are often barriers to taking action, such as lack of motivation or fear of failure.  But in Self-Improvement, it is vital that you use your reading time to stimulate progress, not procrastinate from it!

So start now: take action.  If you’re not already reading daily, add it to your schedule right away.  Think about how you read: are you falling into one of the seven bad habits above?  If so, then take whatever action you need right now to Self-Improve.

To our continuing Self-Improvement and success!

David Hendra
The Self-Improvement Guy