7 Quick Steps to Finishing a Non-Fiction Book in Half the Time While Retaining Twice as Much

Written by Scott February 16, 2010

Learn to Speed Read

Average Reading Time: 7 minutes

A few years ago I read a study that out of all the books purchased, only 10% of them are read past chapter 1. The statement blew my mind. But then again how many of you have piles of unread books on your shelves? I know I do. There are a number of reasons for the above statistic, not the least of which is that so many readers have never been taught an efficient way to get through a book. I hope to change that with this 6-step guide.

Over the past year or two I have been teaching speed reading techniques to students and business professionals for a company out of Chicago called The Iris Organization. I teach most of the one and two day weekend classes in San Francisco. It’s been a blast–I love teaching and I obviously love reading and the tools we teach can make such a big difference so quickly.

I figured it’s about time that I share some of the techniques with some of you readers. By following the below steps I am confident that you will be able to finish a non-fiction book in half the time it usually takes you and will retain upwards of twice as much information. And on top of that, you’ll actually be more invigorated to read and use what you learn.

So here they are. The 7 steps to finishing a non-fiction book in half the time:

1. Preview the material.

All of us would agree that we can usually do something better or quicker when we do it for the second, third or fourth time. It is the first exposure to something (a sport, game, dating, you name it) that requires the most care and time. Once we know what’s coming around a corner we don’t hesitate nearly as much. Reading is no different.

So many people race right into reading a new book without knowing hardly anything about it. Before reading a book, give yourself a feel for the material:

  • Read the front and back cover, inside flaps and table of contents.
  • Then spend 15 minutes or so reading the first and last paragraph of each chapter.

You will be amazed with the tidbits your mind picks up-from core ideas to characters and general flow. This step alone allowed me to finish a book in under a few hours after doing just this one step. It’s hard to realize how powerful it is until you give it a shot. The mind has an amazing ability of organizing and sorting through information. When we read a short bit from the intro and conclusion of each chapter it gives our subconscious mind so much more to work with when we actually read.

And who knows, after doing a quick preview maybe you realize you’ve learned all you want from the book or that it’s not what you expected and you decide to be done with the book all together. Embrace the art of not finishing if you don’t think it’s worth your time. If you’re still engaged, move on to step 2.

2. Warm up your eyes.

One of the most basic tricks to speed reading is getting your eyes used to seeing words at a much faster rate than you’re usually used to. Before reading, spend 5 minutes or so doing a simple speed drill– look at words 2-3 times faster than you’d be able to read them. Use a pen or your finger as a guide and force your eyes to fly through each line left to right, top to bottom. Do not worry about comprehension–this is a speed drill not a reading drill. You may not think it’s doing anything, but you’ll notice that when you go from such a rapid pace back to reading, you read at a much faster rate. By contrast your mind feels like it’s slowing down (and it is when compared to the pace of the drill) but it’s slowing down to a pace much faster then you’d usually read.

Steps 1 and 2 are akin to warming up before a big game. You’d never go into a sporting tournament without stretching and warming up or else you’d likely get hurt. A good warm up allows you to play the game at a higher level. The same goes for reading. You may not be at risk of getting hurt but you are at risk of wasting your time–one of the biggest dangers of all.

3. Set up an environment for success.

No matter how fast of a reader you are, the more distractions you have, the slower you’ll read and the less you’ll retain. Do yourself a favor and find a quiet place ideally away from other people and distractions. Concentration is usually best in the morning, sitting upright. Clear your mind and maybe even put on some soothing music (nothing with lyrics though). Do not expect to read effectively unless you are in an environment to do so.

4. Begin Reading.

Now that you’re warm and focused, let’s get to reading. Ideally use your hand or pen to guide your eyes and keep up your pace and concentration (our eyes are naturally attracted to motion). Using a guide while you read is one of the fastest most effective ways to increase speed and focus. I rarely read a book without using my finger to guide my eyes.

Also, take short breaks at least every 30 minutes if not more often. Maybe just to look away from the page, blink a few times or take a sip of water or a short walk. After 30 minutes of straight reading our eyes and mind will start to slow down and wander. Keep yourself sharp by allowing frequent breaks. Remember the goal is not to see how many hours straight you can read. It’s to finish a book while spending the least amount of your time staring at the pages.  Let’s be efficient about it.

5. Make comments in the margins and begin creating a mind map.

Repetition is what leads to retention. If you want to remember the details you need to write them down. Keep track of main ideas. Ideally take notes in a format that is more conducive to the way your mind processes information. Our minds do not think in line-by-line text. They think in images, colors, sounds, pictures and events. Make your notes visual and colorful if you can. Create a mind map. Mindmeister.com offers an awesome free app online for creating fun mind maps. For those of you who aren’t familiar with mind maps you might want to check out How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.

Add to your mind map after each reading session and especially once you’ve completed the book. Once you’re done, schedule 15-20 minutes to flip back throughout the pages to finish up your map and jot down any other ideas or tasks that came up as you were reading. I’ve found that reading triggers more ideas than almost anything else I do (other than travel and adventuring). Scribble them down the moment they come to mind so they don’t distract you from the rest of your reading.

6. Keep your momentum.

Most people get the most excitement for their book in the first few days of reading it. Take advantage of this and schedule time to enjoy the book when you have the most energy and enthusiasm for it. Most people who do not finish a book in a week or two often never finish it.

7. Tell people about it!

Retention is all about repetition (let me know if I’m repeating myself).  It is not until you can discuss and teach someone what you’ve learned, that you know it’s been internalized. If you finish a chapter right before a lunch date, spend the first couple minutes telling another person what you learned. This will burn it into your mind and do wonders for your ability to recall it in a day, week, month or even years later.

As soon as you finish the book, do the same thing. In my case one of my best retention techniques is to begin writing a review the moment I finish a good book. I also usually cannot stop talking about what I’ve read–just ask my fiancee. The more forms of repetition and teaching the better. You will know the stuff like the back of your hand. And the better you know it, the more likely you are to actually do and benefit from what you’ve learned. Isn’t that why we picked the book up in the first place anyway?

A Closing Story: Sharpening the Saw

Now I know what some of you are thinking. “He wants me to do all those things just to read a book? I’d rather not waste my time and get right to the book.”  This reminds me of a story I believe I first heard from Stephen Covey. It goes like this.

Two lumberjacks were asked to each cut down a tree and the person who finished first got the following day off as a prize. The problem is they both had very old and dull saws. So the first lumberjack does not waste a second. He goes straight to sawing. He’s working hard. But he’s not making much progress, although he knows that the more sawing he does, the closer he gets to cutting the tree down.

After 30 minutes of vigorous work, the lumberjack looks over to the other man and see’s him casually sitting on another log. The first man says to the next “what on earth are you doing? This is a race and you have not even started sawing.” The second man looks back calmly as he runs a sharpening stone over his saw. “The saw is dull. I’ve got to sharpen it before I can do any real work.”

The first lumberjack just laughs as he goes back to frantically sawing as the second man continues sharpening. Another 20 minutes later the first lumberjack can hardly pull the saw another time and he is only half way through the tree. At this point the second man puts down his sharpening stone, sets up to his untouched tree, and in one smooth stroke, cuts down the whole thing. He then sits back down and begins to plan his day off.

How often do you find yourself racing to do the cutting before you set yourself up for real success? Sharpening the saw applies to every walk of life. Be efficient with your time and you’ll have plenty more to share with others.

Enjoy the books on your shelf.

Before long you’ll need to buy a few more.


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