How I Read Business Books In An Hour

About five years ago I almost completely stopped reading business books. I read a ton of them in the roughly 10 years prior as I was finishing college, leaving my job, and venturing out on my own. Some of it was that I had shifted my learning/doing balance to more doing and less learning. Another factor was that there just wasn’t that much out there new that interested me because of how much I had read previously. The biggest factor though, was that they just took too much time to read. I found that podcasts, magazines, and blogs fit better into my life. I could still get an in-depth perspective on a topic in less than an hour instead of 10+ hours spread over a month or two.

Earlier this year I came across How to Read a Book a Week in the Harvard Business Review. This single article changed my mentality entirely. Podcaster Peter Bregman describes a conversation that he had with one of his former professors about his struggles with keeping up with his reading load:

“I hope you’re not reading these books word-for-word like they’re fiction books,” he told me.

I told him I was.

“Listen,” he said, “you don’t need to read these books. You need to understand them.”

He explained more: Fiction demands that we enter a world of the author’s making, inspiring a more immersive experience. Nonfiction – at least the type we tend to read to support our work as business leaders – makes a point and asks us to learn from it.

Mind = blown. He’s right. He’s sooooo right. Why didn’t I think of that? He goes on to describe his process for “reading” a non-fiction book in 1-2 hours:

  1. Start with the author. Who wrote the book? Read his or her bio. If you can find a brief interview or article online about the author, read that quickly. It will give you a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.
  2. Read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents. What’s the big-picture argument of the book? How is that argument laid out? By now, you could probably describe the main idea of the book to someone who hasn’t read it.
  3. Read the introduction and the conclusion. The author makes their case in the opening and closing argument of the book. Read these two sections word for word but quickly. You already have a general sense of where the author is going, and these sections will tell you how they plan to get there (introduction) and what they hope you got out of it (conclusion).
  4. Read/skim each chapter. Read the title and anywhere from the first few paragraphs to the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using this chapter and where it fits into the argument of the book. Then skim through the headings and subheadings (if there are any) to get a feel for the flow. Read the first sentence of each paragraph and the last. If you get the meaning, move on. Otherwise, you may want to read the whole paragraph. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the chapter, you may be able to skim over whole pages, as the argument may be clear to you and also may repeat itself.
  5. End with the table of contents again. Once you’ve finished the book, return to the table of contents and summarize it in your head. Take a few moments to relive the flow of the book, the arguments you considered, the stories you remember, the journey you went on with the author.

I’ve tried this with a handful of books since reading this article back in February, and overall I love it. This methodology certainly has its pros and cons though.

The biggest pro, of course, is that I can get through a book in about an hour. The intimidating commitment is gone. If I have some time on a Sunday afternoon I can get through an entire book. This has motivated me to start buying interesting books again. I also find myself actively reading instead of passively reading. I’m using my phone to look stuff up. I’m jumping around from chapter to chapter, trying to actively seek out answers to the questions I have about the book’s main thesis. I have to work to piece it together.

The big con of course is that I lose some retention. You simply cannot replicate reading a book in 20 minute chunks over the course of a month. It’s like cramming for a test vs studying a few minutes each day. For this reason, any book that I really really want to read I’ll still probably read the old way. A recent example is Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton. That is such a great book that I would regret zipping through it like this.

Still, the pros greatly outweigh the cons for me. My retention is no worse than it is for a podcast or long-form magazine article. I can always open the book back up and flip through it quickly for a refresh.

Overall I think this is a great tool for business owners who want to read and learn and keep up with the latest business books, but might be willing to commit the time to read non-fiction books cover to cover.

Update 3/6/2017 – I don’t endorse this method quite as much anymore. I remember almost nothing about the books that I read like this last year, whereas a great book sticks with me for years and I find myself revisiting it on occasion. It’s a good tool to have in the tool chest when you need to read a book fast, but I’d prefer to pick less books and really immerse myself in them.

2 comments on How I Read Business Books In An Hour

  1. Rob says:

    An interesting way of doing things. The point is right though – many business books really only have a few central concepts they put forward and they could be distilled down to little more than an elevator pitch and still get 80% of the point across. So much rehashing goes on and I have stacks of books that add very little not covered elsewhere in my library.

    Another option for getting through stuff quickly if you must read it all is “spritzing” – http://spritzinc.com/ The android app “Reedy” is pretty good at making pdfs and websites readable in this way.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I hadn’t heard of Spritz…I’ll have to give it a try. The demo seemed to work better than other speed reading apps I’ve tried. The most difficult thing for me is that I naturally jump around a lot when I’m reading non-fiction. I’ll decide that a paragraph isn’t worth it and skip it midway through, then sometimes go back to it when I realize I do want to read it. Or something will catch my eye lower down on a page and I’ll just jump down there and not return if I think I’m not missing anything important.

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