A Smart Way to Pick What You Read

I found a way to stop wasting my time reading trashy books

Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

Time and attention are two of our most precious resources. What makes them so is the fact that they are painfully finite. There’s only so much of them to go around. If you’re anything like me, there’s nothing more infuriating than the feeling of having wasted your time and attention on an activity that should have been worthwhile, like reading a book.

We mostly read books for two reasons: entertainment or education. The latter could be formal education or self-education. Either way, we expect the books we read to add some value to us. But it’s a sad reality that that’s not always the case.

I used to love reading until it started to feel laborious. I’d start reading a book that I’ll later find to be, at best, gruesomely boring. But I’ll keep reading it because people seemed to rave about the book, so there had to be something of value in the book that I must be missing.

I’ll blow through my savings, buying piles of books that featured on several top bestsellers lists with a cheeky smug on my face, excited about how much smarter I was going to get after breezing through my newly acquired book pile.

Most times, I’d learn a lot from the books but I never really got to the point of ‘loving’ the book enough to read it a second time. In under two months, I’d have forgotten almost 80% of what I read in the previous book and then wonder why the hell I even bought/read that book in the first place.

It wasn’t until July last year that I started thinking about how to create a method to the madness of picking what to read. After several weeks of refining and several months of self-application, I’m finally confident enough to share this ‘method’ with you now. It works!

This method will help you decide whether a book is worth reading and will provide you with a 4-step process to go about selecting the books you read.

Disclaimer: I created this process with non-fiction books in mind; as that’s the genre I read almost exclusively. So if you’re an exclusive reader of fiction, this method might not apply to you. But if you’re still curious, please read on.

Is Book X worth reading?

Before picking a book to read, stop and ask yourself the above question. One of the worst things you could do as a reader is to start reading a book without first deciding if it is worth reading at that particular point in time. It might be an excellent book, but might be best read at a later time. If you value the time you spend reading a book, the least you could do is ensure that the book is worth the time you invest in it.

Before picking a book to read, make sure that it satisfies the R.E.A.D. criteria below:

R — Relevant

“How does this book connect to something that’s happening in my life right now?”

The books you’re reading should reflect the questions you’re grappling with at that specific point in time. That way, you’ll not only be more motivated to make it to the end of the book, but you’ll also be able to apply the lessons from the book into your life quickly. For example, if you’re currently preparing to immigrate to Japan, it only makes sense to read books about Japanese culture, history, or their current socio-economic situation.

E — Entertaining

“Will I really enjoy reading this book?”

Reading should be fun, no matter the subject matter of the book. If you don’t find the topic of the book to be interesting, then you should probably not read that book. Life is already hard; you shouldn’t compound it with uninteresting books. Just because everyone seems to find a book — or the topic it discusses — interesting doesn’t mean you would (or you should) too. If you’re more interested in something else, say applied math or meme culture, prioritise books related to that.

A — Applicable

“Can I apply the lessons from this book into something tangible?”

Any knowledge that isn’t translated (or translatable) into action is a waste. The whole point of learning things is to be able to do things. Knowing things just for the sake of knowing is pointless, in my opinion. If the knowledge a book promises you isn’t actionable or isn’t something that facilitates you to take action, please don’t read it. Pick up something else. For example, if you’re reading a biography of someone you admire, the book should inspire you to improve yourself by emulating some of the positive traits of the person the book talks about. If the book doesn’t seem to deliver that, please look for another book to read. Save yourself and your time.

D — Didactic

“Will this book help me learn, unlearn, or relearn something important?”

This point should go without saying, but you’ll be shocked how often we pick up books to read without asking ourselves this crucial question. Maybe if you read for entertainment, this question may not apply. But if your purpose of reading is to educate yourself, then this should be the most important criteria for picking up a book. Make sure it’s something that pushes the boundaries of what you already know. Any book you pick should either help you relearn something you might have forgotten, learn something completely new, or unlearn old paradigms. If a book doesn’t show promise of delivering on any of those, drop it like it’s hot.

How should you pick what to R.E.A.D.?

Here’s the 4-step process I mentioned earlier that you could use to choose what book to read:

Research widely: Leveraging as many sources as possible dramatically increases your chances of finding a great book to read. It’s fantastic and time-saving to ask for book recommendations from friends, colleagues, and family. But don’t depend on their recommendations alone. Go to Amazon or Goodreads. Search for the topic(s) you’re interested in and take note of titles that seem to come up at the top and not only have high ratings but have also been rated by a LOT of people. While this is not a guarantee that you’ll also find the book(s) valuable, it’s a pretty good indicator of whether a book is going to be worth your time especially if the book has been in the market for a while. With newer books, you’ll have to either take a leap of faith or skim through them to see what they’re about. Either way, research widely before making a pick.

Evaluate relevance: While you’re researching, make sure to pick the book that is most relevant to what you’re looking to learn. I’m mentioning this again because this is really the crux of selecting a great book. You see, there are two ways people read books: just-in-case (J.I.C.) and just-in-time (J.I.T.). People who read books J.I.C. plough through books that have no current significance in their lives. They rack up knowledge just in case it becomes useful at some nebulous point in the future. Most times, they never use that knowledge and they end up having wasted time acquiring that knowledge.

On the other hand, the people who read J.I.T. read books based on how relevant they are in their lives at present. They’re able to quickly apply the things they read to their current circumstances and, as a result, are able to remember more of what they read. Become one of those J.I.T. readers by ensuring that the book you pick equips you with the skills or knowledge that you need presently. Such books would be more valuable.

Assess alternatives: Make sure you have a list to choose from. Assuming you’re interested in learning more about China’s political system, don’t just pick up the first book you find related to the topic. No. Curate a list of maybe ten books that discuss the political system in China. Assess each one of them based on how relevant, entertaining, applicable, and didactic they are. From that, make a selection of you top three or top five.

Why that range? I’ve found that once you read 3–5 outstanding books on any topic, you’ve covered most of what you need to know about that topic; at a general level at least. All other books will simply regurgitate the ideas mentioned or expounded in the previous books you’ve read. So once you’ve curated your list of 3–5 books related to your topic of interest, you’ve finally completed the selection process for great books that you’ll thoroughly enjoy and would be valuable to you. But you’re not done yet.

Decide order: Once you’ve finalised your list of 3–5 books on the topic, choose the order. I think you’ll agree with me on this: the order in which you read books greatly affects how well you grasp the concepts in each book and your ability to find connections among the concepts discussed.

For those of you who might not have time to create a list of 3–5 books before diving in, after finding that one book you think meets the R.E.A.D. criteria I shared earlier, check if the author of the book provided a list of related books at the end for further reading. If this is provided, select one of the suggested books (that meets the R.E.A.D. criteria, obviously) and start reading that one. And repeat the process until you’ve covered 3–5 books on the subject.

Why all this work just to pick a book?

It’s simple. The amount of time spent picking a great book pales in comparison to the time you’ll waste reading a book that wasn’t worth it. When you take the time to select the books you read thoroughly, you’ll position yourself to enjoy what you read and remember more from what you read.

I’ll expand on this in my next article in this Effective Reading Hacks series.

Content Designer at Facebook • Incoming Stanford MBA • ALU ’20 • Co-founder at EarlyAdmit & Designish

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