Steve Fenton

Disciplined reading

I have been reading books for quite a while and keep a record of everything I read (on Goodreads) along with a note on books I highly recommend to someone doing a similar role. I do this because I know that the biggest leaps I have made in terms of changing my mindset and increasing my skills has come from disciplined reading.

I use the term “disciplined reading” because I find it reasonably hard to read. There are always other things to do. In order to read a whole book (and actually absorb what it says) I need to set aside regular time to dedicate to it. I then need to protect the time from all of the other things that would happily occupy it.

The plan that works for me is setting aside at least three lunches a week to sit in a coffee-house and a couple of long soaks in the bath. This gets me a minimum of five hours of reading a week and I often do more.

Tracking your progress can help too. If you keep a list of books you read, you can get some motivation from seeing your progress. You can also be strict about finishing books in progress before starting a new book (this is especially useful when a great book comes out as you’ll eat up whatever you have in flight to get to that awesome new release).

Another trick you can play on yourself is to share the books with other people. Not only does it help to have other people reading the same stuff, you can bounce around the ideas and discuss what you’ve learned (not formally like some kind of book club, but just in light conversation) – I was recently told by a friend how a book I recommended blew their mind (Pragmatic Thinking and Learning) and we talked about some of the concepts from the book like other people might talk about a television show.

One really important thing to do when reading is to notice the hard bits. You’ll hit a section or chapter that doesn’t make sense. It will be hard work. This is a good thing to recognise. Stop for a second and admit that something about this part of the book is tough. It may be that the author didn’t use the right words – it happens. Another explanation is that the section contains something you just don’t know much about yet – so if you read it through and make an effort to understand it, this could well be the most important part of the book for you. The easy stuff might be easy because you already get it, the tough stuff might just be new to you.

None of this is to say that conferences, user groups, informal chats, podcasts, radio shows, and formal training don’t have their place. I am not opposed to any of these as methods of learning – but I don’t think anyone should rule out books because they contain a lot more detail and can be read in your own time. Most other methods of learning skim the surface because they are time-constrained, books are usually as long as they need to be. If you need to put down the book to think about what you just learned, you can. If you want to re-read a section because it didn’t make sense the first time, you can.

If you find it hard to read, it is likely that it isn’t actually because you don’t learn using this method and another method is better (although some people are wordy and other are visual) – the most likely reason you don’t want to read is because it is an effort for you and we all like to be a bit lazy. This was me until I put some discipline around how and when I was reading.

So disciplined reading is just a matter of:

  • Allocating time and sticking to it.
  • Keeping track of your books in some kind of list and using the list to inspire and motivate you.
  • Sharing books with other people and strike up conversations about them.
  • Recognising the hard bits and working out if they are the most important.
  • Working through the tough bits (they usually contain the most important stuff for you, which is why they seem tough).
  • Being disciplined about it – it is hard work at first but it gets easier with practice.

Written by Steve Fenton on