One of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions is reading. People not only want to start reading or to read more, but they make resolutions to read one book per month or even a book per week in the new year. I have nothing against people wanting to read more. I encourage it. I love reading. I read daily. I read any good book that I can get my hands on. Reading is good for us. It improves our writing. It gives us inspiration. It gives us new ideas for things to work on as our ideas ultimately spring from other people’s ideas. It opens us to new perspectives and new ways of seeing the world.
Digital downtime: Noble silence and complete disconnection
First a story from my experience. I took some digital downtime to participate in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. Vipassana encourages students to disconnect, focus on their breathing and their body, and to generally live in the moment. I will not go into detail about the meditation itself. If curious please check out Celestine Chua’s post. That post introduced me to Vipassana more than a year ago so thanks Celestine! Two very interesting details about the retreat are:
- Complete disconnection. There was no Internet, no computers, no TV and no radio. If you had a mobile phone, books, magazines, or a notebook and pen with you, it was all locked up until the end of the course.
- Noble silence. Every student had to practice the noble silence which meant that you couldn’t communicate with anyone at the course. No talking, no hand signals, no physical contact – nothing at all.
These two points meant the total disconnection from the “distractions” of the mind that we spend most of our time on in our daily lives. You are left all alone with your mind and the noise in your head. This constant inner chatter and running commentary of our brains.
- No communication with other people
- No Internet surfing
- No writing
- No reading
- No consuming media
Spending 10 days being disconnected, I have found that having no distractions relieves stress and fosters creativity. When you find yourself in a situation without any of the usual distractions, your mind tends to wander. You will notice that it looks back and ahead, reflects and plans forward. It concentrates on these areas:
- Past experiences
- Future hopes and expectations
- Good times
- Bad times
All this thinking is great because it gives a clear image of where you have been, what you have achieved, where you are now and where you want to be in the short-term or long-term future. Another great thing by taking the digital downtime is that you reflect on the differences between the day without distractions and a normal day in your life. This brings me back to the New Year’s Resolutions.
It’s not about how many books you have read
The issue with a book per week / month resolution is just that. It feels unnatural. It feels forced. You should not force yourself to go through a book per week. Most resolutions end up in failures and you are setting yourself for a failure here as well. Reading is not about always being in motion. It is not about bragging how many books you have read in a year. It’s not just about ticking off another book from your long list. You cannot just go through a book after book in a frenzy like that. You can obviously get through a book per week but you won’t get much out of it. It is difficult to gain much from reading or even just remembering much if you hurry yourself like that.
Some days I just feel like a slave to my interests. I have such a deep desire for knowledge, I am very curious and need to go and know deeper to fill these gaps in my interests. The online world is the world of infinite information and it just amplifies this knowledge need. The amount of interesting material is overwhelming and I never get a sense of completion browsing through it and consuming it all so I spend hours wasted on it. Curiosity can seem like an addiction and this addiction just gets magnified by my attempts to feed it. The sea of knowledge gets deeper as I go further into it. Some days it feels like I just tick one off the list and it’s over to the next one. Consuming all this information doesn’t necessary mean that I get the knowledge and end using it practically. Having access to and consuming all the information doesn’t make me smarter. Having all the facts doesn’t necessary mean that I have the understanding. Sometimes (or some days most of the time) I cannot even remember or recall too many facts about what I have read and that makes me wonder what the point was of spending time consuming it in the first place. Time is limited and I need to become more efficient with the way I spend my time.
You need to think as well as to read. You need to take notes and you need careful reflection on what you are reading or your reading efforts will be wasted. Reflection time also means that you might need to slow down your pace and not put yourself on a schedule that will incentivise you to speed things up. It is not about how many books you will read in the year, it is about what you will get out of reading all these books. What will you learn from these books? How will reading improve you as a person? What learning’s will you take to improve your career or the projects you are working on? These are the things we should care about. We should not care about how fast we read or how many books we go through.
Reduced capacity to absorb and retain
It’s not necessary only about reading books. It can only be about reading and browsing the net. I seem to have a strong need to be informed all the time even though sometimes it serves no real purpose. Checking emails, checking Twitter / Facebook / Linkedin, reading tons of new articles. This need to be informed seems to have reduced my capacity to absorb and retain what I read. Instead of getting a deeper understanding of a subject, I seem to just be using all the information as a shallow distraction and a waste of time.
Internet is a great tool for finding new information, but with this endless stream of distractions it gets you to a more shallow state of thinking. Do you find yourself reading an article, but forgetting what you have read? Can you remember the interesting tweets, Facebook posts and articles you read just last week? It seems that we are easily distracted and unfocused. We read something because we think it will be useful to us, but while we are reading, our mind wanders and we have so many different thoughts in our heads, which results in us not really getting what we just read. Multitasking and not being focused and concentrated doesn’t really work when you need to learn something or get something done.
Some things in our lives can easily be done with an automatic response – approve/delete comments on your site, scanning your reader, responding to Tweets. On the other hand most things that give a great benefit require awareness, time and consideration before they manifest themselves into real results. For us to get some value out of the information that we consume, it requires some reflection and analysis. It is important to be aware of few things:
- Are you transforming the data you consume into knowledge that you need?
- Are you just a consumer of data, or do you actually use the information?
Steps to mindful reading
I have the reading addiction myself. My appetite for knowledge and for reading grows even more as I am feeding it. With internet being such an amazing source of information some days I feel I cannot do anything other than reading more and clicking on further links. There is a danger of you being a slave to the schedule of a book per week and you should be aware of this when committing yourself. So how do you deal with reading in order to actually read mindfully and focus yourself to get something out of the time you spend reading? This is what I would suggest:
- Don’t have a strict schedule
- Pick relevant books that can teach you things (non-fiction instead of fiction, biographies of dead people etc)
- Disconnect. Pay attention. Read slowly. Don’t skim. Make sure to understand what you are reading
- Focus on that one thing you are doing, remove all the distractions. Think and reflect on what you are reading
- As soon as you realize that your mind has wandered off, focus back on what you were reading
- Highlight interesting paragraphs and quotes (if using Kindle this is pretty simple to do and you will have a nice overview of all your highlights)
- Write down notes, ideas and actionable points you get while reading or you will forget them. Keep a doc where you put in all these ideas and sort through the doc regularly to keep it organized. This is especially useful to help you with the writer’s block
- Implement ideas that you got from the things that you have read. Otherwise there is not much good in reading
- Stop. Always be aware of the reading addiction trap in order to make sure to spend more time producing something instead of always consuming something
For something to become true knowledge, it needs a mix of experience, skills, and the theoretical and practical understanding of it. By reading we might get the idea on the theoretical level, but it means nothing without also getting to experience it by practicing it. Doing this you will hopefully optimize the benefits you get from the information that you consume.