Being a more consistent active reader

A few simple ways to ensure you finish your books, papers & other reading materials.

Jan 07, 2024

For this new year, I'm guessing a bunch of people would've committed to reading books. For a small subset of these people, that'd translate to active reading, i.e. reading the kind of material that's not just for passive consumption (say fiction, or a biography) but requires active engagement of the mind (think maths/eng books, technical papers etc.).

Being in technology means to enjoys the process of learning. A few years of not doing that is a sure short way to outdate oneself. As such there're a few techniques that work for me, which is what I wish to share in this post. YMMV.

What makes active reading hard

Active reading requires the process of critical thinking while reading. This act of thinking, and the way it requires us to destroy our internal mental models while rebuilding them simultaneously, is not easy. For some folks, it might actually be even harder than the act of "doing" something. Plus, the PTSD of the mass education system usually takes away the joy of active reading via books for most people.

Veritasium's Science of Thinking is great video to refer to for some great analogies.

Even in tech, it's easier to "read that blog". After all, that book should've been a blog post became (still is?) a popular theme. While there's nothing wrong with these as starting points, without active engagement of the mind, the ideas just don't stick around for long.

So let's explore a few simple steps that can go a long way in re-wiring the brain for active reading.

Non-interruptible blocks

A useful mental model for me, has been to think about different activities as tasks that need to be scheduled on the brain, with a minimum non-interruptible time. So whether I'm reading a book, writing code, drafting this post, most creative/thinking tasks have an upfront non-interruptiple commitment of 30 mins for me.

Non-interruptible also means that I cannot choose to interrupt it myself. Whether I'm getting glassy eyed on a particular book section, or suffering from a chaotic mind at that moment, no escape is permitted. While that specific block's efficacy might vary, the mind still gets trained that escape isn't allowed, and eventually learns to better focus. A small-ish block size of 30 mins allows for this commitment to not feel overwhelming, while still training the mind to not give up too quickly.

Note that this isn't the same as calendarising, though that can be helpful for some people as well. I find it hard to calendarise creative thinking, so I prefer not to keep a schedule except for a very small set of routine tasks. I pick what I feel like working on at that moment, subject to the minimum commitment of a single block.

The daily tangible

If one is resuming active reading after a long time, they might find it easier to have some sort of a rule that says I will read X number of pages (I usually recommend 10 for highly technical material, and 20 otherwise) before I go to sleep. For me, phrasing it as before I go to sleep works better than daily, because it works on the same psychology as filling your health rings, or brushing your teeth before going to bed.

Once the habit has set in, it becomes easier to spread it out across the day, and let all of it count towards the daily tangible. Personally, I keep handy at my desk, a stack of technical papers and a set of books that I'm currently reading. As I don't calendarise my learning schedule, it's easy for my brain to switch over to Reddit at the end of the last block (say coding, or a meeting). But easy access to my reading materials allows me (often but not always) to switch to those instead of the monitor.

Skim not skip

A more personal choice (i.e. may not necessarily apply to everyone), is that if something gets too difficult, I skim but never skip. Else my brain quickly learns that it's easier to not absorb because Amod will skip to a different topic soon enough.

Leisure, not goals

It helps immensely to approach this activity as an act of leisure, not that of a goal around completing X number of books. It's particularly important because the speed of learning can vary quite a bit, not just between individuals, but even at different times for the same individual. Fighting the clock give the lazy part of our mind something to latch on to, and create a stream of distracting thoughts.

It's perhaps a bit fantastical, but an imagery that puts my mind at ease almost immediately is that of Frodo Baggins reading a book in The Shire.

frodo reading book in the shire (Stable Diffusion)
frodo reading book in the shire (credit: stable diffusion)

Note that the daily tangible part is more of a rule than a goal, because it focusses on the input not the output.

Community & gotchas

A very useful thing to have is a community of people who're on the same path as you. On this front, a couple of very important gotchas to bear in mind:

  1. Focus on communities where the culture tends to be that of inspiration not competition. It's super important, else things quickly degenerate into showcasing than learning.
  2. It's important to keep community time outside of your reading block. I learnt this the hard way, e.g. jumping to math.stackexchange inline into my reading flow, and before I knew the rest of the block had been spent on the Internet.

There're a few other tricks I use but I suspect these end up being the core for me, and ultimately the journey is unique for all of us, so best to just end it here. If any of this made a difference to you, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Happy learning!