How to Finish A Book

One thing that’s come up after publishing my 2017 reading list is how surprised I am (and others are!) that I was able to read 53 books in a year.

True story: in 2016, I probably read 10 books, and finished … well, let’s say I read a lot of half books. It’s easy to get distracted by another book. Shiny object syndrome is real, and I found that I had started to skim everything. My obsessive reading of internet articles had made me a bad reader.

This was a wake-up call. If I couldn’t finish a book, was I really learning?

This prompted by 2017 experiments in attention, meditation, social media, and more. And slowly, I re-learned how to finish a book. Today I want to share two main things. First, what habits I worked on to change my ability to read books, and second, how to decide when NOT to finish a book.

The main habits I changed

  • Focusing on habits that changed how I showed up with my attention (no phones at the table; no phones in the morning—I regularly fail at this one; social media sabbaticals, meditation practice).
  • Social media on my phone. Every time I remove social media apps on my phone, I switch to reading on my phone or listening to courses and podcasts. When I do it, I leap forward in learning and book completion.
  • Social media sabbaticals. Taking breaks entirely, like for a month in the summer, increases the number of books I read.
  • Writing summaries of the books. Having to write a summary increases my learning.
  • Only picking two books per month. I get overwhelmed when my reading list is too long, and if instead I focus on just one or two books, I end up completing a lot more.
  • Accountability to my email list. By telling people I’d send a summary every month, I had an added way to keep me accountable.

Should you finish every book you read?

No. Definitely not. There are books that are just plain bad; and there are books that are full of information you already know. At this point in my life, I’ve read a couple hundred storytelling books. Not all of them teach me new information. In addition, I get a lot of books from people wanting me to review them, or as gifts from friends. There’s no way I have time to read them all, nor do I want to.

Here’s how to read books and decide whether or not to read them.

None of the books I read in the following way make it on my book list, to be clear.

Strategy #1: The ten-minute Friday pile

If a book comes my way that I didn’t want to read, and I’m not sure I need to read, I’ll put it in a stack by my desk called “The Ten Minute Friday Pile.” On Friday night, or at some point on a Friday, I’ll go to the stack and sit on the floor and start to leaf through the pile. It’s like a book pitch fest: they have to get my attention and make me want to read more. If I’m intrigued by the cover and the back flap, I’ll read the introduction. If I’m still intrigued and the writing is good, I’ll add it to my shelf. But if I’m not caught by the description, title, and introduction, then the book goes in the giveaway pile.

Strategy #2: The first and last chapter

When you have a book that’s repeating content you’ve already learned, and you’re confident that you know the material well enough that you teach it and act it already (that is, the knowledge is internalized into your bones), then reading the book is a waste of your time. Here’s how to check the contents of a book: first, read the introduction (10-15 minutes). Then, read the conclusion (10-15 minutes). Does everything in the end make sense? You probably don’t need to read the book. Skim the chapter contents and the main headers, and then pass the book along.

I learned this reading method from How To Read A Book, using the highlighter’s method, below.

Strategy #3: Read only the chapter you need

I first learned this from my dad, in watching his studies after he finished a PhD from Stanford. He wanted to continue to learn the material and stay at the top of his field, but he didn’t need to read the first ten chapters of most textbooks—he already knew (and taught) most of the material. He still bought most books from his field, and he’d read only the latest chapter with any new insights in his field.

Strategy #4: Swap highlights with a nerdy friend

As busy parents, my partner and I wish we could read 20 parenting books — but we’re often too busy parenting. What we’ll do is each read a book, highlight and annotate it, and then swap books to read only each other’s highlights. I’ve done this with friends before, too, and it’s a great way to get a map of the book without reading the entire thing.

What about you? What habits have you changed to read more books? What decision rules do you use to choose not to read a book?


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One Response to How to Finish A Book

  1. I’ve definitely fallen prey to “shiny object syndrome” with books, too. I’m making a rule for myself now that I’m allowed to read only 2 books at once: one fiction, and one non-fiction, and I can only abandon a book if I’m really not getting anything from it.