How I hacked my schedule and started reading books again

My tips for reading more, and a review of what I’ve read

At the beginning of every year I try to do some reflection and benchmarking on what I achieved in the previous year, what I hope to achieve in the upcoming year, and how I feel about my life in general. I wouldn’t call this making new years resolutions per se, but I do give this some serious brain power and I write down my conclusions.

This year I decided I wanted to start reading more books.

I used to read a lot, but over the past four years or so I’ve gone from reading many full books to reading almost exclusively blog posts, articles and other short form formats. I bet many of you are in the same boat.

I tried to identify the main reasons for my lack of reading books, and I came up with the following:

  • I no longer keep a night light next to my bed. I used to always have a book on my night stand and I’d turn on the light and read to fall asleep. Somewhere along the way the light from my reading lamp was replaced with the empty glow of my iPhone screen.
  • I moved very close to my office. I used to read whenever I had a commute on a bus or train, but I no longer have that time built in to my routine.
  • There’s just too much damn content out there. I don’t even think I consciously noticed that I stopped reading books. I was getting my content fix through my favorite blogs, email digests, Quora, Medium (sorry for the hypocrisy), links friends shared on Facebook, Twitter, you get the picture.

So I thought carefully about how I can reverse this trend and get back to reading books. I made a few small changes to my routine, and 7 months in to the year I can proudly say I’ve completed 11 books. BOOM!

Reading full books has given me a new level of insight into my life, my business, and my relationships. It’s made me think differently and the key points that I’ve extracted have been invaluable to my success so far this year.

I’ve tried to read a diverse mix of fiction, self help and business books. I know many of my friends like to skip the fiction, but if you’re not reading any today, I highly recommend starting.

I’ll soon give a short review of each of the books I’ve read in hopes of inspiring you to start reading as well. But before I do that, I’ll share the three techniques I implemented to start reading more.

1. I found the empty time in my schedule.

I no longer have a commute or a repeating period of time where I’m sitting around, but I did realize that I take my dog for two or three 20-minute walks each day. Now this was tricky to utilize, because I’m not sitting down and able to focus on a book like I was used to doing. I was, however, able to listen to something with headphones, and I usually spent this time just listening to music. I downloaded the audible app for iPhone and started listening to audio books instead.

Audio books are the hack of the century for reading more. Why? Because you can listen to the book at a faster than normal speed. I listen at 1.5x, which means while an average book is usually about 10 hours, it takes me only 7.5 hours to finish it.

2. I learned to stop reading as soon as I don’t enjoy it

I noticed that if I was reading a book I didn’t enjoy, I would easily lose focus and have to reread many of the pages. I would also start subconsciously dreading having to read it, and would revert to reading blog posts, listening to music, or doing other things to fill my time instead.

I think that we all develop this mechanism in high school that makes us feel that we have to finish reading the book we’re on, no matter what. As soon as I became aware that I was doing this, I started trashing books even only a chapter or two into them. Realize that you don’t get a badge for completing the book and there’s no special prize waiting for you on the last page. By the way, on audible you can return any book that you don’t like no matter how much you’ve already listened to, so that eliminates any of the price/ sunk cost bias you might have here.

3. I started to use a Kindle for reading at night

I mentioned that a night light and book next to my bed used to be my reading strategy. Well I took that, and powered up to the 2016 version. I now leave a Kindle next to my bed and make sure that I always have a book purchased and downloaded on it. The Kindle is even better than the reading lamp because the light doesn’t disturb my girlfriend, and it has a dark theme, which allows me to read and still fall asleep naturally.

I read a completely different book on Kindle than the book I’m listening to on Audible. This doesn’t bother me though, and I actually enjoy reading 2 in parallel.

So, without further ado, here are the books I’ve read so far in 2016:

Nexus by Ramez Naam

My rating: 5/5

This is one of the most thought-provoking and timely books I’ve read in my life. I was recommended, or rather mentally raped, to read this book by my good friend Jonathan Friedman. When I start a book or movie with high expectations, even if it is decent, it usually doesn’t quite live up to the hype and I’m let down. That was not the case here.

Nexus is a sci-fi novel based in the not too distant future (~2038). It’s basically the same world we live in today, but with slightly better technology, which makes the setting completely believable. The premise of the book is that a new drug is developed that lets users link their minds and telepathically speak to and feel each other. I won’t ruin it for you, but let me just say that this book mixes neuroscience, computer hacking, psychedelic drugs, electronic music, modern political issues and utopian societies. Hoochie mama.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

My rating: 4.5/5

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a sort of memoir of bhorowitz’ career, mostly focusing on his time as CEO of LoudCloud and then Opsware. There are absolute gems in here about management, dealing with people and how to handle stressful situations in life. Horowitz does a good job getting to the point and unlike other books in the field, it doesn’t feel like he had a page quota from his publisher that he needed to fill.

My only criticism of the book is that sometimes he discusses topics that seem so out of reach for the typical entrepreneur that it’s hard to relate. When he describes how his accountant “fucked him” in the days leading up to his $2 billion IPO and caused the valuation to drop by a couple hundred million, I was thinking to myself “OK noted. Now if I’m ever lucky enough to be in that situation let’s hope I remember this.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 3.5/5

I’m a Vonnegut fanboy. Slaughter House 5 is probably my favorite book of all time. This one is surely Vonnegut-esque, but doesn’t quite hit home the way SH5 or Cat’s Cradle do. If you haven’t read those yet but want to get into Vonnegut, start with one of them instead.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

My rating: 5/5

The 4-Hour Workweek gets my highest rating purely because of what it has inspired me to do. Ferriss gives actionable, practical advice from beginning to end. After reading, I was sold on the concept of passive income, automation and becoming financially and creatively independent. In fact, I’ve since quit my job to work on my own company, and convinced one of my best friends to do the same.

A word of advice, if you don’t want to feel like you should quit your job, travel the world and retire at 30, don’t read this book.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

My rating 4/5

Not the most exciting read and at times it was a struggle, but I learned a lot about predictions and how forecasting is done. Silver gives some cool insights into what weather forecasters really know, how the financial markets work and what really caused the 2008 housing bubble. I also learned some new methods of logical analysis and how to think about statistics.

Overall it’s a worthwhile read, but I’d reccommend doing it in parrallel with another, more exciting book.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 3.5/5

This is an almost realtime recount of Huxley’s experience with mescaline. The imagery is livid, and he jumps around between many interesting insights and realizations. I enjoyed the read, but it wasn’t earth shattering. The whole book is only 4 hours (regular speed) on Audible though, so not a significant time commitment.

The main reason I chose to read this book is because it suggests that the brain’s primary function is that of a filtering mechanism. In a sober state, the brain is mostly working to limit your thoughts to only the important ones, ie. what you need in order to survive. Huxley believes that mescaline turns off the filtering capabilities of the brain and that during his psychedelic trip he was simply experiencing the unfiltered stream of consciousness that is there all along. Think about that for a second.

Remote by Jason FriedDHH

My rating: 4/5

It’s super short so there’s no reason not to read it. Honestly I think it took me only 2 hours. Fried and DHH are my idols, and they give more insight into how they run their business and how most people are doing it all wrong.

I started working with a couple freelancers this year in my business, and was able to directly pull from the book to improve how I work with them. The tips that I took from it include: how to get updates, how to give positive reinforcement for good work, and how to hire better. It’s actionable and useful, but I still preferred their other book, Rework.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 5/5

In the beginning of the book he describes the history of several different species of humans. This is absolutely fascinating, mind-blowing stuff. Did you know that homo sapiens were alive at the same time as many other species of humans? And there’s significant evidence that sapiens purposely and actively killed off the other species?

The middle of the book gets a bit slow, but stick with it. Harari finishes off strong with brilliant insight into what the future has in store for the human race and what we might become. By the way, I found that the ending tied in almost freakishly too well with Nexus (described above).

The Circle by Dave Eggers

My rating 4.5/5

Another near future sci-fi read. The premise here is that a crazy, monolithic company (that seems eerily similar to Google) is pushing forward with all sorts of technological advancements.

Unlike today’s world where the popular notion is that privacy is a basic right for all humans, the Circle makes you think about the alternative: that privacy leads to secrecy, lying and deceit. It makes a convincing case for complete openness and for society to share everything.

The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss

My rating: 3/5

There are some great pieces of advice here and I love Tim’s “hack it” mentality. I’ve since changed my diet and workout routine, and can say that I’m feeling better and seeing results because of it. He also professes to measure everything; a technique that I’ve started to do more of and have applied to other dimensions of my life and business.

However this book only gets a 3 because I felt that significant portions were just void of anything useful for me. Maybe that’s just me though. Also the format of the book is strange. It reads like a scattered series of anecdotes rather than an ordered list of what you should do and change. I understand that the answer is not so simple, and for each person something different is required. However it could have been done in a more orderly fashion to make it easier to extract the actionable items.

Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by Dorie Clark

My rating: 4.5/5

This one is short, to the point and actionable. It’s about building your personal brand and becoming a thought leader. This is something I’m working hard on now. The book gave me several ideas that I want to implement on Hacking UI and introduce into our new program, The Side Project Accelerator. He addressed a few of my concerns about thought leadership as well, and gave some good advice on how to get over them.

Are you reading anything interesting? If so, please do let me know.

Almost all of the books I’ve read this year have been direct recommendations from friends.

Thank you Jonathan Friedman, Sagi Shrieber, Alon Porat, Noam Schwartz, Ilan Bar Magen, Tal Perry, and Eliran Zagbiv.