Discuss: should reading be productivity hacked?

Was discussing this tweet with some friends. To me it feels like it comes from this productivity obsessed mindset which is misguided (and at worst even feels unsavory.)

I agree there are certain cases where you just want to ingest as much info as you can. Certain news stories or academic papers come to mind.

But for stories and literature it feels completely different and weird to subject them to this pressure to be efficient. Anyone else have this reaction? Maybe you can help me articulate better what bothers me about this mindset.

1 Like

Reacting to the tweet

Only #1 feels like a productivity hack – the other 3 steps feel appropriate for really close readings. And even #1 feels fine for most non-fiction; a lot of it could be trimmed down. I’m certainly an advocate for skimming and skipping to the good stuff. (For fiction, poetry, etc this wouldn’t feel right)

That said, it’s weird to present any of these steps as some kind of truth. It’s fine if that’s how this guy reads, but why does anyone else need to read this way? I read a lot and my only methodology is “read things I enjoy”. If anything I feel like this discourages people from reading; his steps sound like a lot of work.

Answering your actual question

Should reading be productivity hacked? Well, it depends why you’re reading. A quick non-fiction du jour, sure. Cookbooks, reference books… get what you need and get out. Poetry? Take it slow, read aloud. Fiction? Take it slow and stop if it’s not interesting. There’s no single correct way to read, so presenting one such solution makes me think he (or whoever) only reads one kind of book, and that’s the bigger problem in my opinion. It’s important to branch out and experience a variety of books!

This mindset also seems to assume you’ll never go back to a book; you squeeze as much as you can out of it and move on. Reading isn’t a to-do list. I greatly enjoy revisiting books (not just a Google Docs of juicy bits) and I wonder where there’s room for that in a productivity hack mindset.

Ultimately, the productivity hacking doesn’t bother me for some books… but I’m worried if this is someone’s approach to every book. I think they’d be missing out on some real joys of reading.

1 Like

Ha, interesting, I see how this can read as weird / annoying even though also a totally legitimate way to read. I think in part because of the framing of “consuming” books feels productivity-hacky and partly because it’s presented as the way rather than one way among many depending on context.

Totally agree with:

I do think the main critique here is that often when people present their reading-as-productivity-hack approach it’s done so in a way that foregrounds knowledge extraction, and in doing so seems to implicitly devalue all the other modes of reading that can be fun, engaging, escapist, illuminating, worthwhile in all kinds of different ways. So, not wrong per se, but overly narrow.

I also think that, in general, even if / when you do want to approach reading so as to maximize learning, on a more granular level I think it’s usually a lot more high leverage to be more particular in deciding what to read, vs. trying to read a given thing faster / more efficiently. In other words, I’d always much prefer to slowly read one truly outstanding fantastic mind-bending book than skim through a dozen mediocre ones. Even if it might take the same time in each case and I might learn more, in volume, with the latter, the reading experience of the one really great book I think is usually more transformative and memorable.

For me the oddest thing in this tweet is wanting to connect with the author to discuss. Leaving aside how it’s rather presumptuous (and hard to scale!) I’ve personally rarely had this urge; I’d think that in most cases chat with the author won’t get you a whole lot of value beyond what you’d get from reading the thing they carefully refined over months/years. Unless you’re both academics talking shop or something…for this and other reasons I think it’s often more fun and interesting to talk about a book with a variety of other people with different perspectives.

On a related note, I quite like some of what Readwise is building, and they have some good articles on their blog mainly on the reading for learning/productivity end of the spectrum: https://blog.readwise.io/ — info on e.g. remembering what you read, tagging to organize highlights, review workflow etc. If this were presented as The One True Way to Read Everything, it’d be a turnoff, but I think pretty clear it’s intended to help with things you want to learn, and totally unnecessary for plenty of other types of reading.

Yeah, you guys are right–it is a totally legitimate way to read. The types of books he reads vs the ones I had in mind when I read the tweet are, I think, very different (which I didn’t account for in having my kneejerk reaction!) Thank you for reminding me that there are many different ways to reading, many different types of books, and that reading habits are idiosyncratic anyway.

Especially hypocritical of me because I have been known to read the summary on the book jacket, then immediately flip through and read last fifth of a book first, instead of starting from the beginning. :stuck_out_tongue: For fiction! I do it because I want to get to the “good part” and I’m extremely impatient. If the good part is really good, I’ll go back and reread from the beginning. If the good part was not that great then I don’t pick the book back up. Reading on Kindle has actually curbed this habit, which is probably for the best.

Thinking on it more this habit of mine could be read as a type of productivity hack, since I essentially skip everything but the key moments and then use that to judge if I should read the rest of the book. But it’s more about curiosity/impatience than trying to maximize efficiency. But possibly still the wrong way to read. I probably wouldn’t unironically tweet about it to the whole world though.


For what it’s worth I don’t think there’s any wrong way to read; if you like reading the last fifth of a book first, go for it.

Brendan: I agree reaching out to the author seems a bit much. It definitely wouldn’t scale, and… in a way, who cares what the author thinks? I recently read Philip Pullman’s “Daemon Voices” (essays about storytelling, etc) – one of his essays addresses this. He often finds people are overly worried about what books are “really” about, or what the author intended the book to “mean”, and he argues that whatever you think it’s about, is what it’s about. Your experience with a book is valid no matter what the author intended.

Also agree that reading 1 good book slowly is better than reading 10 bad books quickly. But then you have to start admitting that some books are bad and not worth your time; a bold claim :wink:

1 Like

Agree there’s really no wrong way to read. I think more fun / interesting to think about what mode of reading best fits the circumstances (depending not just on the text itself but your mood, goals, etc.) I mentioned “How to Read a Book” in Developing a "non-reading" practice which I think talks about 4 or 5 ways/modes of reading…but really there are as many as we can scheme up and it’s fun to try reading / partially reading / non-reading in different ways!

Daemon Voices sounds really good! Will have to check that out. Haha I snuck a link reference to “Death of the Author” in my above post as that came to mind as a good argument for reader experience mattering more than authorial identity/intention; “who cares what the author thinks” I think sums up the core idea nicely.

Sure I think I’d lean to that side of the argument at least to some degree. Not to the extreme — as with how to read I think what to read depends on all kinds of factors that will be different for everyone — but I do find it very difficult to go full relativist when it comes to books & quality :upside_down_face: