A new system for reading

If the bird is the word, three must be the number.

I have a healthy (until proven otherwise) obsession with the number three. It guides my thought about practically everything and anything, but it's also present on so many things in life.

Most great stories have three acts. The three pyramids of Giza. Past, present and future. Three great Star Wars movies. Exactly.

I also love reading. I'd say at least 50% of my leisure time is spent with the written word (on paper or digital format). But since there are always more books and articles than time to read them, and in order to avoid the stress of knowing we're always going to miss something, recently I started guiding my reading habits according to three (yep) simple rules:

  • 30 pages is enough. Not enough to grasp the key message, but enough to understand if it's worth grasping. If by page 30 of a book I'm not hooked, I stop reading. A writer has to hook our imaginations, and 30 pages should be enough to do just that. Need more pages? I say need more editing.
  • Love or leave. This one is a semi-corollary of the first rule, but powerful enough to stand on its own. Basically, if I don't instantly fall in love with an article/book/blog, I stop reading and move on. In a time of infinite resources but finite attention, first impressions matter more than ever.
  • Respect the attic. What helps my system complete full circle. Sherlock Holmes famously considered our brains to be like a little empty attic, which we stock with objects of our choosing. Since attention is finite, I don't want to decorate my attic with stuff that doesn't make me dream. This isn't the same as only reading about stuff directly related to work; it's about transversely choosing which different types of information will make my attic sustainable and unique.

A short bonus regarding long reads: in case of doubt, skip to the conclusion. If it's worthy of understanding how the author got there, read it all. If not, congratulations. You just avoided wasting time. (I owe this one to Jason Fried)

I have found this system to be incredibly relaxing, because I spend less time reading things which I don't really enjoy, and therefore have more time to read what matters to me (and also more time to go outside and experiment with photography, a recent new passion). Having cut my RSS feeds to 9 (3 x 3) essential references helps too.

All the information we have available only increases our stress levels and diminishes available time. We consume much more than we create, we read much more than we think, and it should be the other way around. We have to make sure we consume the things that truly matter to us, but only so that we have time to create something that matters to someone else.

Getting informed is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And life's too short for bad information.