About four years ago I decided to read 100 new books a year. I’ve kept up that habit until recently.
I stopped reading two new books a week because I forgot almost everything I learned more than a year earlier. And there’s no way you can remember even a quarter of a book you read three years ago.
I made this discovery this year when I started worrying about random things in my life. I thought, “Didn’t I deal with this issue years ago?”
And I was right, I’ve read a lot about worrying, I’ve coached people, and I even wrote a book about it. But I’m not a machine—I’m not immune to the challenges that we all face. No one is.
So I decided to re-read one of my all-time favorite personal development books, How To Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. After that, I remembered how to deal with worry again.
Once I realized that knowledge disappears quickly from our minds, I’ve been re-reading and studying at least one good book a week. We must arm ourselves against the challenge of life by repeating the things we learn so often that they become a habit.
If you want to master a particular skill, don’t assume that reading a few books on the topic will help you do that—it requires endless repetition. Ryan Holiday said it best in The Daily Stoic:
“When we repeat an action so often it becomes unconscious behavior, we can default to it without thinking.”
After re-reading close to 40 books this year, I want to share 5 tips with you that can help you master the skills that you value in life.
1. Keep your all-time favorite books close
The books you want to master need to be in a place where you see them every day. Keep them on your desk, on your nightstand, on the dinner table.
Let the books remind you of what you want to get out of life. A book like On The Shortness Of Life is a constant reminder that life must be lived.
That’s why I love to have it on my desk. I do the same with other books that are important to me like On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
So look at your life. What behaviors, characteristics, or skills do you want to make your own? What books are about those things? Keep those books close. But don’t keep a stack of 30 books on your desk. Pick only 1-2 books per topic. And stick to the best.
2. Make sure you’ve highlighted your books
I always highlight a book when I read it for the first time. Now, when I want to go back and study a book, I don’t need to reread everything. I look at my highlights, but I also read the whole paragraph.
Every time someone tells me they are afraid to highlight books or that they don’t want to buy books, I question that person’s will to learn. Look, what’s more important? Keeping your books neat? Or improving your life?
Highlight your books. Make notes on the pages. Turn the book into something that’s yours.
3. Grab a book and go through it in a day (or two)
I’ve learned that the meaning of a book changes over time. That’s not because of the book changes but because you change.
The first time I read The One Thing by Gary Keller, I learned about the power of compounding. The second time I read it, I learned about the importance of blocking large chunks of time to get meaningful work done.
That’s because I was in a different phase. And that’s also why you want to read good books more than once. The great thing about re-reading non-fiction books is that it doesn’t take much time.
If you’ve highlighted a book, you can go through the whole book in three to four hours, in my experience. I can do that in one or two days. And I always learn something new.
4. Make personal notes about the book in your journal
No matter how often you read a good book, you’ll still forget the majority of the content. It doesn’t matter how good or useful a book is, over time, we forget a lot of what we’ve learned.
But when you make notes about the things you’ve learned from a book, you start internalizing knowledge. Once you write about a topic in your own words, it becomes a part of your muscle memory.
That’s why I recommend writing notes to yourself in your journal. Just like Marcus Aurelius did in his journal (which later was published as Meditations). Tell yourself “do this” and “don’t do that.”
5. Repeat this process every week with a new book — multiple times a year
It’s better to re-read a good book several times a year, compared to reading a decent book only once or twice. So as you keep rereading books, narrow down your list.
I started with about 50 books I wanted to re-read. I’ve cut it down to half by now. My goal is to end up with 8 books that I will skim through once a month (two a week). Once the material becomes a habit and is in my muscle memory, I intend to move to another book.
There’s nothing new about this learning principle. It’s exactly the same strategy Bruce Lee used to become one of the biggest martial artists and actors in history. He said:
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Similarly, I don’t admire the person who has read 1,000 books, but I admire the person who has read one book 1,000 times.