Updated on 09.15.14

Reading Tactics For Personal Growth

Trent Hamm

Poetry Books by chillihead on Flickr!One topic that seems to come up time and time again in my reader mailbag columns is the concept of reading for personal growth. I hear questions all the time ranging from how to choose books that are worth reading, how to know when a book isn’t really providing answers for you, how to read faster, and how to actually apply learned information to one’s life.

In response to these questions, I’ve drawn up a list of tactics for people to use to get started on a successful habit of reading for personal growth. Using these tactics will help you get the most out of the books that you read, apply what you’ve learned to your own life, and actually grow (either professionally or personally) as a result of the reading.

Set aside a block of time each day for reading. Each and every day. Fifteen minutes or a half an hour is a good time to set aside for concentrated, focused reading. When you do this, go to a place in your home with minimal distractions – no television, few opportunities for interruption, and so on.

Start a journal to go along with your reading. When you start doing such focused reading, it’s well worth your while to start a journal to go along with it. For the last five minutes of your reading session, jot down your thoughts about what you just read, and do it every time. Doing this forces you to organize your thoughts about what you read and makes you go through those thoughts again.

Determine an area of your life that you’d like to improve. Perhaps you’d like to learn more about a particular topic, or maybe you’d prefer to simply improve upon a particular set of skills. Spend some time considering what exactly you’d like to educate yourself on. Perhaps, for example, you’d like to learn more about western philosophy – in particular, you’re trying to determine for yourself what the meaning of life is. That’s a good starting place.

Utilize the library – but do it carefully. It’s tempting to go to the library and leave with an armload of books, but for most readers who aren’t devoting hours to the written word each day, leaving with armloads is often a mistake, as books are left unread and quite often wind up being late returns. Instead, use the library to just find one or two books in your area at a time. That way, you’re more careful with your selection, you’re more likely to actually finish what you check out, and you’re less likely to accrue fines.

Start with the popular “survey” books in that area. Don’t jump in with an obscure book in the area you want to learn more about. Instead, choose a more general book that covers your area of interest broadly. Instead of diving straight into Kant or Nietzsche, choose something like Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. That way, you can start off with a general background in your field of interest.

Choose challenging books – but not too challenging. An appropriate book is one where you don’t already know all of the ideas before you pick it up, but you’re not completely lost by the end of the first or second chapter, either. You can usually figure this out by reading through the first chapter or two right at the library or bookstore. If it’s over your head, don’t be ashamed at choosing something simpler – you might find that after reading a few other books, that first hard book isn’t really so hard after all.

Don’t worry about the speed of your reading. Many readers write to me, worried that they’re not reading fast enough. My advice is usually that they’re not reading slow enough. Don’t worry about how fast you’re reading. The point of reading is to understand and absorb the ideas, and that’s a process that simply goes at different speeds for different people. The key to reading is to make sure that you’re picking up the ideas – speed will gradually come with practice as your brain becomes attuned to the process of reading.

Couple your reading with extensive use of online resources, especially Wikipedia. Whenever you hit upon something in a book that you don’t understand, don’t keep rolling. Stop. Do some research into the point that you don’t understand. Look up key terms and facts online – Wikipedia is a great place for this. When I’m reading a suitably challenging book, I might find myself stopping on every page to do this, but when I do it, I can move forward in the book without trouble or confusion.

Always try to extract the main point from what you’ve just read. At the end of each reading session, make an effort to try to identify what the main point of what you just read was. What did you learn from it that’s actually valuable? What did the piece you just read tell you about the broader subject in question? These are great things to think about and journal about.

If a book is boring you, figure out why. Some books are going to be exciting. Others are going to be boring. When you read a book that’s boring, don’t force yourself through it. Instead, stop and ask yourself why you’re bored. Is it the writing style? If so, find a similar book by a different writer. Is it the material itself? If so, you might be investigating an area you really don’t care about too much. If you continually force yourself to read things that are boring and unappealing to you, you’ll eventually begin to define reading itself as boring and unappealing – and that would be a huge mistake.

When you finish a book, reflect on the portions that really spoke to you. In virtually every book I’ve ever read, when I close that last page, some portion of the book sticks in my mind above all others. There’s almost always a thought or two that really speaks to me – and that’s what I want to remember from the book. These key thoughts and ideas are the ones where the book has really influenced your thinking – and they’re well worth jotting down to reflect on later.

Use those “influential” portions as a guide for future reading. The portions of a book that really spoke to you are often great guides for things you should read next. For example, if you were reading History of Western Philosophy and you were particularly struck by how philosophers reflected on great social change, you might want to follow up with philosophical works in that specific area. Doing so not only provides you with exciting reading, it also shines a light on you and what your true interests and ideas are.

Seek out people to discuss your reading with. Whenever I finish a book of note, I almost always go online and seek out places where people have written about the book to see if they drew similar conclusions to my own. Sometimes I find that people have the same ideas as I – other times, they have a completely different take. In either case, I learn even more from discussing the book and reading what others thought about it.

Give a “thirty day trial” to any new tactics you picked up. If the book has taught you a new tactic or two to try in your own life, give those tactics a concerted “thirty day trial.” Make a serious effort to try it out for thirty days and see whether or not it has the impact or results you were expecting. It may be something as simple as observing how people act, or it might be as complex as a new way to work, but you’ll never know how powerful it is until you actually try it.

Keep your eyes open for situations where you might apply your new ideas. Another way to integrate the things you learn into your daily life is to be conscious of situations where you may be able to apply these things. For example, let’s say you read a book on how to handle angry customers. It’s well worth your while to keep your eyes open for customers who are reacting negatively towards their service. Another example: if you learned about a new computer programming technique, look for opportunities to actively apply that technique. Actually doing the things you’ve learned about can go a long way toward making them a natural part of your life.

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  1. guinness416 says:

    Take the subway or train to work – you will do more reading than any car-commute adult you know.

  2. Great tips. The problem I face with reading lots of self-help books, I can only pick only one or two tactics from each books. However, It’s still worth it.
    A Dawn Journal

  3. As an avid reader, this article really hit home with me. I’ve not set aside time for reading in several months… it always seems like there is something more important to do. But the value of reading shouldn’t be underestimated, and I should make sure to block off some time for focused reading, as you suggested. Hopefully you’ve just given me enough motivation to finally do this. :) Thanks!

  4. Great points, especially the one about writing a journal after each section you have read. That’s a great way to summarise that last chapter and actually remember the main points from it.

  5. Andrew Lynch says:

    Great advice. There’s another couple of great resources that I know of. Ryan Holiday writes about this a fair bit, especially these two posts:

    Read to Lead: How to digest books above your level:

    Fingerspitzengefuhl for Books: Developing a Fingertip Feel for Everything You’ve Ever Read:

    And of course if you want to learn about note-taking and keeping a journal, Tim Ferriss has an awesome post about it here; How to take notes like an alpha-geek:

    I love using post-it highlighters to highlight the key points of a book. Post-it notes on the pages also make it much easier to review a book’s key message and themes, as well as enabling you to find what you’re looking for quickly (although you obviously can’t do this with library books!).

  6. Jason Mitchener says:

    Great advice. I’m currently reading a 900+ page economic tome called “Human Action.” I have http://www.dictionary.com open as I read it because the author likes to use words that are obscure in the 21st century.

  7. Jess says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the “novel” Sophie’s World as an intro to Philosophy. It’s a novel integrated into an overview of Philo. To be read slowly.

  8. Keri says:

    While you are at the library, ask a librarian for recommendations. We may not be experts in your field of interest, but we know A LOT about books and can find all sorts of things you never would have known about yourself.

    That goes triple for fiction readers, but we’re pretty good at the non-fiction as well.

  9. Ranga says:

    More Important Tactic: Regularly read http://www.thesimpledollar.com articles, and put them to action. The most frugal and the simplest way. !

  10. “Don’t worry about the speed of your reading.”

    I completely agree with this. I’ve tested as a very fast reader with advanced reading comprehension. In my life right now, I read almost entirely for pleasure and personal growth. But I’ve found that when I go back and re-read things that I was assigned to read in university, and *did* read in university, my understanding of them is much greater now. I don’t think that’s a result of personal growth since I graduated. I think it’s that I was under time pressure to read and complete assignments in university, and now I read at a self-directed pace.

    If you’re reading for personal growth, then for heaven’s sake, read at your own pace! You’ll absorb more, enjoy your reading time more, and you’ll have more time to develop your own connections and reactions to what you’re reading. Reading is not an entirely passive activity. The whole point is to incorporate what you read into your own thoughts, views, and understanding, even if you disagree with what you read. All that takes time and attention. It can’t be hurried. Reading isn’t a race.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the great tips. I find the one about the library to be especially true for me. I go there and am so drawn to all the books that I leave with five or six but then find I only have time to get through one or two before they are due again!

  12. I’ll add a 16th tactic to the list:
    Discuss your reading with other people. I’ve joined a book group that meets once a week to discuss leadership and management books and it’s been a great boost to my learning. We really get into each chapter, discuss differing interpretations and ways to apply the readings.

  13. Daniel says:

    I know plenty of people who are full of excuses for why they don’t ever read books. Not enough time, too busy, too tired, I have kids, my job is hard, I only have time to read the paper, etc, etc.

    The problem is, if you go too many years without opening your mind and investing some time or effort in learning or thinking about the kinds of bigger, more complex ideas that typically come from books (as opposed to more narrow and fundamentally simpler ideas you will glean from newspapers and TV), you’ll start to have fewer and fewer original thoughts. And before you know it, you’ll be letting the media do all of your thinking for you!

    Great article.

  14. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Great tips Trent…I really like:

    If a book is boring you, figure out why.

    Sometimes when I’m reading a book that doesn’t appeal to me, it’ll turn me off of reading for months. Then, when I finally come back to reading another book and it’s a good one, I can’t figure out why I ever stopped. I think it’s because I never spent time figuring out WHY the book didn’t appeal to me.

  15. SS says:

    Hi Trent and Readers
    I am going to reread this post after I write this. I think it is very insightful. I should do these things. Especially with ideas to remember and think about. I really like the journal part. Thanks for your input. I know if anyone knows it is you with your experience in reading.


  16. Lynn says:

    Great ideas Trent!
    I’ve been an avid reader for years; but never thought to “extract the main points in a journal!”
    I will now!
    Thanks for sharing
    Lynn in Cincy

  17. Anastasia says:

    I love books. I’m always in the middle of at least one if not several :)

    However when I’m looking for information on a new topic, I usually go to the Internet before the library. Sort of like survey books, I find that the net has a good “breath” of information. Books are great when I get some idea of which ones might be useful to me, which authors I’d like to read, and/or I’m looking for a greater depth of information.

  18. Scordo.com says:


    I wrote a similar article in early November on how to incorporate reading into your daily life:


    People like Buffett and Gates understand how important it is to read each day – I think they both read tons of newspapers each day, as well as play Bridge!


  19. KC says:

    My husband always has the TV on. He’s usually reading the paper or working or doing something else, but the TV is on. So I have the remote and whenever it goes to commercial I hit mute and read in peace and quite for those few moments. I try to read during whatever program or sports event is on, but I think I get more reading done in the “muted” commercial breaks. Plus I’m not subjected to those lame Cialis/Viagra commercials that are always on ESPN.

  20. Linda Saull says:

    “Read” while driving, doing chores (especially the dreaded pile of ironing) – by listening to recorded books.You can do two things at the same time!I borrow from library or rent from http://www.recordedbooks.com. books are unabridged and have excellent narrators. Rentals will arrive in the mail with pre addressed/postage paid box for easy return. If I love the book I’ll look for the printed version to enjoy again.

  21. Marv says:

    I have been reading this blog for a while and I think this is some of best advice you have given. I live by these tactics. The journal writing enhances the experience ten fold.

  22. Jamie says:

    One thing that really helps me on my non-fictional reading is putting some relaxing music without lyrics. It gets me into focus with ease!

  23. Ram says:

    Right on!
    I think I was one of those readeers asked about how you manage time and if you a fast reader that you are able to read a whole book and write up on that book every week. So that means, at the least, you would read one book.

    I often read for sometime before going to bed, but depending on the nature of book, I tend to go on for couple of hours.

    Good point on making notes at the end of reading session. I haven’t been doing this in a long time, I need ot get back into that habit.

    Great tipe on “Best moment of the day”. I need to starting recording those. I used (or sometimes even now) write down the activities (journal) but not necessarily the best moement of the day. I believe doing this helps me have an awareness and be alert through out the day. Thank you for this write up.

  24. Nate says:

    I really like this post trent. Especially the idea about the Journal. Seems like a great way to make sure I pay attention to what I read(which sometimes I don’t)


  25. KM says:

    Here’s a quick way to tell if a book is written at “frustration level” rather than “challenge level”: Turn to a random page. Each time you see a word you don’t understand, put up one finger. If you have five fingers up by the end of the page, the book is probably too hard for you right now.

    There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that others say is too challenging for you. Just be aware that it may be a tough slog in places.

  26. Michael says:

    “Personal growth” won’t help if it’s the bulk of one’s reading. Trent reads at least 50x too much of this, but it’s his job. It should be something read very rarely for a specific reason, and most reading should be a rereading of the best classic literature.

  27. These are some good tips!

    And of course, along with personal development will come more wealth.

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