From 0 to 50 books in one year - how I started reading a lot more as an adult and how you can too
This article was edited and improved with the help of our lovely Patreons
10 years ago, I didn’t read one book in a year. Now I read more than 50. This is the story of how I made that happen and how you can start reading as well.
I started truly reading really late in life, in my mid 20s. At 30, I read more than 50 books.
Realizing that I wasted so much time NOT reading books, not learning information from credible sources that would have drastically accelerated my learning process, is one of the reasons why I started The CEO Library.
Now I want to promote reading, and I want to guide others towards the best books. I want to help people start reading, read the best ideas from the best thinkers in the world. Basically, I want to help others avoid making the same painful mistakes I made.
All high achievers have one thing in common: they read. A lot.
Elon Musk learned how to build rockets from reading books. Ever since he was a child, he never went anywhere without a book in his hand, and he was always reading advanced books about the future and about success.
Barack Obama was fundamentally shaped by reading and always talks about the indispensable role that they have played throughout his life. During his years as a president of USA, books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration. Reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.”
Warren Buffett credits his success to books and reads five to six hours per day. A few years ago, he was invited to speak to the MBA students at Columbia Business School. When asked how to prepare for an investing career, Buffett pointed to a stack of manuals and papers, and said: “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it”.
Bill Gates takes vacations with the explicit purpose of reading and learning, and reviews the best books afterwards on his blog.
Fabrice Grinda, one of the world’s leading tech entrepreneurs and investors, with over $300 million in exits and 300 angel investments, talked in our interview about why it's important to him to read 100 books per year.
Naveen Jain, entrepreneur and philanthropist, founder of Moon Express, the first company that was granted the permission to leave Earth’s orbit and land on the moon, is also an avid reader. In our interview, he talked about how he starts his day reading books for three hours, waking up at 4 AM and reading anything from scientific papers to books and the most up-to-date data he can find on his latest topic of interest.
Among all high performers, reading is the one meta-habit that links all of them. They’re always prioritizing time dedicated to this activity.
Why didn’t I read until so late in life?
I taught myself how to read when I was a little kid, maybe 3 or 4 years old. My parents were working a lot, so I was raised by my grandmother, who couldn’t supervise me all the time. I learned how to read on my own, with the help of a reading manual.
From there, I devoured everything I could find at home and was low enough for me to reach it :P from newspapers and PC magazines (my dad was working in the IT industry), to all sorts of books that were more or less adequate for my age. I must have read Wizard of Oz more than 10 times, but I also discovered A Lost World, Jules Verne and Stephen King books - at some point in the plot, though, things got way too scary and I was afraid to continue.
And then I started school. The moment when reading became mandatory, together with notes taking, I started rejecting the activity. From something that I discovered on my own and I highly enjoyed, it turned into an activity that didn’t bring me any pleasure.
My language teacher was probably one of the influencing factors. The only way she could prove her superiority was on helpless school kids, and she used every opportunity just to remind us who’s in charge. Her frustrations made her treat us horribly.
The second most important factor? The fact that those books we were forced to read weren’t good at all. In fact, they were terrible. We had to read them just because they were considered “important” in the country’s literature perspective. Basically, they were thrown down our throats only because of national pride reasons.
These had the adverse effect: they gave me a profound repulsion towards reading in general. Years passed by, and I didn’t even read one book per year.
After I finished school and I finally found joy in reading and realized the value brought by books (I’ll get to that in a minute), I started working right away. I created a blog when I was only 19 and turned that into a business - it was another one of those things born out of repulsion towards authorities “best practices” and the need to show them that I’m going to do things differently than everyone else. That blog turned into a real business, making money, managing a team and all, so, even when I did want to read, I had no time to do it, cause I was way too caught with other things going on in my life.
So, what changed, how did I go from that to reading more than 50 books in one year?
As it happens in life, and not in self-development blog articles with clickbaity titles, the change didn’t come overnight. Instead, it was a mixture of factors that happened over many years.
First of all, I sold that blog that I was talking about and, at the advice of one of my mentors, decided to invest the money into a Master in Music Business that I’ve done online, at Berklee College of Music.
The experience of American educational system was eye opening - it’s extremely different than the local one and I connected with it instantly.
First of all, I loved the fact that the teachers never told us whether we’re wrong or right. There were no right answers. What mattered was how we reached our decisions. We were taught to focus on the learning process, what questions we addressed ourselves, how we gathered information, and how important it was to change our mind when encountering new feedback.
That’s a long way from the Romanian schools system that encourages memorizing data. Before that master's degree, I was taught that school means forcing the pupils to memorize something by heart. You were punished if you tried to ask more questions, to better understand why things are that way, to question those assumptions. The whole system encourages the importance of memorizing facts, without actually understanding what they mean, how they apply in real life, how they’re interlinked, or where they might fail.
Nowadays, when most of those things are either not true anymore, cause they were replaced by new information, or available at a finger’s length Google search, they became obsolete.
The other thing that changed? I can’t remember exactly, but I somehow discovered Ryan Holiday’s work. Ryan’s an American writer and entrepreneur known as a media strategist. On his blog, he writes a lot about how books changed his life and all the things that he learned from them.
That’s when I realized how many things I missed out on, important information that could have pushed me forward, just because I didn’t read books. I realized how much ahead of me were others, thanks to books.
If you want to start reading, here are the steps that helped me:
1. START SMALL
Start small. Take baby steps.
Ignore the "set big, audacious goals" advice. You need to be realistic and set some achievable targets.
Don’t make it your next year’s goal to read 30 books if you didn’t read at all this year, cause you know it won’t happen.
Instead, you’ll get frustrated, your confidence in yourself will drop dramatically, and you’ll define yourself as someone who doesn't read - and it's only a downward spiral from there ("I'm not going to hit that target anyways, so I might as well just binge on this TV show for the next month...").
Or worse, you'll sabotage yourself by reading short, easy books, just to hit your target. That beats the whole purpose.
When you think about this, try to zoom out. Approach it with the mindset of building something that will help you over the long term, not just something you need to hit the next month and that’s it.
As with healthy eating and exercising, reading is one of those meta-habits that will help you over the long term, something you'll want to do for as long as you live.
You can't just read 100 books in a short span of time and that's it, you can cross that off your list, just like you can't practice 100 hours of sports in a month and think that's enough for the whole year. It just doesn't work that way.
Here's what I suggest instead: set as a target to only read two pages per day for the next 30 days. That’s it. Only two pages, every single day, no matter what. Can you make time for two pages?
Sure, you could read so much more than that, but don't fall into that trap. Start with just two pages at the beginning, until you build this into a habit - something that you do automatically, every single day, without thinking about it anymore.
And you can increase the target after you read those two pages per day, for 31 days in a row.
2. TURN IT INTO A HABIT
After you’ve set that target, you need to turn the activity into a habit - something that you do automatically, at the same time every day. Don’t rely on willpower. You need to have a system to keep track and hold yourself accountable.
Set a time during the day when you always plan to read. It could be first thing in the morning - you can try waking up half an hour earlier, just for this, when it’s quiet and nobody interrupts you. You can read late at night, just before you go to bed. Or read during your commute, on the subway.
One of our friends and Patreons, food coach Carmen Albișteanu, created a routine of reading every evening. During the day, she does everything she can to finish what was on her to do list and reap the reward: spending time enjoying a good book.
Whenever you decide to read, put that into your calendar. I mean it. If it’s not on your calendar, it doesn’t exist and it won’t get done. You add in your calendar all sorts of meetings and tasks, you prioritize those. Why not treat reading the same? Prioritize this and treat it just as seriously as anything else.
There are managers who ask their employees to put in their work calendars one hour of reading per day. They're using that our to learn something that will make the most difference and help them achieve their goals over the long term.
Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘don’t break the chain’ is one of the easiest techniques that I experimented with for creating a habit, and it works. Here’s what you need to do: take a blank paper (don’t look for apps or other digital tools - good old physical paper is the best!) and a pen, and write on it the next 30 days. Go do it right now.
Afterwards, every day when you’ll meet your target, you’ll write a number under the day. 1. 2. 3. And so on, until the 30th day.
Next step: take that paper and put it somewhere where you see it every day, with a pen next to it. It can be on your bathroom mirror, next to your toothbrush, or next to your coffee, or any other morning habit that you already have. The idea is to link these two together and don’t forget to do it. Every morning, when you wash your teeth or prepare your coffee, you write down another day.
If you break the chain and one day you don’t get to read that number of pages that you set a target, you’re back to square 1, until you have 30 days in a row.
No cheating! This needs to be painful to you, otherwise you won’t keep up with your habit.
3. NO SHORTCUTS
“Reading fast is not thinking. If you’re reading fast you’re not thinking and challenging what you’re reading. You’re not being critical. You’re not making connections with existing knowledge. You’re not arguing with the author. You’re not reading something at the edge of your cognitive ability. All of that is work. And if you’re not doing the work, you’re only walking away with surface knowledge. Reading is mentally demanding.” - Shane Parrish, founder of FarnamStreet Blog.
Don’t waste your time looking for shortcuts. Don’t even think about skim reading, speed reading, or any other corner-cutting techniques. You need to read slow in order to properly internalize the information and make the necessary connections in your brain.
You’re already reading tons of bit-sized information during the day, such as news and social media updates, which deteriorates our capacity to properly focus for longer strains of time on something. Multiple studies show that skimming can cause a variety of negative effects on comprehension, grasping complexity and creating the necessary connections in our brains.
What about book summaries, you might ask. These are great to decide if a book is right for you, or to remember the key points, but it won’t replace a book. Long form is the best way to learn and internalize a book and the ideas from it.
Holger Seim, the founder of Blinkist, an app that presents condensed versions of non-fiction literature, says that their purpose isn’t to replace the actual book, but to get enough information about it to see whether you would like to buy it. “We’re trying to inspire people and make it easier to take the first step and engaging in literature. We are a complementary business in that regard.”
Derek Sivers’ book notes are also a great source to figure out if a book is right for you. Derek is an entrepreneur and author. 20 years ago, he founded CD Baby, a company that helped indie artists distribute their music - this was happening back in the days when musicians were still dependent on record labels. He sold it 10 years later, after he either automated or delegated all the processes of the company, so he didn’t need to intervene in day-to-day activity. He donated all the $22 millions to charity and has been travelling the world ever since, writing and launching new, smaller projects. On his website, he has a page with summaries and detailed notes on each book that he read, that he constantly updates.
4. CHOOSE THE BEST FORMAT FIT FOR YOUR NEEDS
Find the reading format that best fits your style and schedule. Paper, digital, audio books, whatever it is.
I have friends who only "read" audiobooks - they’ll purposely go for long walks during the day, so they can listen to those books. Or they’ll take a longer route to home/office, just to read.
For example, here’s what Bogdan Lucaciu, AdoreMe’s CTO, said in our interview about his reading habits: "To indulge my need for reading actual paper books, I started an intentional habit: I walk to my office every morning, and mid-route there’s this coffee shop where I get my espresso & reading hit for the day."
Other friends travel a lot, so Kindle is their best friend.
Others read on their phone, using a dedicated app (well, Kindle again), sometimes even setting it on airplane mode, so that nothing else distracts their attention.
I, personally, still prefer paper books - I know this is not the most environmental-friendly option, but I process the ideas better when I can write notes, mark pages, spill coffee on them (oops), and so on.
Whichever format you prefer, try to carry a book with you wherever you go. During the day, it’s likely that you’ll have a few ‘dead’ moments, when the person you’re meeting is running late, you’re waiting for your doctor appointment or the subway. Don’t waste these minutes mindlessly scrolling through your phone.
Here’s what Anoop Anthony, the co-founder and CTO of Sapaad, a global software product company, told us in our interview about his reading habits: "I read every day — in the morning, a little during lunch breaks, and at night before going to bed. And of course, I read while waiting in queues, in airport lounges, and on long flights."
5. READ THE RIGHT BOOKS FOR YOU
“If you're watching Netflix and not reading a book, you've picked the wrong book.” (Tim Soulo, CMO of Ahrefs)
How do you choose what book to read? There are so many choices out there, that you might get paralyzed and not read at all.
Well, first of all, you need to think about its purpose. Why are you reading a book? With what intent? What skills will serve you over the long term, that you need to start working on?
Always read with a purpose, not just for the sake of reading. Reading one book might make a bigger difference than reading 100 of them, especially if you choose it wisely, internalize and apply the lessons in it, and even re-read it (don't know about you, but I have a lousy memory).
Nowadays, everyone has access to all the information in the world. There's knowledge & opinion overload. There's too much noise. We can't distinguish signal. We need filters, to help us reach the best resources.
You need to figure out your WHY first. After this part, go from there. The internet is filled with books recommended by people who are among the best in the industry - that’s what The CEO Library does :D Those lists are really good places to start.
Remember that a book is just like a movie: you can’t rely on friends’ recommendations, cause they might be highly subjective. The books that they previously read, their personal preferences, their context and current needs all differ. A book that’s highly praised by someone might seem like bullshit to you. Or you might just end up reading it too late (or too early) in your journey.
That’s usually the impression given by Dale Carnegie and Robert Kiyosaki. Most people read their books during childhood, they’re great to set the foundation for certain skills, but by the time you read them, you might already know everything that they talk about. That doesn’t mean their books are bad, it’s just that they’re not right for you.
I’ve heard people say the same thing about Tim Ferriss’ first book, The 4-Hour Workweek. It was revolutionary back in 2007, when he wrote it, but since then the concepts that he talked about were extremely popularized in other ways - through his next books, through his blog and podcast, but also through other people’s books and blogs and courses and so on, so you might not find many new things in it. For me, however, the fact that I got to read it so early on, was life changing and I’ll be forever attached emotionally to it.
6. QUIT BAD BOOKS.
“I read very eclectically, no book is barred from entering the book list. But then I tend to be extremely impatient about the books I actually read. I would begin like 10 books and drop 9 of them after 10 pages. It’s not always the wisest policy but it’s my policy that if a book didn’t really teach me something new, had some interesting insight in the first 10 pages the chances is...it could be on page 100 there will be some mind blowing idea that I’m now missing. But there are so many, I keep thinking are so many books, wonderful books out there that I will never read. So why waste time on the optimal book? So I will try, like, a book in biology, and then in economics and then psychology and then fiction and whatever and just go through them quite quickly until I find something that really grabs me.” - bestselling author and historian Yuval Noah Harari.
I have lots of friends who have the same one book on their nightstand, they’re stuck reading it (though they don’t enjoy it), or they stopped buying books cause they want to first read the ones they have at home before buying any new ones.
Books are tools. Don’t let them control you. You use them as ways that help you grow and build a skill you might feel you need to improve. If you don’t enjoy a book, if you don’t feel it’s right for you at this moment, or you don’t learn anything out of it, drop it right away. Don’t waste your time trying to push forward, just to finish it. Life’s too short to waste it reading bad books (or mediocre ones).
Most books have the most important information lied right at the beginning, in the first chapters, and then they just reinforce it through all sorts of case studies and situations that prove the same argument over and over again. If a book hasn’t caught your attention in the first 10 pages, what are the odds that it will get incredibly better afterwards? Are you willing to waste that time to find out?
It’s the sunk cost fallacy: when you’re going through a book, you already invested time into reading it. At that point, you might feel guilty for not finishing it. Fuck that. Do you do the same thing with articles that you read, or do you quit them? Treat books the same way. You’ll get more value out of them.
Here’s another tip that helped me. If a book gets boring, I’ll look through the table of contents, see something that sounds interesting, and skip directly there and read that part. Or I’ll just read randomly, where the book opens. No pressure. Remember: the book is your tool, it has to serve your needs, you don’t owe it anything to the author to read it word by word.
7. READ MULTIPLE BOOKS AT THE SAME TIME
“At any given time, I’m at probably about 50 books on my Kindle, and probably about six or seven hard-cover or soft-cover books that I’m cycling through. I opened up my kindle. I look through. Based on my mood, I’ll flip through to whatever book matches my mood. I’ll flip to whatever part of it looks the most interesting, and I’ll just read that part. I don’t read in the sequential order. The most important thing that does for me is it lets me read on a regular basis. I can actually just pull up my kindle here, and I can read off the names of some of these books that I’m reading. I can give you mini-reviews, but I haven’t actually finished any of them. They’re all in progress.” - Naval Ravikant, Co-Founder and CEO of AngelList, in a talk with Tim Ferriss.
This helped me a lot: I read many books at the same time. Right now, I’m going through 6 or 7 books on different subjects, from biographies to science, business, investing or science fiction. If I’m not in the mood for a particular subject, I’ll just read from another one.
The key is to have a book for different moods that you’re in - go for variety. On different days you’ll want to read different things, depending on what’s currently bothering you.
Another tip, learned from author, entrepreneur and investor Tim Ferriss: Try to read business related books during the day and leave fiction for the moments before bedtime. Otherwise you might get too excited by all sorts of ideas that you’re reading and your sleep will take a hit. Reading and self improving are important, but sleep should be untouchable. If you score low at the chapter of sleep quality and quantity, you’ll be inefficient, your learning capability will suffer, your tasks will take you longer, and so on. This also means: no reading on any blue light device (phone, tablet, laptop) before going to sleep.
8. JOIN A BOOK-CLUB
It's easier to jump-start a habit if you use the pressure of a group. You can either join a local book-club on topics that you're interested in, or start your own book-club - surely you have several friends who also want to read more, so why not meet regularly and hold each other accountable?
This is something that has helped me start running four years ago. At the beginning of 2015, I already tried a few times before to start a running habit, but it wasn't until I joined a local running group that I was also able to build a proper habit. When training sessions would get hard or I'd stop coming because I'd invent whatever excuses (such as bad weather or not being in the mood), the others would check in on me, making it easier to keep up with a habit, and also harder to give up entirely.
9. GET RID OF JUNK INFORMATION
"'I don’t have time' is just another way of saying, 'it’s not a priority'. What you really have to do is say is it a priority or not. If something is your number one priority then you will get it. That’s just the way life works. If you’ve got a fuzzy basket of 10 or 15 different priorities, you’re going to end up getting none of them." - another thing learned from Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList, in a conversation with Shane Parrish.
Don’t have the necessary time to start reading? How much time are you spending on social media or watching TV right now? On average, people waste around two hours per day on their phone, and watch four hours of TV every day.
We do our best to take care of our bodies, we're always so careful about what we eat and drink, and avoid empty-calorie food. So why don't we treat information the same way? Our brains can only process a limited amount of information, and we're better off by not occupying mental space with junk.
A few years ago, I had the feeling that I’m wasting too much time this way - more than was needed. At the end of the day, I was always wondering where did my day go.
Those who are successful won’t go on social media, check email or news first thing in the morning, cause they know it’s not important and it distracts them from doing quality work and occupy mental space.
Most of them don’t even have social media accounts, or they delegate this part to someone else. Historian Yuval Noah Harari, for example, doesn’t own a smartphone. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell isn’t on social media. Tim Ferriss will completely go off the grid for months. Habits expert and writer James Clear only goes on social media during weekends, and his assistant changes his passwords on Mondays, only to give them back to him on Friday evenings. Disconnecting from the digital noise is the new luxury.
The first step, as with any other addictions, involved realizing there’s problem. I was under the illusion that I didn’t waste that much time on social media. Since I love data that can backup my instincts, I decided to install an app with the purpose of measuring exactly how I spend my time online, on what websites. I installed that tracking app and forgot about it. After a while, I did the math and realized I had been wasting on Facebook one hour per day, and only from my laptop (so mobile time wasn’t counted - which probably added up to another hour per day).
I’m guessing your time spent on social media networks is somewhere in the same zone - no matter if it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or whatever else you use. When you start to do the math, you realize that means at least 15 days per year - 15 days that you can use in a different way.
Those results scared the sh*t out of me and made me rethink my daily schedule. What would you accomplish if you had 15 extra days this year?
So I started to be more mindful about how I spend my digital time. I created filters that protect me from random chatter, getting myself sucked into a vortex of noise and reacting to other people's agendas. I radically reduced time spent on social networks, chat groups or other online communities - a drastic and bold change, given that my work background and identity were closely linked with (and perhaps even defined by) social media.
After many years of drastically limiting my time spent on social media, I decided to quit Facebook - cold turkey - for a one week experiment. That one week experiment turned out the best thing I did for my mental health, since it drastically reduced my anxiety and improved my ability to focus on doing deep work - the kind that will make a difference on the long haul. I never reactivated my personal account since, and it’s been over a year now. If I live to 80 years old (so 50 more years), that means that I won back 18,250 hours of my life.
My phone's on silent mode all the time, all notifications turned off. I stopped consuming daily news. I haven't had cable TV for more than 10 years and I don't care what movies or albums are currently trending.
The most unexpected benefit of my ruthless filtering? I greatly recalibrated my sustained focus. I am now able to read long books, run longer distances and produce more quality work.
It scares me that I wasn't even aware I have this problem, at least not until I stopped letting my brain be entertained non-stop by junk information.
With all the extra free time, I turned towards books, this reliable and underrated source of valuable knowledge, that we're promoting through The CEO Library.
I didn't let a day pass without reading books that might help me become a better person and improve my skills. There were days when I only read two pages, and days when I read a book from cover to cover.
Overall, I read 59 books in 2018, and started and abandoned more than 10 books.
Because my main target was to read books that help me work on my skills, I didn't play the numbers game. This way, I didn't look for short or easy reads just to "hit the target". I also re-read some of the really good books, to make sure I retain all the valuable information. Life's too short to waste it on books that aren't right for me.
Find the activities that don’t add value to your life and cut them out. Replace them with something that does. Such as reading books. :P
If you've made it so far, I want to congratulate you. It means you've already read a LOT! :)
What you need to keep in mind from now on is that it’s not a sprint, it’s an ultramarathon. You cannot just read three books this week and then give up and not read for the entire year. You'll want to continue reading your whole life, as you always need to improve your skills and learn more. As Warren Buffett was saying, all that knowledge from reading builds up, like compound interest.
So take it easy, one page at a time. Don't put too much pressure on yourself. When life happens and you get off the grid (and you will get off the grid and have days when you don’t read at all), the important thing is to get back on track as soon as possible.
I hope that this reading guide has inspired you. If you have any other tips, we'd love to hear them, just send us an email (getintouch at theceolibrary dot com).
Also feel free to forward this to your friends, if you think this would be interesting or helpful to them. And, of course, for any kind of book recommendations, you can always count on us - either by browsing our website, see what we post on Instagram, or, better yet, subscribe to our newsletter - that's where we send our best stuff!
P.S.: as already mentioned, but it is worth mentioned again: this article was edited and improved with the help of our lovely Patreons - thank you for your input!