Benjamin Spall, Co-Author of My Morning Routine, On His Reading System
Benjamin Spall is the co-author of the book My Morning Routine, in which today’s most talented creatives and business people share their secrets to unlocking greater energy, focus, and calm – starting first thing in the morning.
In his book that he wrote together with Michael Xander, he interviews sixty-four of today’s most successful people, from president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios Ed Catmull, to author Marie Kondo, three-time Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni, General Stanley McChrystal, and many more.
Benjamin Spall is also the founding editor of the website with the same name, an online magazine that publishes inspiring morning routine stories.
From our interview with Benjamin you’ll find out about his strict reading habits, how he keeps a spreadsheet listing the books he read in the last 10 years and what books changed his way of seeing things.
What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.
Needless to say this is a hard question, and there will be a tonne of recency bias going into my answer. That said, I loved The Fish That Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen. Not only is it a fascinating story, Cohen’s writing is a reminder of just how great non-fiction writing can be if you truly care about it. From a business perspective, The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson is one of the best explorations on the importance (both in the positive and the negative) of the habits we do every day that I’ve ever read.
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell us about it?
There are so many moments like this. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton gave me a wider perspective on work in the modern age, and what it means to be a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker versus a Regional Sales Managers for an obscure biscuit brand (real example from the book). Deep Work by Cal Newport put into words something I’d had in the back of my mind for some time. And Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach taught me that it’s okay to fly against conventional wisdom.
What five books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why?
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon, Grit by Angela Duckworth.
We’re interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How do you make time for reading? How often do you read? What format do you prefer?
I make sure that I read at least half an hour a day. Ideally this number is higher, but the minimum I’ll accept from myself is half an hour. I implemented this rule around a year ago when I realized that few things give me greater pleasure than sitting down to read with a cup of tea (milk, no sugar). If I’m particularly busy and really can’t find half an hour in my workday to read, I stack it onto the next day. Finding an hour to read on any given workday is of course much harder than finding half an hour, which I consider to be part of the punishment for not getting my reading in the day before.
Any reading I do in the evening before bed doesn’t count toward this half hour goal. It should also be noted that this all refers to reading books I’m currently working through; newspapers, magazines, anything online, and books I’m reading for research don’t count toward this goal.
I keep a color-coded spreadsheet listing the books I’m currently reading (three at a time is usually the maximum, with at least one of these being an audiobook), as well as a selection of 5-10 titles that I want to read next, a couple hundred titles that I want to read at some point in the future (this is always being added to), and a log of what I have read going back ten years. I’ve only been using this spreadsheet a couple years, so the first eight years of the log is probably not totally accurate, but it’s close. Each read book is given a rating between 1-5 (half-ratings are acceptable, but it’s still an imperfect system), and I note the year I read it, and the number of times I’ve read it.
Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?
One of the reasons I struggle with the physical versus electronic books debate is because while I much prefer the experience of reading a physical book, when it comes to highlighting and note taking I do love the convenience of being able to highlight passages on the Kindle and export all these highlights into a separate document later on. (I make a point of going through these highlights at a later date to cull and promote certain passages so I only keep the best of the best.)
If I’m reading a physical book that I own I’ll usually underline passages and make notes in the margin, making sure to type these up later on. If I’m reading a physical library book I’ll keep my phone on hand so I can type up any passages I like as I go. This is the least convenient form of note taking from my point of view, as ideally I don’t want my phone to play any part in my reading.
How do you choose what books to read next? Do you prioritize books recommended by certain people?
While I try my best to always choose a book in the ‘want to read next’ section of my spreadsheet, I admit that like most of us, I’ll rush a book to the front of the queue if I really want to read it. This often happens if I’ve just listened to an interview with someone who has a new book out, especially if it’s available as an audiobook.
Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?
I’m currently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I’ve been waiting to read the former for years, and while I’m only fifty or so pages in I’m already loving it. The latter I started reading on vacation. I interviewed Marie for my own book and while the translation is somewhat quirky in places, her book is worth the hype.
Links where you can follow Benjamin Spall or find out more about his projects:
All books mentioned by Benjamin Spall in our interview:
- The Fish That Ate the Whale, by Rich Cohen
- The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson
- The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton
- Deep Work, by Cal Newport
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
- Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon
- Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
- Grit, by Angela Duckworth
- Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo