Why Speed Reading Is Overrated and What to Do Instead

By Nate McCallister / last year
Speed Reading Facts

The self-development community is bursting at the seams with content about the benefits of speed reading.

They encourage you to read at speeds as high as 700 words per minute and some claim to be able to read several thousand words per minute!

Speed Reading

That is pretty intense right? 

Many are crying foul and saying speed reading is a scam to sell courses and programs. 

My opinion is somewhere in between. I don't think speed reading is a scam or totally worthless but I do believe it is extremely overrated and misunderstood.

The assumption that speed reading is always a positive thing is causing more harm than good in the community I serve. People like you who are interested in learning and improving your lives and businesses and are hungry for information. 

Don't get me wrong. I loved the IDEA of speed reading. I've taken multiple courses and downloaded all the apps that promised to increase my reading speed. 

Guess what, they worked!

My reading speed increased by about 3x. 

Ironically, I don't use this skill when I'm reading books anymore. When I read the news or blog posts, I read as quickly as possible but when I'm reading a book that is teaching me something, I read at my natural pace. 

Here Is Why I Don't Speed Read (Most Things)

To understand why I decided to slow down, I want you to ask yourself the same questions I asked myself.

1. "Why am I reading this in the first place?"

The answer is to improve your life or performance in some way. You're likely trying to learn a new skill or understand a new concept. 

2. "How much action can I take from reading this?" 

I see a diminishing marginal return on reading. More is not better. Often times just ONE great insight from a book that is acted upon can be worth many times more than reading dozens of books. 

Speed reading was NOT helping me achieve the actual results I wanted. 

We treat books like merit badges rather than tools for change. 

I know many people who have read everything on a topic that have absolutely nothing to show for it because they haven't taken action on any of the information!

Reading FEELS productive. It is productive IF you're also taking massive action on what you read. 

The number of books you've read means absolutely nothing. It is the amount of information you have fully comprehended and can implement in your life to achieve your desired end results. 


The number of books you've read means absolutely nothing. It is the amount of information you have fully comprehended and can implement in your life to achieve your desired end results. Speed readers often miss this concept completely.
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Speed reading fails in two ways. 

1. It Diminishes Comprehension

Studies performed at Carnegie Mellon University in 1987 proved a significant drop off in comprehension as the WPM (words per minute) increased. 

Speed reading and comprehension

Marcel Adam Just and Patricia A. Carpenter. "Speedreading" Newton, MAThe psychology of reading and language comprehension (1987) 

There is absolutely NO REASON TO READ IF WE AREN'T COMPREHENDING IT. 

Comprehension then must be first priority. Speed is second and should never be allowed to hinder comprehension 

2. It Can Lead to Information Overload

It is disturbing how many people can load themselves up with massive amounts of information but never take a bit of action on it. 

Studies show that when we are presented with too many options, we are often likely to take none of them.

The term “information overload” was coined by Bertram Gross, a Professor of Political Science at Hunter College, in his 1964 work – The Managing of Organizations

He defined information overload as follows.

“Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can improve the efficiency of your reading and maximize learning without increasing the number of words per minute you read.

These don’t get the attention that they deserve so I am going to shine a light on them in this article.

The following advice will help you:

  • Get more out of everything you read.
  • Learn when to read or pass on content.
  • Retain information exponentially longer.

Let's get into it. 

1. Be More Selective with What You Read

Part of the problem with self-development, business and investing books is that may of them are just not worth the paper they are written on. 

Many books are just regurgitations of the same, tired information as the last years 50+ books on the topic. 

Everything you read should have a purpose and should be written by someone you know is credible. 

Stop feeling the need to read every new book that is released on a topic. I recommend that you re-read great books instead of just reading every book on the same topic. 

I re-read books like The 4 Hour Workweek every year because they are so full of information I couldn't possibly act on it all. Also, my situation changes every year so what might not have applied to my business or life the last time I read it could apply now. 

You should also avoid reading any books that will distract you from your bigger goals. 

For example, I bought a book on real estate investing last year. It was a topic of interest for me but I decided to shelf it and come back to it later. 

Why? Because it was a distraction from things that could help grow my business and improve my life right now. 

Yes, I will read it later but at the time, I had a LOT of things I knew I needed to learn that would be immediately applicable to my current situation. 

Be very deliberate with what you choose to read. Reading is NOT productive if you aren't reading the right things.

2. Ask Questions BEFORE You Read

You read a book to get answers. 

If you're looking for answers, you have questions. By explicitly identifying what your questions are you will read more critically. 

Here are the questions I asked myself before I read the book "Invisible Selling Machine" by Ryan Deiss

  • "How can I make my marketing more passive?"
  • "How can I improve my email opt-in rates?"
  • "How can I guarantee more sales per each subscriber?"

I literally write these questions on the first blank page of the book before I read it. By doing this, I subconsciously focus on the text more and hunt for these answers. 

When I see them, I know it's time to go and implement what I learned ASAP. Sometimes that means literally putting the book back on the shelf until I've completed this.

3. Take Notes and Highlight Key Points for Review and Skimming Later 

I recommend you always have a pen and/or highlighter with you as you read physical books. 

All good e-readers support highlighting as well. If you're looking for the best e-reader, I am loving my Kindle Oasis. It is a bit pricey but it has been well worth it.

Note: Taking notes by hand is also proven to be much more effective for learning than taking them on a digital device. 

Studies suggest that taking notes by hand while reading can greatly improve comprehension and long term retention.

Michael Friedman writes in his essay, "Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors,"

"The act of note-taking also assists the learner in generating and semantically processing information (essentially, helps the learner think about course content in such a way to better understand it upon later review), in addition to facilitatingand strengthening the internal connections between ideas."

Don't be afraid to destroy a book with quality notes. Whoever reads it next might thank you!

4. Pause for Reflection

I mentioned that the goal is comprehension. Let me expand on this and say that the real goal is long-term comprehension. 

A great way to increase the chances of long term comprehension is to pause and reflect after reading a chapter. 

Ask yourself things like...

  • What did I learn?
  • How can I apply this to my life?
  • What do I disagree with?

Reflection is not something most speed reading programs mention. 

5. Stop and Take Action When Appropriate

The goal of reading is that it leads you to action that benefits you in some way. 

If you're reading a book and land on an "aha!" moment, put it down and go act on it while it is top of mind. 

6. Read with Focus in a Distraction Free Environment

Reading for comprehension requires extreme focus. 

I recommend that you find a quiet place free from distractions before you start reading. 

Also, if you can disconnect from the internet and your digital devices (not including your e-reader) you will find focus much easier. 

One study found that 90% law students who took notes in class on their laptops engaged in online activities unrelated to coursework for at least five minutes, and roughly 60% were distracted for half the class.

I put on noise cancelling headphones and listen to classical music or a brain.fm track to maximize focus and minimize distractions. 

Bonus Tip: Read More Blogs and Watch More Videos

Books are great but they aren't the only thing you should be reading. 

Blogs and YouTube are great sources for information and they can be better than books in several ways. 

  • They are up to date
  • They encourage engagement 
  • They are concise 
  • They are actionable

It's much more fun to say, "I read 5 books a week," than it is to say, "I read a lot of blogs and watch a lot of tutorials on YouTube," but remember, the goal is improvement, not some vanity metric like 5 books a week.

The key to wisdom is this - constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth. - Peter Abelard

RSS Feed

So, subscribe to the RSS feeds of blogs in your field of expertise.

You should also be sure to save articles for later as you need them. You can use a tool like InstaPaper, Pocket or Evernote for this.

Conclusion

  • Everyone reads differently. There is nothing inherently wrong with reading quickly if you can maintain comprehension 
  • This article relates to speed reading for personal development and non-fiction reading only.
  • Speed reading is better suited for reading things like the news and social media updates
  • Read to improve. There is nothing inherently positive about reading as many books as possible.
  • This article is not encouraging you to spend less time reading. It is encouraging you to get more out of everything you read. 
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