Your Reading Habit Might Be Holding You Back from Actual Success

By Nate McCallister

Last Updated May 1, 2018

“A piece of blank paper is always a place of good intentions.” 
― Anthony T. Hincks

This isn't a topic you'll find covered on many other self-development or business blogs. As an avid reader myself, this article contains a truth that I didn't necessarily want to uncover. What I'm about to share needs to be said and I hope you take it to heart, even though it goes against a lot of commonly held beliefs.

Note: This article is written for individuals who read over 1 hour per day of non-fiction books for business or self-development. If this isn't you, don't bother changing your habits just yet. Reading IS productive when done in moderation and combined with action. 

I've written many times about the books I recommend. I've written about how to get more out of what you read. I've told you how books have changed my life and helped me thrive in the extremely competitive world of online marketing.  

I love books and I love reading!

This article doesn't change any of that. 

You may feel like this article is an attack on reading. It isn't. This article is an attack on an imbalance most entrepreneurs fall victim to where they incorrectly prioritize learning vs. doing.

"This article is an attack on imbalance when it comes to learning vs. doing. "

There is a great deal of research that makes reading seem like a sure formula for success. Unfortunately, this research is incomplete and has been misleading people for years.

There are correlations connecting the amount of books someone reads to their lifelong earning power. 

For example, according to a survey performed by Fast Company, the average CEO reads roughly 60 books per year. 

Many of us connect the dots and assume that reading leads to success.

I agree 100% with this assumption! 

The error many of us make is assuming there is a further correlation: That MORE reading will mean MORE success. 

This isn't the case though since reading, like nearly everything in life, is susceptible to diminishing marginal returns.

MORE books doesn't mean MORE success without limitations. 

There IS a tipping point when more harm than good comes from spending time reading because it takes away from time that would be spent taking action.

There simply has to be a tipping point and we are led to believe that it is further away than it actually is. 

Diminishing Marginal Value of Books

Even my idols like Warren Buffet would likely disagree with this article.

Buffet has said,

“Read 500 pages…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.”

Warren Buffet Quotes

As much as I respect Warren Buffet, the idea that you can just endlessly pour information in at a rate of 500 pages per day and have it "compound" is simply ridiculous. 

Buffet's reading habit has played a role in him becoming a savvy investor, but his approach is not feasible for you and me. 

Think about what his model is. He makes very few decisions that have MASSIVE implications.

For him, each decision carries so much weight that having as much information as possible does in fact help him dominate the markets (as he has shown for decades now). 

However, you and I aren't likely on this level. Correct me if I'm wrong, but what we are learning doesn't involve just a couple of huge decisions. 

We want to learn smaller things like how to be more productive (I've ironically spent a LOT of time reading about how to do more) or how to get more sales for brands.

We aren't deciding where to spend 1 billion dollars of investor capital. We don't need to know everything before doing anything like Buffet might. 

Also, 500 pages per day is just an insane amount of time for the average reader who reads at an average pace of around 200 words per minute.

On average, 500 pages is going to consist of around 125,000 words... let's check the math together.. 

125,000 Words / 200 (WPM) = 10 Hrs and 24 Mins!

I'm sorry Warren, but when are we supposed to be taking action on this absurd about of information?

Again, why is it that we feel the need to know EVERYTHING in order to do ANYTHING?

If anything, this is a formula for high level, crippling "paralysis by analysis."

"Most people don't fail because they lack information. They fail because they don't act on the information that they have. "

Listen when I say this: Most people don't fail because they lack information. They fail because they don't act on the information that they have.

You can argue that you "speed read," but studies also show that most speed reading damages comprehension tremendously. 

Comprehension is all that really matters, right? Thumbing through pages for pages sake means nothing if it doesn't move the needle forward. 

Why Book Overload Is Harming You

There are a couple of reasons why I'm reading less these days and I feel you should reconsider your reading habits as well. 

1. Reading Takes Time Away From Action

What is the purpose of reading non-fiction? To grow! 

Action > Learning

The goal isn't to make yourself feel good (although that is a nice byproduct). The goal is to move the needle forward in your life and business!

"It doesn't matter how many issues of Men's Health you read, you won't get into shape until you put it down and get moving!"

Ask yourself this, does reading Men's Health magazine make you stronger and more fit?

No, of course not. Applying what you're reading gives you the results you want. 

This seems so simple but time and time again, I see people spending all of their "acting energy" on books and courses. 

It doesn't matter how many issues of Men's Health you read, you won't get into shape until you put it down and get moving!

You can read all of the great books by Grant Cardone, Russell Brunson, Tim Ferriss etc. but until you ACT on the content, you'll have nothing to show for it. 

Also, just because you aren't intentionally learning doesn't mean that you aren't learning while taking action! In fact, learning that is a result of action is even MORE powerful than learning while mindlessly skimming pages. 

2. Over-Learning Doesn't Last

As valuable as reading is, too much of it is actually counterproductive. 

Although I'm sure you're very intelligent, reading without action doesn't last. See this "forgetting curve" that suggests that after just 2 days, without reinforcement (action or other) we forget about 40% of what we thought we learned. 

Forgetting Curve

I highly recommend that you check out this article when you get a chance if your curious about information retention.

If you're reading over an hour a day, you definitely should be interested!

The scary thing is that reading FEELS extremely productive but when done in excess without action, it is meaningless.

Many entrepreneurs love reading for this reason. 

It gives them a sense that they are improving their chances of success but really, they are missing the entire point. 

"The scary thing is that reading FEELS extremely productive but when done in excess without action, it is meaningless."

In reality, reading too much is barely any better than bingeing on Netflix.

If you want to play devils advocate, you could even argue that the Netflix binge is even better because at least your entertained!

For many of us, reading is actually extremely pleasurable and easy. 

I absolutely LOVE reading. I read business books when I'm DONE working. It has literally been a form of entertainment for me.

Are you sad about reading less? 

Don't be, reading isn't even the best way to learn!

Studies have shown that we retain only 10% of what we read after 2 weeks vs. 90% of what we actually do!


3. Over-Learning Can Hurt Our Focus on Other Areas 

So, we know that retention is harmed over time, but what about the impact that focusing on one thing too much has on other tasks?

If we become too fixated on one area, we can sacrifice attention to others. 

Care to see how our memories work in a more hands on way? Watch this short video...

This is part of why "just in time" learning is one of my new favorite methods. 

When I'm learning something in advance that I MAY need later, I might be missing important things in the present.

Like the gorillas in the room!

4. Many Books Are Loaded With "Fluff" 

Credit to my Sophomore English teacher for introducing me to the word "fluff" when it comes to writing. 

On an assignment with 2,000 word minimum, I'd often find myself "fluffing" an article to reach the minimum requirement. 

She'd take a big red pen, draw a cloud around the paragraphs, carve a HUGE X through it and write "FLUFF!!!" over top of it. 

I was terrified of fluff as a writer and am terrified of fluff as a reader too.

It wastes time!

Let's face it, many books are just regurgitations of the same proven concepts (with some exceptions). This isn't to say the concepts are wrong or misleading, they are just redundant for people who habitually read books on the same topics. 

These topics include:

  • Investing
  • Self-development
  • Business 
  • Marketing
  • Entrepreneurship

The list goes on. 

When I read a book, I expect about 90% of the concepts to be unoriginal.  If I read a book, I expect that MAYBE 25% of what I read is worth being reminded of (even though I already knew it). 

Publishers don't like selling short books. Authors are encouraged to "beef up" their books even if the topics have been covered at length in their other books or by other authors in their niche. 

This is just the nature of the beast. 

Some authors wrote AMAZING books and reaped massive paydays from them and then their publishers wanted them to quickly dive into rounds 2, 3 and 4 even if it means repurposing the same content. 

Even worse than fluff is a book that forces originality for originality's sake, not because the concepts are good or worth sharing, but because they will sell. 

How Much Reading Is "Too Much" 

When I say I "read a lot of books," you might be underestimating how many books that actually is. 

The count is in the hundreds.

I've averaged a book each week for over 6 years! 

"What started as a good habit started seeing what we call in economics "diminishing marginal returns."

What started as a good habit started seeing what we call in economics "diminishing marginal returns."

If you're reading this, it is unlikely that you read this much. 

If you're new to the world of internet business, I think that you should still be reading with that same level of intensity that I was. 

If you're like me and are having a hard time finding "new" books each month, you need to start making some changes. 

What I'm Doing Instead of Reading So Many Books

Now, learning is not optional. Please don't mistake this article for an attack on the value of knowledge. 

In fields like internet business, staying in the know is absolutely critical. 

So, here are the things that I'm now doing to make sure I don't fall behind AND consume only the most immediately actionable information I can find. 

Also keep in mind, I am still reading books, just not at the rate I was. Now, I'm reading about 1/month rather than 1/week. 

1. Searching for Immediate Solutions to Immediate Problems

I call this "just in time learning," and it is my new favorite way to learn anything. 

Think of a time that you had a problem you needed to solve. 

Was there a recent time that you needed to quickly learn a skill to accomplish a high level task?

For me, I needed to learn how to make a pivot table in Excel for a project I was working on. 

Although I had taken entire courses on Excel in college and even read books on Excel on my own time (yes, that is the level of reading I'm talking about), I couldn't remember how to make a pivot table. 

I never REALLY needed to make one. 

I had seen people make them in class, but I never needed to do one on my own. 

So, I googled it "how to make a pivot table in Excel," and found tons of short videos teaching the process. 

Task Specific Learning

Guess what happened?

Well first, I did make the pivot table but more importantly, I now KNOW HOW to make a pivot table. 

Needing to do it opened my mind to the process and I really learned at a higher level. 

Another great way to force higher level learning is to have some of your own money on the line. 

Although I've spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads courses, I really learned how to make decent ads once I was paying $10/day for them. 

Money triggers an emotional response and will encourage you to find results and act on them more quickly than if you have no skin in the game. 

Find ways to get "invested" in your learning beyond just the fact that you want to learn. Ask yourself, "I want to learn this why?" 

2. More Blogs, Less Books

Books have another flaw: they don't update quickly. Physical books obviously don't update at all (some Kindle books will get updates quickly, but that is an exception). 

I can learn what is happening in the marketplace. I can see what is and isn't working. I can see what is trending and what is fading. 

Books simply can't do that. 

To save time, I leverage RSS feed readers to provide me with the latest content from blogs and topics I follow.

Blog feeds can keep me in the loop for changes that are IMMEDIATELY applicable to my business. 

The RSS feed that I prefer is called Feedly. There are many other options. Some are paid but most free. 


3. Watching More YouTube Videos

Part of the reason I decided to watch more videos is because I've made YouTube a top priority for my brand in 2018 and I wanted to see what others were doing.

 I realized there was a massive amount of great information I had been ignoring in lieu of books. 

Many short videos are so packed full of information it's crazy!

PS: Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel 🙂

4. "Stop, Drop and Go!"

One of the reading mistakes I've made is "plowing through," books without stopping.

I'd read something that I knew was great and I could implement immediately, but instead of going and doing it, I kept reading. 

For this next analogy, let's pretend you're on a deserted island and you're starving to death. 

A backpack floats up to shore and inside is a jar of peanut butter. 

Do you...

A. Eat it immediately?

B. Leave it there and go looking for more food, planning to come back to the peanut butter later?

You get the point I hope...Don't overlook immediate, quick win opportunities. 

If you read something and you take action on it, you've completed the goal. 

If you read something and never act on it, you've done the exact opposite of the goal! You've just wasted time.

Now, when I read anything I immediately stop and take action after I find something that I know can move the needle forward in my business. 

Let's say you are reading a book or taking a course and in the first section you find something that you KNOW can improve your business. 

Why would you risk forgetting it by reading more when there is action to take now?

Final Thoughts

If your takeaway from this article was anything close to, "I'm done reading!" or "Cool, no more books/courses/videos for me!" please start over and actually read the article 🙂

Never stop learning. That isn't an option. 

You should however consider your "learning to action" ratio and decide if maybe your doing too much of the former at the expense of the latter. 

Now, get out there and take some action!

<3 Nate

"BUT Nate! Where's your data on all of this!?!?" Fair question!  I've tried my best to support my opinions with real data here, but frankly, there just isn't enough quantifiable data to really show what the ideal learning to action ratio is. I can't say for certain that reading 500 pages per day like Warren Buffet suggested is actually going to help anyone (all of my money would be on it hurting more people than helping). Another wrench thrown into the equation is the fact that everyone learns differently. As much as I'd love to give a straight answer like, "read no more than 30 minutes per day!" I simply cannot. I can only make recommendations based on my own judgement. Common sense combined with my own experiences suggest that most people are taking too little action and over-learning in an attempt to compensate and delay the actual hard work that is inevitably involved. Feel free to throw my opinion into the garbage if you disagree, but first, promise to disagree in the comments first!

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