How to Read 70 Books a Year And Catapult Your Career

I’ve been known to read a few books.

For the last few years, I’ve actually been keeping track of how many books I read. Here’s my annual totals:

  • 2011 = 39
  • 2012 = 68
  • 2013 = 50
  • 2014 = 70

With the 9 books that I’ve read so far in 2015, that brings my total to 236. This doesn’t even include all the books I read, just the one’s that relate to business. I even finished all 100 books on Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA reading list along the way.

Before we get into how I read this much (and how you can too)… why even bother? Reading takes a ton of time, especially if you want to read 70 books a year.

I’ll be straight with you: I would not be where I am today if I didn’t read as much as I do.

I originally started as a contractor at KISSmetrics, working on blog posts and support help videos. Two years later, I was the Head of Marketing and reported directly to the CEO.

As soon as I figured out how to perform at a high level with my current level of responsibilities, I asked to take on bigger challenges. Basically, I kept asking to get thrown into the deep-end. Then when I learned to tread water, I found the next storm to get thrown into.

  • Once I got comfortable with blog posts and product videos, I jumped into webinars. We had only done one webinar before I started. My webinar system went on to become our second-largest source of leads.
  • Our email system was in shambles. So I rebuilt the entire thing on a marketing automation tool and integrated it into the workflows of our Sales team. This set the whole foundation for being about to scale our lead growth.
  • Then I took responsibility for our lead counts and conversion rates. I put together our A/B testing strategy and our lead gen campaigns. A year later, we had tripled our conversion rates and quadrupled our monthly lead count.
  • To top it off, I jumped into the Head of Marketing role. I started attending board and leadership meetings, set the Marketing strategy and budget for 2015, and doubled the size of the team. We kept hitting all of our monthly goals like clockwork.

Every 6-9 months, I was taking a huge jump in responbilities.

The only reason I survived that kind of pace is that I had done an immense amount of reading. Need to crank out webinars? I just finished 4 books on webinars and how to give great presentations, let’s do this! Now driving monthly lead counts and improving conversions? Sure thing, I’ve read every conversion optimization book on Amazon. Time to double the size of the Marketing team? Good thing I just finished 5 of the top books on hiring. When my responsibilities increased, I had already spent time studying from the best in the field.

Reading won’t turn you into a world-class expert. You’ll need years of in-the-trenches experience to be truly world-class. But reading at this volume will make sure you can hit the ground running. You’ll become a solid practitioner in weeks instead of years. That’s how you survive being thrown into the deep-end every couple of months.

I’ve got 8 principles that I use to keep my reading volume up. If you follow them, you’ll be able to take on huge jumps in responsibility and accelerate your career.

Anchor 30-60 Minutes of Daily Reading

This is the key to making all this work.

By carving out just 30-60 minutes every day, you’ll be surprised how many books you’ll start to go through.

If you’ve done any research on how to change habits (The Power of Habit and Self-Directed Behavior will get you up to speed), you know that building a new habit works best when you anchor it against some other trigger. When you hit that trigger, you’ll be prompted to do your new habit. Before long, it’ll be an automatic response that you don’t even think about.

My favorite anchor for this? Reading in bed as I fall to sleep. If I’ve had a crazy day and I’m completely exhausted, I might only get through a page or two before passing out. But if I have plenty of energy left over and have a great book in my hands, I’ll easily crush a third of a book in a couple of hours before finally falling to sleep. Most likely, 30 minutes and a chapter or two is more than enough to put me to sleep.

One important caveat here: don’t regularly sacrifice sleep for reading. Some people have a really hard time falling asleep while reading non-fiction. Too many ideas start jumping into your head and you get amped thinking about all the new possibilities. If this happens to you regularly, try some fiction before bed and find another time during the day to anchor your business reading.

Find your ideal trigger for 30-60 minutes of daily reading. If one doesn’t work after a week or so, try another. Here’s a few other options:

  • Right after breakfast before the rest of your day starts.
  • During your lunch break.
  • On the train or bus during your commute.
  • An audiobook while your drive to work.
  • First thing you do when you get home from work.
  • After brushing your teeth and before going to bed.
  • In bed as you fall asleep.

Buy Your Next Book Before You Finish Your Current Book

As soon as you get close to finishing your current book, make sure you’ve got another one sitting around for you to dive into next. There shouldn’t be any breaks in your new reading habit. Finishing a book and then binging on Netflix for a few weeks will really slow you down.

When you start to get to the end of your current book, grab one on Amazon or run by your local book store. It’s also a nice little incentive to keep you going and wrap up the current book. Finishing sooner also means starting the next one sooner.

Since I’m a compulsive reader, I’ve moved most of my reading to a Kindle which makes this a non-issue. As soon as I’m finished with my current book, I download the next book that I want instantly. Takes me 2 minutes tops.

What about buying a bunch at a time so you have a to-read pile?

If that works for you, go for it. Several years ago, I developed a habit of buying $200-300 worth of books at a time. Then I’d only read the first couple before I bought another batch, leaving me with a pile that I never seemed to get around to. So now I force myself to finish my current book before buying the next one.

Take Your Book With You Everywhere

That’s right, be that nerd that never goes anywhere without a book. Now when you have a few spare minutes waiting for your next meeting, the bus, or your friends to show up, you’ve got a book at your side. Just like how that daily 30-60 minutes adds up over a year, 10 minutes a few times throughout the day also adds up real fast.

I’ve always got my Kindle on me. Whenever I have some spare time, I grab it and start reading. It’s much more fulfilling that scrolling through my Facebook feed. Would you rather level up one of your business skills or see which of your friends just shared a BuzzFeed article? I don’t even have Facebook installed on my phone, I’m too busy reading.

Flights and commutes are also perfect for this. Don’t crank on that spreadsheet or deck, just relax and get some reading done. With nothing else to distract you, you’ll crush books. Everyone else frets about their flight getting delayed, I just use the extra time to finish a few more chapters. If my other work is important enough, I’ll find time to get it done. But by allocating travel time to reading, I’m consistently investing in my long-term instead of just running on the short-term project treadmill.

Keep a To-Read List

I have hundreds of books in my backlog, more than I could ever read. You should start your own to-read list which includes every book you’ve ever wanted to read. This way, you’ll never have to wonder what you should read next. As soon as you start to finish your current book, you’ve got a huge list of books you’ve already decided to read.

Some people will add books to their Amazon wishlist, I just use Evernote. Here’s a snippet of what mine looks like:

Lars Lofgren To-Read List

That goes on for hundreds, maybe thousands of books. When I’m looking for my next book, I scroll down and start popping titles into Amazon to jog my memory on what each book’s about. When I find the right one, I hit the purchase button.

But where do you get ideas for books in the first place?

There’s a number of people that I respect immensely in my field. If any of them recommends a book, I add it straight to my list. Even if it’s a topic I’m lukewarm on, any recommendation from them goes to the top.

I’ll also check out the reviews on Amazon whenever I see a book mentioned elsewhere. It might come up in some random blog post, a retweet scrolling through my feed, or a New York Times article. And if it looks solid, then it gets added.

Most importantly, pay close attention to books that get mentioned repeatedly in your field. For marketing, you’ll see Influence, Permission Marketing, and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing all the time. And deservedly so, they’re classics of the field. As soon as you start to get a vibe that a book is a classic in a field that you want to build mastery in, add it to the list.

Your list will start small but will quickly expand. Before you know it, you’ll have a longer to-read list than you could ever hope to finish.

Alternate Between Depth and Entertainment

Text books aren’t just for college kids. Some of the most valuable reads I’ve discovered were pretty hefty tombs. Even if you love to read, these things take some serious effort to get through. Diffusion of Innovations and The Social Animal are great examples. Full of insights and value but a slog to get through. There’s no quirky anecdotes, no fun tangents, and no narrative to speed things along. You’ll earn each and every page.

You’ll want to tackle these pillars of learning but don’t overdo it. After you’ve finished one, make sure to sprinkle in a few lighter reads. Something from Michael Lewis or Seth Godin will do the trick.

I also alternate between topics I love and topics I’m not ecstatic about but are still critical to rounding out my knowledge. For example, I’m not super passionate about data visualization but Show Me the Numbers gives a great foundation for building out graphs and tables in your work. Occasionally pick up a book that is critical to building out your expertise regardless of how excited you are to read it. Once you finish, jump back into some topics that you’re more excited about.

Keep switching up the book types and topics so that reading doesn’t feel too much like work. Don’t let yourself get burned out on it. A fiction or non-business book goes a long way to giving you some relief after conquering some musty tomb.

Cut Your Cable

I’ve never had cable and I never will.

Don’t get me wrong, I love movies and solid TV. But I demand control of my time and my schedule when it comes to entertainment. Having an all-you-can-eat stream of B-rate reality TV is just too much of a time suck. You’ll progress so much faster if you replace that time with reading.

Get a Netflix subscription, set aside $50 to buy anything else you want on Amazon or iTunes, and you’ll have more than enough to watch. You’ll even spend less than most cable subscriptions. And with HBO Now, there’s no reason to have cable.

Take the 2-3 hours that most people watch each day and replace it with reading. You’ll easily finish a book every week.

Don’t Speed Read

Could I double the number of books that I read each year by getting good at speed reading? Absolutely. Do I want to? Nope.

You see, I’m not reading for sheer volume. That misses the point. The goal here is mental preparation so I’m as qualified as possible even when I walk into completely novel situations. So my main priority is retention. The better I can incorporate what I’ve learned into my mental models, the more I can relay on instinct in any number of crazy situations.

This is why I read at a speed that’s about half of my max. A 50% pace means I can use the other 50% of my energy to think deeply about each concept as it comes up in the reading. Connecting the reading to my experiences and everything else I’ve already learned helps me retain each new principle.

Volume certainly helps as you continue to grow your own capabilities. But retention shouldn’t be scarified in the name of hitting some vanity metric on how many books you read. They’ll only help you if you actually integrate them into your own mental models.

Wrap Up

If you want to accelerate your career or your business, you’ll need to constantly be preparing for the next major challenge. Voracious reading is one of my trade secrets to stack the odds in my favor when a new opportunity comes along.

And here’s my 8 tips for reading 70 books a year:

  • Anchor 30-60 minutes of daily reading
  • Always have an unfinished book on hand
  • Buy your next book before you finish your current book
  • Take your book with you everywhere
  • Keep a to-read list
  • Alternate between depth and entertainment
  • Cut your cable
  • Don’t speed read

If you want to keep tabs on what I’m reading, I list every business book that I finish here.

I’ll show you how to build an unstoppable growth machine. Don’t miss any of my new essays.

I don’t share emails. Ever. And your trust means a great deal to me.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Brian April 9, 2015, 7:58 pm

    Great post Lars, thanks. Couple of questions, if you don’t mind?

    Just doing some rough mathematics here and can see you’re averaging a book a week. If you’re looking at ~60 min per day on average, that’s about a book every 7 hours (correct me if I’m way out).

    Given that you don’t “speed read”, any tips for upping your reading rate while maintaining retention? 7 hours per book is still pretty fast, isn’t it?

    Second question: what’s your take on the value of reading versus the value of ‘doing stuff’? You say yourself that mastery is born of in-the-trenches experience, what’s your advice for someone who doesn’t have the opportunities to work on new things within their 9-6 nor a supportive management structure like you do at Kissmetrics?

    Lastly, many business books seem to me to be needlessly lengthy, like they’re trying to justify their own existence by using more pages. I know you’re reading for depth in some topics, but wouldn’t you improve an impact-per-hour-of-reading metric more with some high quality blog posts? Or is the discovery process too much of a drag?

    Here’s to your next 227… 😉
    Brian

    Reply
    • Lars Lofgren April 10, 2015, 6:24 pm

      Thanks Brian!

      Occasionally, I will start to speed read when I have a book or chapter that just isn’t valuable. If it starts to become really repetitive, fluffy, or goes on some needless tangent, I’ll stop worrying about retention and just cruise through it. That helps with the volume. This happens most often with books that I’m not getting any value out of and just want to finish.

      Reading will only take you so far. The real benefit comes when you start to apply what you’ve learned and wrestle with the nuance of reality. Even if a job feels restrictive, there’s always opportunities to try new methods. Practice skills like managing up, persuading internally, or getting what you need without management’s approval. But if you aren’t learning at the pace you know you can, you should probably start looking for a new gig. Above all else, I optimize for learning with each job. As soon as the pace of learning slows, I look elsewhere.

      And I love blog posts, I read plenty of those too. 🙂 But I’ve found that deep concepts just don’t stick from a blog post like they do from a book. Books give plenty of length to really dive into the details on a concept. They also keep you coming back over a period of several days which gives you a lot more time to successfully retain the concepts. So I’ve found that the retention is much higher with books than blog posts. There are definitely business books that are waaaay too long or should never have been a book in the first place. I try to avoid those by keeping the quality of recommendations high. A few always manage to sneak in but it keeps the duds to a minimum.

      Reply
      • Brian April 13, 2015, 12:29 pm

        Good stuff, Lars – all that makes sense.

        What was your thoughts on So Good They Can’t Ignore You? It’s one of those books where I enjoyed the summary, but not sure if there’s enough meat for the bones of a full book. Is a good summary enough?

        Reply
        • Lars Lofgren April 14, 2015, 7:08 pm

          I loved So Good They Can’t Ignore You, it’s the book I recommend most for how to think about your career. Cal Newport’s blog is also one of the few blogs that I subscribe to.

          Reply
          • Brian April 16, 2015, 3:45 pm

            Bought! Thanks Lars.

          • Brian April 19, 2015, 7:30 am

            Read the first half of SGTCIY last night Lars. Guess you’re right on two fronts; it’s a great book and it’s possible to get through a book a week when you can read half a book in one night…! 😉

            It got me thinking about deliberate practise in the workplace. We’re both marketers, any experience of using deliberate practise to enhance your craft?

          • Lars Lofgren April 20, 2015, 12:06 am

            Glad you’re enjoying the book Brian. 🙂

            I’d love to explore deliberate practice in a more structured way, definitely a key piece to building mastery. Awhile back, Cal opened up a one-time online course to help people apply it to their own careers. Hopefully he’ll release a polish version soon.

            This is one of the main reasons that I blog, do speaking, workshops, consulting, etc. They all give me more chances to ingrain what I’m learning and refine my own frameworks. But I probably need to add some more habits and structure around my own deliberate practice. At the very least, I’d make sure you’re getting a chance to do some deliberate practice on at least a weekly basis. Blocking off a few 2-3 hours chunks out of your week to focus on your toughest problems would be a good place to start.

  • Nate Klaiber April 13, 2015, 1:10 pm

    Years ago I was working for a small book publisher as their web developer. I had the privilege of working for an incredible manager that the time. He came to me with a book budget and the freedom to work on new things I learn every friday. He provided a launchpad that changed my professional career.

    At that time I was still reading paper books. I quickly accumulated bookshelves of books. Now, when those books are still relevant, I pass them along to colleagues, the library, or local co-working spaces. It’s especially great sharing them with colleagues, so you can both digest your thoughts and share your learnings.

    I feel like I was able to learn from you, by proxy, in our time together at KISSmetrics. You shared your immense knowledge and a handful of book recommendations when I felt out of my territory. Thank you for that.

    Reply
    • Lars Lofgren April 14, 2015, 7:09 pm

      Thanks Nate! I was also a huge pleasure getting a chance to work with you. If there’s anything I can ever to do help, let me know. 🙂

      Reply
  • JT, Jessica Tiao May 30, 2015, 1:13 am

    I was super inspired by this post Lars! Since then, I’ve read a book a month. Keep writing awesome posts like these :]

    Reply
    • Lars Lofgren May 31, 2015, 5:37 am

      That’s awesome JT! Glad to hear it was inspirational. 🙂

      I’ll definitely keep the posts going!

      Reply
  • Amy August 7, 2015, 2:10 am

    Thanks for the recommendations! It’s been on my mind lately to read more, but I have such a hard time picking up and then finishing a book (which may be its own reason to do it).

    Something that Tim Ferris talks about is “just in time” v “just in case”. Do you find your retention is good on material where you read, say, 4 books on webinars without any concurrent application? I’m not trying to poke holes in your successful system, I’m trying to problem solve for my current failure to stick with books.

    Thanks again for the post!

    Reply
    • Lars Lofgren August 7, 2015, 4:13 am

      You’re welcome Amy!

      You definitely have a good point. If you’ve been struggling with finishing, I’d only grab books that are directly relevant to what you’re working on. That will make them a lot more interesting since you’re getting value out of them right away.

      I may be a gluten for punishment by wanting to read 4 books on agile product management or webinars. But I wouldn’t recommend doing the same if you’re trying to build a reading habit in the first place.

      And yes, reading material that you can put into practice right away is the best way to retain it. However, I’ve found that the drop in retention doesn’t outweigh the benefits from flexibility. I can still easily take advantage of many core lessons that I’ve learned previously. Being able to jump into novel situations with an accelerated learning curve stacks the odds nicely in my favor.

      I do use highlights heavily on my Kindle which makes review super easy. I already know which 2-3 books are the best on the subject, I can pull them up instantly, scan through all my old highlights, and get a great refresher in just 15-20 minutes. Whenever I start to get overwhelmed, this gets me back on track.

      Reply

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