I read only one book in a year and it was great

It's the start of a new year - a wonderful and optimistic time where we start off with a clean slate, lots of hope, goals, and resolutions. The general practice is to set lofty goals to read 25 books, pursue 3 hobbies, travel to 5 places, etc. My story below might make you consider an alternate approach of aiming to do less. 

I think I read only one book in 2019. It wasn't even a big book. It was ~100 pages on the Buddhist Eightfold path. 

The book had 8 key chapters and each chapter had 4 activities. I was reading this as a part of the program organized by Insights Meditation center. We read one chapter a month, then met for a group session, and practiced one activity per week, before moving to the next chapter. 

The group sessions were usually 1-2 hours long. The experts leading the program would give an hour talk explaining the summary and nuances of the topic covered in the chapter. We'd break out into small groups a few times to share our opinions and experiences on some pertinent questions. There were a couple of  Q&A segments. 

Every session always revealed a lot more depth than what I gathered from my reading of the chapter, offered real-world examples and practical tips, and resolved any lingering questions or doubts that I had. They made me understand more, think more, and be even more rigorous in exploring the next chapters. 

The weekly homework activities were hard to do consistently. But the half I did, helped me integrate the theory into my daily life and understand them even better. 

It's been 2 years and I still remember, practice, and benefit from many of the topics in the book. I continue to brush up on the chapters and practices every few months (Some people in the class were repeating for the 2nd or 3rd year). I can't say that for most books I have read quickly or express courses that I have completed in a week or month.  

Reading -> Insight -> Practice -> Insight -> Repetition -> Integration

Think of how you studied books and courses when you were in school or college. You had a teacher explain and walk through every chapter, you had multiple class discussions, projects and problem sets to practice the theory, chapter, and final tests as a forcing function to study and practice and to assess yourself and expose gaps. It takes a lot of exploration to understand a topic. 

It takes regular and deliberate practice to apply and integrate them into your life. It takes a lot of repetition for them to stick.  

But suddenly when we graduate from school, we expect that our brains can do magic. We read multiple books, 10-minute books summaries, tweets, watch quick Youtube videos, complete quick courses, pursue multiple different hobbies and goals. We go through life, relationships, activities, books, and jobs very quickly, shallowly, narrowly. Then we expect to master multiple topics and transform ourselves in different ways, very quickly and without as much effort. How we wish! How can that even work! We just end up setting ourselves up to be busy, anxious, guilty, and less effective.

Lex Fridman, a popular scientist and podcaster, lays out this framework for learning any new skill
  • Foundations - 2 hours of daily practice for 1 year
  • Expertise - 1 hour of daily practice for 5 years. Set a minimum time every day. 
  • Second nature - After 5 years, you can take time off and still return to it easily. 
I'd propose that you experience a lot more joy, success, and less stress when you do a few things, slowly, deliberately, and deeply. Things flourish when you invest time, effort, and focus. 


[1] I do think there is value, serendipity, and joy in exploration and dipping your feet quickly in multiple different things. But they are unlikely to result in deep mastery or a transformation. 

[2] Fiction books are somewhat different from non-fiction. They are entertainment and you can read them more quickly. But even fiction books and movies can be savored more if read and enjoyed slowly. 

[3] Multiple and quick iterations within the same topic or activity can be good. They help you go deeper and offer a quicker and more fun feedback loop to help you learn better. You may have heard about the study on how students who were tasked with making as many pots as possible made better pots than students who were tasked with making one perfect pot.