How I Optimize My Reading Time

Which is more beneficial, spending ten hours reading one book or spending one hour each with ten different books? What about reading 100 pages from one book or ten pages from ten books? 

Which is more beneficial, spending ten hours reading one book or spending one hour each with ten different books? What about reading 100 pages from one book or ten pages from ten books?

“It depends,” is the best answer – as it is to all good questions.

Yet, how often does a reader ask, “How much of this book will I read?” My hope would be for every book; my guess is rarely.

I’ve been thinking about this since a meeting with the Arizona TeacherSolutions® TeamWe discussed strategies for increasing participation in our book studies. Lack of time is a huge barrier, to which many of us spoke of our own reading habits:

  • Donnie said it takes him between six months and two years to finish a book.
  • I confessed the dark secret that even though I’m known as a reader, I rarely finish any of books I talk about. (The reaction was hysterical. I didn’t know how many different ways you could express mock disillusionment.)
  • I lost Misha’s follow up comment because I was laughing that she pointedly prefaced it with, “As someone who reads cover to cover…”

Thinking back over it, a more accurate comment for me to make would be:

I do finish books – on my terms. That means I read one until I get out of it what I want (and usually a bit more, just to be safe). Then I put it aside. Every minute spent with a book beyond that sacrifices a minute I could spend reading something else.

Sometimes, going into a book, I know exactly the parts I’ll read. Or, based on my previous experience with the author (Malcolm Gladwell, for instance) I’ll assume I’ll read it cover to cover. But most often, I start a book and decide in real time to continue page by page, skip around, or put the book down all together.

A digression: My kid, August, says, “Some books overstay their welcome.”

I decide how to proceed with a book based, in approximate order, on how good or fun the writing is, how fast I can read it, how much I’m learning, and how much I need the content. To the reader who would argue that I’ve got my priorities backwards, I’d paraphrase a history teacher who used to say that utility is the criterion of nothing useful in life.

Sometimes the priorities are additive. You can fly through anything by the Heath brothers and still learn a ton.

Other times one priority is stealthily embedded in another. Read The Cartel by Don Winslow or The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. Their craftsmanship alone will drive you on. When finished, you’ll also know a heck of a lot about, respectively, drug wars and early 20th Century race relations and labor issues.

So, I guess a best practice in optimizing one’s reading time is to ask, “What’s the profit of continuing to read this, instead of moving on to that?”

But ultimately, the best practice of all is to find time to read like you find time to love – and to do that, your book must be lovely to begin with.*


*Sharp-eyed readers will note the veiled reference to Edmund Burke: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”


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  • JessicaCuthbertson

    But Not for Literature, Right?

    I’m only now as a 30something adult becoming a part vs. whole (cover to cover) reader — as a student I felt I needed to read EVERY word of a book and that habit is hard to break — also as someone who grew up reading primarily fiction/literature this was the only way I read — cover to cover. Now that I have way more professional/nonfiction books on my shelf than I have time for I’m slowly but surely becoming a pickier, skimmier, scannier reader…but for the beautiful books – the fiction, literature, poetry — I still maintain skipping around (or reading the end first) is just, well semi-sacrilege :). 

    • SandyMerz

      Yes and No

      First, I think a lot of non-fiction counts as literature. If a novel, popular or literary, isn’t holding me, I’ll just stop reading it. An exception would be if someone had told me that parts of it dragged, but to stick with it. I was talking to a student yesterday and she says she may skip chapters that are mostly about characters she doesn’t like. I read a lot of spy and detective fiction, which tends to be formulaic. So I might jump over a three page fight scene. I also skipped the songs and walks through the forest in Lord of the Rings, which reduced the load by 50%. Really, who needs another forest? I just read Crooked, by Austin Grossman. It held just enough promise for me to keep going to the end, but never really delivered, which makes me wish I had quit when I first had doubts. But then I would have always wondered – did I miss a great second half?  But yes, the default assumption is that when I start a novel, I’ll finish it. 

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Wanda


    This helps to clarify reading.  Other and recent topics on litearcy show the benefits of this approach.  Is this endorsing speed reading?  Do you cover other languages?