An image of a man looking at his watch and holding a book

The Three Reading Habits That Waste Time

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have a problem with books. If I see a bookstore, I have to go inside, and once I’m there, I always buy something. 

The dirty truth about book lovers is that we have piles of books stacked under desks, against walls, and atop every toilet. Reading all of these books would be a waste of my time for several reasons, which I’ll get into very soon. 

But first, know I’m not advocating for you to stop reading. I would never do such a thing! My life revolves around books. I am advocating that you stop reading randomly. 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca advises us (in letter 2) to read fewer books and to spend more time with them. He wanted us to seek out great teachers and learn from them rather than read at a superficial level. 

Let’s see what he has to say: 

“You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

Makes sense to me. 

Read Less, Think More

Nietzsche (The wildly mustached philosopher) once said that his foot is also a writer. He meant that he got just as much or more writing done on his daily walks than sitting down to read and write at his desk. 

Nietzsche took time away from his books daily to walk the gardens and think. Reading is a waste of time unless you follow Nietzsche’s example. 

I used to be the kind of reader who consumed books at a mad pace. I think it had something to do with my ego. I read titles quickly, my only goal being that I wanted to read over a hundred books a year. 

Now that I’ve lived that experience, I can tell you that it was a waste of my time. Yes, I was exposed to the material, and yes, I understood what each book was about, but I never took the time to implement what I read. How could I? There was no space in my life to journal, go for walks, or apply what I had learned – I was too busy getting onto the next book. 

Reading is a waste of time if you never think about the book in your hand. Every good reader needs a note-taking system. If you don’t have one, build one, but avoid getting caught up in the craze of YouTube intellectuals asking you to create a complex system using Notion or Obsidian, 15 automation tools, and a database. 

Good hell. 

Just start with a notebook. Keep it simple, and let it grow from there. 

Don’t Waste Time on Bad Books

A few years ago, someone I highly respected gave me a book recommendation. He told me to read The Magus by John Fowles. Apparently, this was the most incredible book ever written, and when it arrived on my doorstep, the 800+ pages felt heavy in my hands. Nevertheless, I plunged in, waiting to be awed. 

400 pages later, I was sweating it out and hating every work. I pushed on, believing that if he liked it, there must be something good I was missing. 

I was wrong. 

I finished that book and despised myself for it. I invested over 40 hours of my life reading it. What a waste of time! Since The Magus, I have installed a 50-page limit on ALL books. If they don’t have me riveted by then, I get rid of the book. I don’t feel bad about it, and I don’t feel like a failure. 

Too many of us force ourselves to finish a book, and that’s a waste of time. Your life is short. Please, for the love of all that is holy, spend your precious time reading good books.

Don’t Highlight Every Passage 

Reading is a waste of time if you highlight or underline every passage in a book. I can’t help but fall short here because when I find a fascinating book, I usually want to retain every detail. 

It’s a problem, I know. My books are marked to the hilt. This proclivity to capture everything is a waste of time for several reasons. 

First, if you have hundreds of marked passages in a book, you’re not likely to go back and transcribe them or take notes once you’ve finished reading. The amount of work there can feel so monumental that you never get around to it. And if your highlights never get out of the book and into your life, then it doesn’t matter how good that book was; it was a waste of time reading it. 

Second, when you highlight everything, you see nothing. All the significant and valuable passages are lost in the excess consumption, and you have to spend time fishing them out. Lots of time. 

After I’ve read a book, it takes real discipline on my part NOT to jump into a new and exciting read, but instead to reopen the book and begin building out my notes. If there’s any friction in that process, my laziness will kick in, and I won’t create the notes. 

This is a problem, but it’s easily solved. Your job is to remove the friction. Make creating notes as easy as possible, and ensure that there are fewer of them to make. 

Don’t Read without Creating Output

This may make a few people angry, but I’m going to say it anyway. If all you ever do is read, that’s a waste of time. Many will say that reading provides relaxation and escape, which is not a waste of time. Agreed. However, I’m not talking about recreational reading in this essay. I’m talking about the kind of reading that moves your work, ideas, and perceptions forward. I’m talking about reading for intelligence. 

A reader should add to the conversation however possible.

I encourage you to disagree with the author, combine viewpoints with other authors, and develop your own ideas! Then, share those ideas in your career, in your writing, or even on your date night next Friday. 

In his book, The Intellectual Life, author A. G. Sertillanges drives this point home beautifully:  

“You have come now to the moment for producing results. One cannot be forever learning and forever getting ready. Moreover, learning and getting ready are inseparable from a certain amount of production, which is helpful to them. One finds one’s way only by taking it. All life moves in a circle. An organ that is used grows and gets stronger; a strong organ can be used more effectively. You must write throughout the whole of your intellectual life. “

The point is to stop reading just to say that you have read. That is a waste of time. Become the reader with a note-taking system, go for long Nietzsche-like walks, and produce work that adds to the conversation. 

Clean Up Your TBR and join the Book Club

Last summer, I deleted most of the books from my TBR(To Be Read) list on Goodreads. I also separated my books into two piles: The books I wanted to read and all the rest. Many in the latter pile were donated to a local cause. 

I’ve got to be honest. I love the cleaner house and a clearer headspace. I don’t feel the clutter piling up everywhere, and when I read a book, it’s done on purpose. 

I understand that doing this kind of literary spring cleaning can be overwhelming, but that is what I am asking you to do. Commit to becoming an intellectual reader. Organize a reading list that will inspire you and your work, take notes as you read, and then add to the conversation. 

 That’s why I’d like to invite you to my book club. If you need help figuring out a list of books that will stimulate you and be worth your time, join us at to begin working on this skill.

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