July 6, 2021March 9, 2022 Books, Critical Thinking, Habits, Learning, Productivity, Reading, Technology, Writing

When I first discovered non-fiction books, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. Whatever problem you could possibly have, there’s a book out there to help you solve it. I had a lot of challenges at the time, and so I started devouring lots of books.

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I read books about money, productivity, and choosing a career. Then, I read books about marketing, creativity, & entrepreneurship. I read and read và read, and, eventually, I realized I had forgotten lớn implement any of the advice! The only habit I had built was reading, and as wonderful as it was, it left me only with information overwhelm.

After that phase, I flipped khổng lồ the other, equally extreme end of the spectrum: I read almost no books, got all my insights from summaries, and only tried to lớn learn what I needed lớn improve a given situation at any time.

So, vày self-help books work? As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The right book at the right time can make a profound difference in your life. At the same time, you’ll never read — nor need — 99% of all books in existence, và with the exception of a rare few, you probably won’t miss anything.

I finally have a more balanced approach to lớn reading, but for years, there’s been one notion in particular that kept me from reading non-fiction at a healthy yet not excessive pace: “Non-fiction books are a waste of your time.”

With book summary services by the dozen, podcasts và Youtube videos galore, this opinion has gained a lot of traction in recent years. Its main argument is that most books contain one good idea wrapped in 200 pages of filler. Why spend five hours reading when you can get the gist in five minutes?

In this article, I’ll show you exactly how modern non-fiction books waste your time — because to lớn some extent, they do. I’ll also make a case as to lớn why that shouldn’t deter you from reading them in the slightest. I’ll use one particular book as an example: Meet The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

Why ThisBook?

The first time someone mentioned The One Thing to me was in 2014. A fellow coach said he used Keller’s concept a lot — and promptly sent me a 3-page summary of the book’s chip core thesis which, khổng lồ be fair, is simple enough.

In essence, Keller suggests you use a singular “focusing question” in your life & work to determine your number one task at any given moment and in any given area. Then, you work only on that task until it’s done. As a result, all other tasks should become easier or unnecessary. This is the question:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can vì chưng such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

I scanned the PDF, went, “Yup, got it,” and, for seven years, that was the kết thúc of it. I even bought the book a few years ago, but I only read it in full recently. When I did, it hit me that it was a perfect example of the modern non-fiction reader’s dilemma: The book contained a lot of fluff, but I still walked away from it feeling both smarter and inspired.

I didn’t choose this book as an example because it’s the only one that’s wasteful yet useful. I selected it because it’s a grippy concept that’s easy khổng lồ understand, structured like a typical, modern bestseller, & because it did sell over one million copies.

The One Thing is representative of a large share, maybe even the majority of traditionally published non-fiction bestsellers today. The book counts 223 pages and is structured into three parts: “The Lies,” “The Truth,” & “Extraordinary Results.”

Let’s see what makes it bad & how a flawed book can still succeed — both as a bookshelf blockbuster and an investment for you, the reader.

How Bestsellers Waste YourTime

Here are ten time-wasting patterns that show up in many non-fiction books.

1. Survivorship Bias

It took exactly three pages for me lớn doubt the whole premise:

After these experiences, I looked back at my successes & failures and discovered an interesting pattern. Where I’d had huge success, I had narrowed my concentration lớn one thing, & where my success varied, my focus had too.

This is not just painfully obvious, it’s also a classic case of retroactive pattern-matching, which all humans are prone to. Keller did something that worked, & then he mapped a story lớn his success in hindsight — one that conveniently explains his achievements. The truth is that “something” was a combination of many things, và what Keller picked may not be the deciding factor. Likewise, others taking his same steps might not have succeeded.

We can only analyze what we know, so we’ll never eliminate survivorship bias completely, but still: Know it’s there, và take everything with a grain of salt.

2. Mismatched Examples

Proof of the ONE Thing is everywhere. Look closely and you’ll always find it.

To convince you his concept is the real deal, Keller then goes on example tour. He wants khổng lồ convince you The One Thing is “a fundamental truth.” The problem is if you stare at anything long enough with the right filter in your sunglasses, it’ll look exactly like what you want khổng lồ see.

Case in point: Keller claims companies succeed on one product, people on one skill, one relationship, etc. He then suggests apple as a case study but says they “moved from Macs khổng lồ iMacs khổng lồ iTunes to iPods khổng lồ iPhones” in the span of 14 years. He also claims it only takes “one person” but names three people who helped Oprah in her early years. Finally, he chooses Bill Gates as an example of “One Life,” yet lists a slew of his achievements. None of these case studies reflect Keller’s idea well — they just happen to lớn be popular, and that’s why he superimposed his concept on them, even though it doesn’t fit.

3. “First, We MustDebunk”

This is the stereotypical non-fiction distraction. Most bestsellers do this, và it can easily fill, in Keller’s case, 70 (!) pages. The tenet is always the same:

Before we can have a frank, heart-to-heart discussion about how the ONE Thing actually works, I want lớn openly discuss the myths and misinformation that keep us from accepting it. They are the lies of success. Once we banish these from our minds, we can take up the ONE Thing with an open mind & a clear path.

This is nonsense. If you’ve just presented me with an original, clever idea, my mind is already open. There’s no need to mở cửa it wider. This is just selling to those who already bought and will lead khổng lồ confirmation bias in the reader. Instead, authors should encourage healthy skepticism & critical reflection.

One easy way to see if the advertiser forced the tác giả to include a debunking section is khổng lồ watch out for the next two time-wasters.

4. GlibPhrases…

When these pile up, it’s a sign the writer was running on fumes.

Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.

Achievers bởi sooner what others plan to do later & defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others vị sooner.

Pareto’s Principle is as real as the law of gravity, và yet most people fail to see the gravity of it.

Keller’s debunking section is full of one-liners using repetition lớn turn a clever phrase. Great tweets but not necessary material, especially when it comes…


What do you notice about this paragraph?

The six lies are beliefs that get into our heads và become operational principles driving us the wrong way. Highways that kết thúc as bunny trails. Fool’s gold that diverts us from the mother lode.

If you ask me, these are three sentences saying the same thing. Two of them should be cut.

Why would you ever do something the hard way? Why would you ever knowingly get behind the eight ball, deliberately crawl between a rock and a hard place, or intentionally work with one hand tied behind your back?

There’s this joke in academia that, when writing a paper, you “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ‘em.” In non-fiction books, that’s just wasting the reader’s time.

6. Contradictory Conclusions

Another sign the advertiser told the tác giả to elaborate on a certain section is when individual chapter conclusions logically fall apart. Take this one from chapter 5, “Multitasking,” for example:

1. Distraction is natural. Don’t feel bad when you get distracted. Everyone gets distracted.

2. Multitasking takes a toll. At home or at work, distractions lead to poor choices, painful mistakes, and unnecessary stress.

3. Distraction undermines results. When you try to vày too much at once, you can kết thúc up doing nothing well. Figure out what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.

So what now? Is it okay to lớn be distracted or not? I get what Keller is trying to vày here, but when you just read ten pages on why multitasking is bad, a conclusion that basically cancels 1 và -1 out khổng lồ zero feels weak & dissatisfying. It doesn’t feel like progress, which likely means Keller himself also didn’t think it was crucial to his bộ vi xử lý core line of reasoning.

7. Summaries of Already Popular Scientific Studies

Just lượt thích your gym plays the same three workout songs over & over, pop science often centers around only a few dozen studies — and then every tác giả quotes them ad nauseam. Keller is no exception.

The marshmallow experiment, the willpower chạy thử in the Israeli parole system, the Pareto principle — if you’ve read any pop-sci literature in the past decade, you’ll likely have come across these. The stories in these studies are powerful, their findings extraordinary, but while summarizing them makes for some quick pages & social proof, you could also find other credible sources to illustrate the same concepts in ways your readers have never heard before.

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The more unique stories & evidence a book provides, the more likely we’ll discover and recommend it for the novelty factor alone.

8. Trying Too Hard to Provide SocialProof

Sacrificing novelty in favor of credibility is one thing, but you can also đại bại credibility by trying too hard to establish it. Right before presenting his vi xử lý core concept — the focusing question — Keller quotes Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, & an ancient Chinese proverb. Then, more social proof:

Voltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Sir Francis Bacon added, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Indira Gandhi concluded that “the power to lớn question is the basis of all human progress.”

Socrates, Harvard, Nancy Willard, the menu goes on & on, and, quite frankly, it gets tiring. I bought this book to lớn see what Keller thinks, not what others think. The occasional “this person agrees” can bolster your arguments, but if you lather on validations lượt thích hair grease in an 80s movie, your thesis will look like the slick but insecure protagonists of said movies: sleazy and full of it.

9. Retelling Stories khổng lồ Make Unrelated Points

After concluding the central section of the book, “The Truth,” which contains only three chapters, Keller is back into filler mode. He retells the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on two pages with little emphasis on the visits of the ghosts — and a lot on the happy ending. He concludes:

Through this simple story, Charles Dickens shows us a simple formula for creating an extraordinary life: Live with purpose. Live by priority. Live for productivity.

It’s a nice little framework Keller has created to add context lớn his focusing question, but it feels totally unrelated to lớn this story. The connection seems pulled out of thin air, and it’s one you could retrofit to lớn countless other examples. A few pages later, he repeats the process with a story called “The Begging Bowl,” and it also feels forced.

Not every argument needs a colorful back-story. Sometimes, ideas ring loudest in our minds when they speak for themselves.

10. Other Pitfalls & PetPeeves

Sloppy sourcing. At some point, Keller quotes Aristotle but doesn’t mention his name. This can happen out of negligence but shouldn’t.Pre-formatted highlights of certain passages. This is lượt thích chewing food in advance for your baby, và readers aren’t babies. Everyone will find other lines clever và relevant to them. Let us discover them on our own.Absolute statements. “I want you to reject this idea.” “My idea is the absolute principle of success.” “The most successful people are the most productive people.” There is nothing absolute in this world. When authors pretend there is, they look naive, and, often, they’ll be wrong too.Any kind of filler that’s easily identifiable as such. Full-page graphics that just repeat other graphics. Needlessly drawn out examples of how lớn apply a tool. Chapters that needn’t be there. & so on.

Alright. That was a lot of flack. At this point, you might think I didn’t gain anything from Keller’s book at all. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d wholeheartedly recommend The One Thing to the right person at the right time (like I was when I read it). Let’s see what made the book worth it — and thus understand why reading non-fiction is an important habit in general.

Why Should You Read Bestsellers Anyway?

These three factors make non-fiction books worth reading despite their flaws.

1. The Immersion Factor

The difference between reading a three-page summary of The One Thing & reading all of its 200+ pages is the difference between dipping your toe into the water và swimming in the pool for 45 minutes: One doesn’t challenge you at all, the other requires commitment, effort, and perseverance.

When you read a whole book about a single idea or topic, you spend time with it. You immerse yourself in it. Immersion leads to lớn doubt & reflection. You’re much more likely to lớn assess, accept, reject parts of, execute, và improve upon an idea when you’ve spent six hours with it instead of six minutes.

I knew the concept of The One Thing for years, but only after reading it did I think about và use the focusing question in my life & work. I decided to demo my book ideas in articles before committing to lớn them, which made sure I wrote a book that was well received. Khổng lồ improve my chances of landing big hits, I chose lớn write meatier articles. Being familiar with the idea alone didn’t matter. Immersion made all the difference.

This factor requires some balance, of course. Lượt thích I said in the beginning: You can’t just read, but if each stint is followed by deep reflection và a change in habits, the immersion factor of books is hard khổng lồ overstate.

2. Easter Eggs YearRound

When I turned the page to Keller’s penultimate “lie of success,” I stumbled into something unexpected: A chapter about living a balanced life. By mere coincidence, this is an idea I’ve dedicated a lot of thought and energy too, và so I was both surprised and happy to learn what Keller thinks about it. I was even more thrilled to discover an entirely new perspective on the matter:

What appears to lớn be a state of balance is something entirely different — an act of balancing. Viewed wistfully as a noun, balance is lived practically as a verb.

I have been setting one-word annual themes for several years. In 2020, my theme was “balance.” I even suggested using words that are both nouns and verbs in an article about the topic — and yet, despite all this, Keller’s words showed me I hadn’t lived balance as a verb at all. I’d always been striving for the state of balance. The noun. That had been my goal. The insight shook me.

“The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes,” Keller goes on khổng lồ explain. He then tells a unique, personal story about a mother who, due lớn terminal illness, never saw the retirement she had been looking forward lớn for decades. Therefore, instead of seeking balance, you should…

Replace the word “balance” with “counterbalance” and what you experience makes sense.

Keller says if you focus on what’s important — which you must — something will always get neglected. But if you counterbalance from work back lớn life và vice versa, as well as counterbalance within each of those two areas, you can find a great rhythm. “In your personal life, nothing gets left behind. At work it’s required.” Keller even provides several graphs to lớn illustrate the idea:

Images courtesy of The OneThing

Do I agree with everything Keller wrote in this chapter? No. But did I gain tremendous value from accidentally discovering a new take on a concept that means a lot to lớn me? Absolutely. If I hadn’t muscled through the lies section, I never would have found this chapter — nor the one after that about how khổng lồ think big, which was just as insightful.

When you only read in hopes of extracting a singular, specific piece of knowledge, you’ll never get any fringe benefits. If you read around the specifics you seek, however, if you “sweep the general area” by reading the whole book, you’ll find easter eggs year round. Insights you never could have hoped for but that, in hindsight, make all the difference.

Forrest Gump barely read, but I’m sure he’d agree opening a book is lượt thích lifting the lid of his metaphorical chocolate box: “You never know what you’re gonna get” — and you never know which candy will taste sweetest down the line.

3. Get the WholePuzzle

A book always starts with one idea. That idea will end up as the centerpiece of a 1,000-piece puzzle. When you read a book summary, you only get a few chunks of the puzzle. You won’t be able to assemble the whole thing.

In case of The One Thing, the chapter with the focusing question literally sits in the middle, and the idea expands in both directions from there. The chapters around it, however, add valuable context. If I don’t know Keller’s thoughts about his concept in their entirety, I can’t really dismiss any of them, can I?

The beauty of life is that we all have a chất lượng perspective. Even when we read the same book, each of us will over up with a slightly different looking puzzle. It is important to think about which piece belongs where for you. You’re không lấy phí to swap out bits at any time, but if you start with a puzzle full of holes, your mind might fill in a lot of nonsense where the tác giả could have added clarity. Therefore, it is better to lớn gather all the pieces you can grab — and then toss the ones that don’t fit later.

Other FringeBenefits

Memorable metaphors. You’ll discover new ways of remembering and explaining concepts you already know. Keller makes a nice analogy about the limits of multitasking: You can talk while walking, but only as long as both are easy. If you had to instruct a passenger on how to lớn land a plane, you’d probably stop walking. Và if you were walking on a narrow ledge on a mountain, you’d probably stop talking. It’s about relative complexity. You’ll find unexpected yet useful mental images in most books.Quotable quotes. What’s glib & what’s pithy is subjective. For every line you find lớn be too clever, you’ll find one you’ll actually like. Some, you’ll naturally remember, & they won’t just make you sound smart at parties, they also have a way of popping back into your head at exactly the right time. “Mastery is a path you go down, not a destination you arrive at,” is one example from this book for me.Unique stories. You can’t write a book without inserting part of yourself into it. It’s inevitable. The best stories are those where the author didn’t try lớn block that process. Whenever Keller cites a poem he likes or tells a story from his life, I read carefully. These are stories I can’t find anywhere else. Every person has chất lượng stories, và every writer is bound lớn tell some. They’re worth seeking out.New teachers. Keller opens each chapter with a quote from someone else. That’s a nice touch. It’s inspiring. It also shows me who influenced his thinking, và if I want, I can then go và learn more from those teachers myself, be it through their books, talks, etc. A book is never just one person’s POV. It’s an amalgamation of everything the tác giả ever learned from anyone, & that opens countless new doors for you, the reader.

Do Self-Help Books Work? – All You Need toKnow

My theme for this year is “Matter.” As in: What matters? Which matters? và which matter, both material and intangible?

With each passing day in the 21st century, it gets a little easier khổng lồ dismiss books as a waste of time. Why read 200 pages if two will do? Let’s listen to the audiobook on 1.5x speed! Why not just watch interviews?

It’s true that writers, lượt thích all people, make many mistakes. They’re biased. They ramble. They manufacture structure where none existed. In doing so, however, they create a quality yet collaborative, lengthy yet filtered, flawed yet valuable result: a book you can read today, tomorrow, or 100 years after they have died.

Since I want khổng lồ spend time thinking about what’s important this year, a book about focus was a great way lớn send my thoughts in the right direction. This is the first reason you should read non-fiction books in full, even if you can get the gist in just a few pages: Their bias around this idea will rub off on you — and that’s a good thing if it’s a bias you want to have in this phase of your life.

The second reason is that you never know what you’ll find along the way. It might be a pithy phrase you’ll repeat for years to come, a funny story that’ll make the chip core idea easier to lớn remember, or nothing worthwhile at all— but unless you read it all, you can’t know for sure.

The final reason is that everyone has their own point of view, và for each topic, the more of someone’s POV you see, the better you can assemble your own understanding out of many other people’s individual parts.

Now, you might look at this analysis và say: “What? Only three pros và ten cons?” The truth is it doesn’t matter how big each side is, as long as the pros outweigh the cons. I think they do — and by a large, large margin. It’s easy lớn forgive many small errors if the big factors are right. While reading, you might shake your head at glib phrases and outdated notions, but if you just keep reading, you might discover the next wondrous idea a few pages later.

It’s true: Modern non-fiction books waste your time. But they’re still one of the best tools we have to become smarter, humbler, happier, và connect with the people around us and the world at large. So go on. Read more books. After all…