How to Read a Book in 30 Minutes or Less

by | Jun 6, 2013 | 4 comments

Like you, I have piled before me many books that have never been touched. And daily someone recommends a new book. Who has time for such? But, I have been telling clients and others like you that you can read a book in less than 30 minutes. Most  balk at the idea. (Are you balking now?)


How to read a book in 30 minutes or less

Courtesy of Amazon


So today I tested my theory. Just for you. I read the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande in just under 30 minutes. The Checklist Manifesto is used by one of our faculty and my clients will mention it often. Yet, I had never read it. So, before looking like a fool, I decided it was time to read it and test my idea about reading a book in less than 30 minutes. And while I did it, I documented the process. So here it goes – my coverage of how to read a book in 30 minutes or less AND a quick review of The Checklist Manifesto. (You get two for the price of one.)

Seven Steps to Read a Book in 30 Minutes or Less

1. Read the front and back cover entirely.

After doing so, write down what you expect to learn. I wrote in the back of the book as I went. From the back cover I expected to learn the following:

  • How complexity has caused a need for checklists.
  • What a checklist can do.
  • What a checklist cannot do.
  • How they bring about improvements.

While not stated clearly, I thought I might also get a clue into how to do a good checklist.


2. Read the About the Author section.

I learned he is a surgeon and has done some work for the World Health Organization (WHO). This was significant in the book – so glad I knew it going in. I also expected I might learn more about surgery and mistakes in medicine than I wanted to know.  I did.

3. Review the Table of Contents.

Sometimes this really helps, but in his book it was not clear where he was going.

4. Scan through the book quickly.

Now you are looking for major headings, charts, images, etc. Until the end I had no real clue. At the end were examples of checklists as well as a checklist on how to make a checklist.

At this point I was feeling as if I could not pull it off. The book is written like a novel, few headings except at the start of chapters. I saw myself as giving up on my little experiment after a few more minutes.


5. Make notes about what you expect to learn.

Here I wrote down that I expected to learn the following:

  • How complexity has caused a need for checklists.
  • What a checklist can do.
  • What a checklist cannot do.
  • How they bring about improvements.
  • How to write a checklist.

As you notice, this was exactly from the back of the book. I saw nothing else in the book to help me. (Unusual for a non-fiction book)

By now I was 15 minutes in. Again, I thought this little experiment will not work.


6. Scan the chapters.

I do this by reading the first sentence of every paragraph. This is hard because you feel as if you are missing a ton and sometimes you get drawn in. I must admit, there were several times I kept reading what he wrote. But that is OK, that actually helped. (And he is a great story teller.)

Here is what I learned in this step.

  •  Lots of stories in medicine, but happily I also saw much from building, aviation, investment, and other industries.
  • The whole book was a story about how he got called to help the WHO improve surgery while learning lessons from other industries. He includes how they developed and tested their checklists.
  • There are three kinds of problems: 1) simple, 2) complicated – which are just many simple steps put together such as sending a man to the moon, and 3) complex – such as raising a child. Complex problems are not 100% repeatable while complicated ones are repeatable. Many problems tend to be complex!
  • How a building operates like a body.
  • Inside view to how checklists were used in the flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson in 2009.
  • That the book is really good and has lots of great stories. I am sure I missed some, but I could discuss a ton with you still.

7. Now answer your questions about what you did learn.

In my case, here is my list

  • How complexity has caused a need for checklists.
    Not one single statement covered this, the whole book did. Lots of illustrations of how smart people who are distracted and busy often miss what looks like mundane details which can cause catastrophic failure.
  • What a checklist can do.
    To quote the author “The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with … and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff.”
  • What a checklist cannot do.
    Checklists do not tell you what to do nor does it replace skill. To quote the author again “A checklist is NOT a teaching tool or an algorithm.”
  • How checklists bring about improvement.
    Checklist keep those small things in control so you can make better decisions on the big things.
  • How to write a checklist.
    I have a handy dandy list at the end of the book.

Now I have read a book in 30 minutes. I have to confess, I am a bit shocked how well this worked! While I do not know every story in the book, I would not remember them if I had read it over days. Also, if in a class discussion I would be ready to turn to any story that was being discussed. From the knife wound, the  drowning girl, the testing of new bombers, Warren Buffet investing, etc, etc, etc. I know where the stories are and could jump to them quickly.

Now you go try it. Get a timer and a book you have been meaning to get to and see how it works.


[reminder]What other tricks have you discovered to save time with the mass of information coming at you?[/reminder]

About the Author

Dale Callahan

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  1. Richard Emmons

    Good reminder to skim through books and not read every sentence of every paragraph. Was this the printed version of the book? Will your method work as well with the Kindle version?

  2. Dale Callahan

    Richard – Good question, I have not tried that. I bet it would – but I can see you are giving me a challenge;) Will keep you posted! Dale

  3. Richard Emmons

    Thanks. Here’s another approach. Last Sunday afternoon, I “read” six books using my Kindle App. I got Kindle samples of these books which normally includes the introduction and the first couple chapters. One book, Essentialism, will soon be bought and consumed in its entirety. The other books gave me some good insights but don’t require a complete read.

  4. Dale Callahan

    Great idea – and saves money. I think you will get the meat of most books this way. I have Essentialism – some of my friends are reading it over and over. To me it was rehash of old ideas – but still pretty good. I think worth the times to read and explore.

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