Jul 08

Speed Reading: Does it Work, and Do You Want it to?

I had heard of speed reading, just like you have. I’ve seen people making crazy claims about how fast they could get through a book, and I always thought of it as a bit of a parlor trick, like hypnosis. Yes, I believe it exists, but so what? I guess, more exactly, I was suspicious of it, in a too-good-to-be-true sort of way. The people I saw bragging about speed reading seemed a little scammy, and were often trying to push some paid course. My underlying assumption was that I was already reading as fast as I could comprehend the words, and that if I was inputting them any faster, I would not be comprehending them.

Ajax von Kaiserpenguin vis flickr

Ajax von Kaiserpenguin vis flickr

But recently, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast, and he mentioned that the way he was able to read as many books as he does is by speed reading, and that it was easily and quickly learnable. And better yet, he wasn’t trying to sell anything. He has a bunch of tips, for free, on his website. Then I glanced at huge pile of reading on my desk that I was just never finding time to get through. So, with nothing to lose, I headed over to this post on his Four Hour Workweek site, and got started.

How it Works

Tim’s basic point is that the bottleneck of reading is not your brain comprehending the words, but the eye movements you use to get the words to your brain. Specifically, if you learn to move your eyes more quickly across each line, your brain will keep up. And, if you scan only the ‘inner’ words of each line, your peripheral vision will still pick up the words on the ends of the lines.

Does it Work?

I followed his instructions very closely. I started by figuring out my baseline reading speed, and then did his 20 minutes of exercises, and measured my speed after that. I did add 2 new wrinkles of my own, just out of curiosity. I tried with both a non-fiction book I am reading for work (The Toyota Way), and a fiction book I was reading for pleasure, to see if there was a difference. I also checked my speed again a week later to see if the results ‘stuck.’ Here’s what I found:


Non-Fiction: 216 wpm

Fiction: 192 wpm


Non-fiction: 300 wpm (a 39% increase)

Fiction: 288 wpm (a 50% increase)


Non-Fiction: 373 wpm (72% increase over baseline)

Fiction: 262 wpm (36% increase over baseline)

It seriously took less than 30 minutes to learn. And, I didn’t have a good way to objectively test this, but I didn’t seem to lose any comprehension. When I went back to count the words I had read, I didn’t see anything I had missed understanding during my speed reading. It is worth noting that Tim’s claims in his article, and his video, that you’ll read 300% faster. I didn’t see anything like that level of results. But I saw a solid, noticeable increase. Maybe if I did the exercises a few more times, I’d see a bigger increase. At this point I don’t know.

Is it Worth it?

So yes, speed reading is for real. In round numbers, I can read 50% faster than before, if I choose to. The downside is, doing it feels like work to me. So, for things that I am reading for pleasure, I don’t consciously do it, because that misses the point of leisure reading. I stop and smell the roses, going only slightly faster than my old, slow pace. I go back and re-read phrases to see how the author played with the words. I dilly-dally. But, for things I need to plow through, like work-related books and trade journals, I now use Tim’s techniques, and it saves me some time. If you’re interested, give it a try yourself and let me know if you get the same (or better) results.


    • cjammin on August 14, 2015 at 9:54 am
    • Reply

    Does this work when reading a thermodynamics book? =)
    Also, this reminds me of one of my favorite rappers Mac Lethal, and one of his songs called Alphabet Insanity, take a listen on youtube if you haven’t heard the song!

      • ben on August 16, 2015 at 12:03 pm
      • Reply

      Holy Cats, that guy’s fast. Thanks for sharing that. Probably as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen. Which got me thinking about 2 of my favorite clips of fast rapping acrobatics:
      First, Daniel Radcliffe (better known as Harry Potter) does Alphabet Aerobics on the Jimmy Fallon show. Not the fastest you’ve ever heard, but very impressive for a guy who is not a rapper. And apparently done in one take.
      Second, the super fast part of Eminem’s Rap God. I hadn’t really paid attention to him in a while, but Sean on the Self-Publishing Podcast mentioned this clip. Love him or hate him, you can’t dismiss his skill. If you hate him, skip right to the 4:25 mark, for the supersonic part.

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