Become a Learning Machine: How to Leverage Books to Supercharge Personal and Professional Development

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes

I’ve been reading (or listening to) an average of two books a week since August of 2010. At the time of this writing, I can safely estimate I’ve read more than 1200 books over the last twelve years.

I don’t say this to brag. In fact, my pride in this number is outweighed by self-consciousness. Inevitably, it’s met with more eye rolls than high fives. Common reactions include:

  • “There’s no way anyone can retain that much.”
  • “That’s not enough time on implementation.”
  • “I think it’s better to read one book over and over so you can truly master it.”
  • “How dare you, books are meant to be savored!”
  • “You’ll never fill that gaping hole inside no matter what you do, you sick, sick f*ck!!!”

These concerns are reasonable. 1200 books in 12 years would be overkill for most humans. I’m not suggesting everyone should consume at this pace. Nor do I want you to feel bad if this isn’t a logistical possibility. For people with different family and professional obligations, the amount of time I can devote to reading (and listening) isn’t an option.

But with all due respect to doubters/haters, there are a lot of assumptions built into these concerns.

You can create systems to maximize retention and implementation, even at this volume. Furthermore, the approach outlined isn’t at odds with re-reading; I encourage reading books over and over. As to the need for “savoring books,” I can’t argue if the goal is purely pleasure. And admittedly, chewing on complex ideas requires reflection, and therefore, time. But as we shall see, much of the magic in this system comes from utilizing micro-pockets and savage consistency, not speed reading hacks.

To the last point, in regards to my sick, sick fuckery… I am, alas, without defense. 🙂


Since adopting a disciplined habit of reading and listening to books, my professional and personal life have skyrocketed.

I can’t attribute all of that directly to books. And my commitment to education hasn’t shielded me from many missteps along the way. But I shudder to think how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t embraced this habit.

In this post I will cover:

  • How to decide what to read
  • How to find time to read
  • How to turn that knowledge into action (and results)

WHAT To Read

The first step is to curate a “To Read” book list. My personal book list is a never-ending queue derived from:

  • Recommendations from mentors (“virtual” and real life)
  • Recommendations from colleagues and peers
  • Other books
  • Reviewing my library for books that were impactful that I’d like to re-read

As I consider whether or not to read a book, I’m essentially looking for two outcomes:

  • Will I gain tactical ideas I can put into action to improve my life and my businesses?
  • Will it help me become a better critical thinker so I make better decisions?

Broadly, the first bucket is “skill acquisition/vocational” reading: management, digital marketing, customer service, etc. The latter bucket is ongoing “liberal arts” education: philosophy, psychology, biographies, etc.

As an example, at the time of the original edition of this article, I was reading John R. DiJulius III’s excellent customer service book, Secret Service. While reading this “vocational” book, I was taking lots of notes on potential action steps to improve customer service at MFF and BFU.

Concurrently, I was listening to Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. This book falls squarely into the domain of “liberal arts” and social philosophy. It’s not going to (directly) provide takeaways for our phone scripts at Mark Fisher Fitness. But it’s challenging me to think deeply about what it means to be a human. This makes my brain more fertile for right-brain associations that could lead to great ideas.

To be clear, I don’t balance my “vocational” reading with my “liberal arts” reading on a strict one-to-one ratio; rather, I use it as a general guideline.

Some other thoughts on WHAT To Read:

  • As mentioned, I do a fair amount of re-reading. I have no real algorithm here, but I’d estimate about 1 out of every 15-20 books are a re-read. There are a handful of books I’ve read five times or more. This allows me to balance breadth with depth.
  • At any given moment, I have an educational focus derived from my most recent quarterly goal-setting exercise. Examples have included management, public speaking, and writing. Once I’ve decided to go deep on a topic, I will read aggressively on the subject. To see how I approach goal-setting, check out this article HERE. For my thoughts on leveraging strengths vs. mitigating weaknesses, check out this article HERE.
  • For a list of my favorite business books, check out this post HERE.
  • In addition to the “To Read” book list, I also track the books I’ve read. Reviewing these lists helps me decide what to re-read, as well as easily source recommendations when asked for suggestions on a given topic.
  • To see my favorite books and learning notes from 2022, check out this post HERE.
  • Around two years ago, I started integrating more fiction. I particularly enjoy hard science fiction, though occasionally rotate in more “serious” contemporary and classic literature.
ACTION STEP #1: Create a List to Capture Book Recommendations

WHEN To Read

Once you’ve established a list of books to read, your next step is planning when to do your reading (and/or listening).

Below are the times when I do most of my reading/ listening. Let me again concede, I have created a life situation that lets me leverage my superpowers for book consumption. And even I don’t do all of these times every single day. But hopefully, regardless of your personal constraints, these lists will jog your brain as to where you can realistically fit in more reading.

When I Read Books:

  • First thing in the morning for 25-45 minutes
  • On weekends
  • On plane rides
  • Before bed

When I Listen to Audio Books/Podcasts:

  • Morning walks
  • Easy cardio (incline treadmill walking)
  • Cooking breakfast and dinner
  • Commuting
  • Walks on the weekend
  • Long car rides

Some other thoughts on WHEN To Read:

  • THE BIGGEST TAKEAWAY: Much of my reading (and listening!) comes in micro blocks. With the exception of plane rides and long car rides, the above pockets of time are all 10-30 minute blocks. Don’t be afraid to read five pages (or listen for five minutes) and put the book down.
  • Starting in 2020, my audiobook consumption dropped dramatically, as the “listening” blocks are now usually devoted to podcasts, 80% of which are fitness business podcasts, with the remaining 20% being general business, personal development, and social philosophy.
  • I don’t read very fast. Particularly since I’m usually stopping to take notes and/or reflecting on how the book applies to me. The key isn’t speed, it’s consistency.
  • During my morning read times, I will often listen to a given audiobook while reading the same book. This allows me to read the book while having the text narrated to me. I can turn the speed up or down based on the density of the content.
  • On the occasions I do have time for long stretches, I usually switch books every 30 minutes or so. This seems to minimize mental wandering.
  • Some people just can’t seem to get into audio books. I admit, I still learn better from reading than audio books. However, every master was once a disaster. Over the years, my ability to stay focused and retain information has drastically improved.
  • Audio book apps like Audible allow you to speed up the narration. While 1.8x is very comfortable for me, most people can easily train their way up to 1.5x.
  • In addition to downloading books on Audible, I have a subscription to a service called Scribd which offers a large number of audiobooks for an affordable monthly fee. The library isn’t totally comprehensive, and the app itself is buggy at times. But it’s been an affordable way to supplement my audiobook habit.
  • Long car rides are my favorite. If I’m driving home to NJ, it’s a three to four hour round trip. Since it’s all highway driving, I can push the speed to 2x and still retain well. Effectively using one’s commute is one the easiest ways to get more education. This is called “Automobile University” in personal development circles.
  • Do you lose some retention at that speed? Perhaps. But if you catch your mind wandering, you can hit the “30 seconds back button” a few times and re-listen. I’d rather retain 80% of 150 books than 90% of 20 books. Plus I re-read my favorites anyway.
  • Not everyone will be able to average 10 plus hours a week dedicated to education. Regardless, most people can be more effective AND efficient within the context of their life’s logistics. 
  • I read exclusively fiction before bed so I don’t get wound up.
ACTION STEP #2: Commit to reading as a habit. Starting each day with 15 minutes of reading and/or audio booking on your daily commute will drastically increase your weekly total.

HOW to Read: Turn Your Reading Into ACTION

As I read a book I’m constantly asking myself, “How can I apply this to my personal workflow, to MFF, or to BFU?” I’m relentlessly looking for ideas to incrementally improve every element of the businesses.

These days I’m rarely the person responsible for executing the idea, so I think of myself like a squirrel looking for “acorns” to hand off the team. In fact, I call this process “Looking for Greatness Acorns.”

While there’s a time and a place for “liberal arts” reading that fertilizes your brain, the end product of your “skill acquisition” reading should be action steps. Knowledge alone doesn’t produce different results. Different actions lead to different results. In fact, reading lots of books can be a trap; endless “continuing education” can be a form of procrastination.

As you read or listen, you’re looking for action steps to improve your life or your business. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting or making notes of interesting ideas or quotes. But those won’t move the ball forward.

To effectively remember, organize, and prioritize your action steps, you must have (or create) a trustworthy system to capture your ideas. In my case, those action steps first get jotted down in my notebook. After that, different action steps will call for a number of potential next steps.

Examples include:

  • A discrete action I can take immediately in less than five minutes
    • Ex. Adding a book recommendation to my book list
  • A project that I can complete in one work session of 30 minutes or less that I decide to prioritize
    • Ex. Create a budget for a potential business venture
    • ACTION: Schedule for sometime in the next two weeks when I have time in my daily schedule
  • A more ambitious project that will take more than one work session to complete
    • Ex. Writing a blog post or creating a new program for MFF
    • ACTION: Add to my “Ongoing Project List” to decide how to prioritize and ultimately schedule as multiple work sessions in my daily schedules
  • An idea that needs discussion with a team member
    • Ex. A new idea to consider integrating into our new member on-boarding
    • ACTION: Add to my “Meetings List” for discussion in my next meeting with our Membership Director
  • For more insight into how to organize your action steps into various lists, check out this article HERE.

Here are some other thoughts on HOW to Read:

  • I use an app called Captio to take notes as I’m listening to audio books. When I have an idea for an action step, I pause the audio book, jot down the note, and Captio automatically sends it to me as an email. Whenever I next process to inbox zero, I will either execute immediately OR transfer the note to the appropriate list for future action. Captio is particularly useful in the car, as I use the voice dictation feature to capture ideas without having to pull over and type.
  • As mentioned, my “liberal arts” reading doesn’t always lead directly to action steps. However, even here my retention is pretty strong. My secret? For better or worse, I engage people in conversation about what I’m reading. This forces me to summarize what I’m learning and ask other people for their thoughts on a given topic. Thanks ever-patient friends! 🙂
  • Another technique I use to improve retention is periodically reviewing summaries of my favorite books. While I happily re-read my favorite books once every year or two, I will also periodically search for executive summaries of a favorite book to remind myself of the most important points. Similarly, I will sometimes listen to podcasts with the author being interviewed about the book, or watch a 60-minute long YouTube. These act as great refreshers.
  • Many of my best ideas/ discoveries are unrelated to what I’m reading. As I read a book, I’m constantly asking myself, “How can I apply this?” During these moments of pausing and reflection, my subconscious mind seems to be scanning the business horizon for threats and opportunities. Much like a student driver learning SIPDE (Search, Identify, Predict, Determine, Execute), I find myself naturally thinking about the big picture of our businesses and the months (and years) to come. Even though my mind sometimes wanders away from the book itself, it’s dedicated time working on the business.
ACTION STEP #3: Create a trustworthy system to capture potential action steps for later organization, prioritization, and execution.


“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

― Charles T. Munger, Warren Buffet’s business partner

Admittedly, our access to media has changed in the past 15 years in profound ways. So while Munger’s quote could expand to include non-book reading people who are learning all time, overall, the sentiment holds true: wise people are lifelong learners.

In closing, here’s my two-part framework for personal fulfillment:

1.) Being a student

2.) Being a servant

As a student, I seek to learn about myself and learn about the world, so I can more effectively be of value to those around me. I can’t effectively be a servant unless I’ve actually developed skills. One can have great intentions, but if you’re not skilled at anything, it’s hard to be a great servant. Hence, you have to be a great student first.

Books have been my foundation in this joyful pursuit.

We are in a golden age of education. Books are cheaper and more accessible than they’ve ever been. The vast majority of us have smartphones in our pocket that let us listen to any book, adjusted to our ideal listening speed. Even the advent of wireless headphones over the past few years has made this pursuit even more convenient.

In addition to books, I also attend conferences, take college courses, hire coaches, and of course, do my best to learn quickly in the School of Real Life Experience. Certainly magazines, newspapers, podcasts, blog posts, and even social media can also play a role in one’s development.

But as a true book lover, and as someone who has seen it transform lives, my hope is you’ll be able to take action and apply some of the suggestions in this article. And I wish you the same success, joy, and fulfillment it’s brought into my life.

MF Signature BFU