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Book Reading Opportunity Cost

Reading a book takes time.

The time you spend reading a book is not spent doing something else.

Opportunity cost: (source)

Benefit, profit, or value of something that must be given up to acquire or achieve something else. Since every resource (land, money, time, etc.) can be put to alternative uses, every action, choice, or decision has an associated opportunity cost.

Does it sound obvious? Lately, however, I’ve made a few such mistakes with respect to some books I bought.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged has been recommended many times, by many different people. Consequently, it raised above my threshold of consciousness and I had decided to buy it, read it and reach my own conclusions about it.

I have been to Chapters and I had remembered about Atlas Shrugged. Of course, it was in the shelves and I looked through it. What sealed the deal was the price: $10! How could I go wrong?!

Where did I go wrong?

It could have been an audio book.

I’m writing this with the book on my lap. It stands at 1069 pages in something that feels like 6-pt font. More so than other books I’ve had, I will feel the impact of the time invested in reading it. Even in audio, Atlas Shrugged stands tall with 63 hours of narration.1

I bought the physical book with good intentions. However, it has been gathering dust for a while now. I wondered when, if ever, I would have enough time to decide to read it.

If only I had bought it in audio format. But it was too late now… I had already bought it in paper format. Buying the audio book meant paying “twice”. There was something very unpleasant about that thought.

Opportunity Cost

Then, a few days ago, I realized that the $15 it would cost me to buy the audio book was not completely lost.

It meant that I could spend the time I listened to the book doing other things: dishes, chores, exercising. It meant I could start the book right away, instead of some perfect moment in the future, because I could do other things at the same time.

Am I happy that I paid twice? No. But the total cost of the book, $25 ($10 paper + $15 audio), must be contrasted against the time I just saved by not having to sit down while reading.

I have a few other books with which I will have to repeat this process. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind. That was another “cheap” book I bought in the spur of the moment. I’m learning this lesson about the total cost of a book.

Notes

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How to Nap

Key Insight:

Nap for exactly 20 minutes.

A Common Mistake

I’ve never had trouble sleeping. My problem would fall in the opposite category: by modern society’s standard, I sleep too much. I need at least 7–8 hours of sleep a night or I become a zombie; I can function but higher-level skills (concentration, insight, creativity…) are reduced.

If I lie down and try to nap, I’m usually gone for 2–3 hours. That’s a sizable part of a day! It’s neither desirable nor always (if ever) possible to disappear like that.

Simple! I have a kitchen timer and I set it for 1 hour. That’s reasonable, right?

When the alarm rings, I “wake” up. But all my body want is to go back to sleep. At this point, if I get up I feel terrible and it takes hours until I feel fine. If, instead, I go back to sleep, I’m gone for another hour or so.

I’ve also tried sleeping for 30 or 90 minutes without much success.

A Solution

I realized I was doing something wrong.

So, I googled:
google: how to nap

Beyond the platitudes like go to a quiet place, lie down, and close your eyes there were a few articles that talked about durations.

From about.com:

Sleep comes in five stages. If your nap takes you from stage 1 sleep (just drifting off) to stage 2 (brain activity slows), you will wake up feeling energized and more alert. If your nap takes you into stages 3 and 4 (deep sleep), you will not wake easily and will feel groggy and tired. Sleep stage 1 typically lasts about 10 minutes and stage 2 lasts another 10 minutes. That makes the 20-minute nap ideal for most people (your time will vary to some degree, experiment to learn what works best).

I’ve heard about 20-minute nap before but I’ve always dismissed it: “How can someone feel rested after only 20 minutes?!”

Also:

  • if I lie down and think for a few minutes, should I reset the timer to another 20 minutes?
  • (rephrased) Is it 20 minutes from the moment I fall asleep? How am I supposed to do that?!

Implicit in the quote above is the idea that lying down and “thinking time” are an integral part of the nap. As long as you’re trying to fall asleep and not actively entertaining these thoughts: good job you’re doing it right! In that way, it’s exactly like meditation.

My Experience

I was very skeptical of the 20-minute nap. But I’ve been trying this technique for the last 2 weeks and it worked every single time!

I set the timer and lie down. Usually, it takes me 4–5 minutes to wind down. And when the alarm goes off it feels like I just fell asleep. It feels like “huh… was I sleeping?”

Another common experience: I think I’m awake and wasting my precious 20 minutes but when the alarm goes off it doesn’t feel like 20 minutes … I just “time-warped”.

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I recently finished the book “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. “The Goal” is a business novel about manufacturing. In many ways, it is edutainment. Would I have picked up a schoolbook on how to improve the performance of a manufacturing plant? Most surely not… However, it was recommended to me by different sources for different reasons and proved to be a very enjoyable read.

The book follows Alex Rogo who is given 3 months to turn his plant around. Not only must the plant stop losing money, it must show a profit! He meets up with an ancient university professor, a physicist, who asks him a few questions about his plant. At first, Alex believes the professor knows nothing about manufacturing, but, over time, he realizes the pertinence of the questions he was asked. This is the beginning of a Socratic relationship between the professor and Alex in which, unsurprisingly, he turns the plant and the rest of his life around.

What made this book appealing to me was that:

  • I learned a little bit about how plants work
  • I discovered along with Alex, very progressively, where and why things had gone wrong.
  • the lessons from manufacturing can be applied to your life!

Let me draw parallels between manufacturing and one time-consuming aspect of my life: reading books.

Let’s start with the following statements:

  • I read books to learn things.
  • more books will ever be produced than I can read.

With these two statements, I can already determine that:

  • the throughput is how many things I learn (I would like to maximize this)
  • the number of books I read will influence the number of things I learn — a naive and not completely true assumption
  • I am a bottleneck

A very important part of “The Goal” deals with how to discover and exploit bottlenecks.

Any bottleneck in a chain will determine the maximum throughput. If the objective is the increase throughput, the following questions are relevant:

Did every part really have to go through the bottleneck?

  • Couldn’t other machines accomplish the same work?
  • Was it a necessary part of manufacturing process?
  • Were some parts defective? (what’s the point of processing parts which will be rejected later)

Is the bottleneck being used 100% of the time?

  • Is the bottleneck ever idle? (during lunch, or breaks)
  • Could idle time be reduced with preparation?

From these, I adjusted the analogy and came to the following conclusions:

Couldn’t other people read these books for me?

Not directly. When somebody else reads a book, I don’t get the knowledge. However, I can use their recommendations to determine whether the book is worth my time or not. As such, other people serve as my QA in front of the bottleneck (me).

Did I have to read all these books?

I have read many books from which I found no value. Consequently, my QA process to determine what I had to read is flawed.

Also, I could get more throughput if I’m more willing to abandon books after I start reading them … something I have trouble with.

Couldn’t there be other ways to absorb the content of books?

The physical act of reading a book is limited. Reading a book demands a set of conditions: quiet time, extended periods of time, a comfortable environment. I discovered audio books around two years ago, as an alternative. An unabridged audio book offers, theoretically, the same value as a paper book. However, I can listen to an audio book while walking or doing chores; something I’ve been doing. From the manufacturing perspective, I just increased the number of processing hours available through me.

I also opened an account with audible.com and I get 1 credit every month redeemable against any book of my choice. I went through my book list and cross-referenced against the audible library. Of course, audio books are a solution for non-technical books, I can’t easily imagine being read SICP :)

In essence, I just created a parallel pipeline for non-technical books to be read to me when I’m doing something else. — so, I “read” more and also get more done.

Isn’t there more time to read?

The way to read more is to: read more. I make a point of sitting down and read even if I don’t feel like it. Most of the time, I get into it if I force myself for ~10 minutes.

Why is there so much content available only in books?

That’s a good one.

I think there will be a shift in the future. More screencasts, more educational games (something the author of “The Goal” did to explain the concepts of the books through a simulation game), and more video lectures.

I understand the historical reasons why books exist. I also understand the economy of books. Once again, I think time will tell.

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