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

by Mark Fisher

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes

I’ve been reading (or listening to) an average of two to three books a week since August of 2010. At the time of this writing, I can safely estimate I’ve read more than a thousand books over the last eight 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 at a time 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 fuck!!!”

These concerns are reasonable. I’d probably have a similar response; a thousand books in eight 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 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; it actually encourages 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 require 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 drawn almost exclusively from:

  • Recommendations from mentors (“virtual” and real life)
  • Colleagues and peers
  • Other books

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” reading: management, digital marketing, customer service, etc. The latter bucket is ongoing (never-ending) “liberal arts” education: philosophy, psychology, biographies, etc.

As an example, at the time of this writing, I’ve been reading John R. DiJulius III’s excellent customer service book, Secret Service. I’ve been taking lots of notes on potential action steps to improve customer service at MFF and BFU.

Concurrently, I’ve been listening to Steven Pinker’s newest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. This book falls squarely into the domain of 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; specifically, how best to personally and professionally support social progress.

To be clear, I don’t balance my “skill acquisition” 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:

  • One out of every ten to fifteen books is 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.
  • For a list of my favorite 10 books of all time (in the “liberal arts” bucket), check out this Instagram post HERE. Then follow my ass, as I post about books a lot.
  • 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.
  • If you want to see my complete lists for 2016, 2017, and 2018, email me at [email protected] and I’ll happily share. For some reason I stopped tracking what books I read from 2013ish-2015. This was very dumb.
  • For more on how MFF approaches team-wide continuing education, check out this article HERE.
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
  • While I eat lunch
  • Sometimes in the afternoon
  • On weekends
  • On plane rides

When I Listen to Audio Books:

  • 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.
  • I don’t read very fast. Particularly since I’m usually stopping to take notes and/or reflect on how the book applies to me. The key isn’t speed, it’s consistency.
  • 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 past eight 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 2x is very comfortable for me, most people can easily train their way up to 1.5x.
  • 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 2.5x and still retain well. Effectively using one’s commute is one the easiest ways to get in 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. For help on effective time management, check out BFU’s course on the topic HERE.
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 integrating 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 reading that fertilizes your brain (“liberal arts” reading), the end product of your “skill acquisition” reading should be action steps. Knowledge alone doesn’t produce different results. Different action leads 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 interesting ideas or quotes. But those won’t move the ball forward.

To effectively remember, organize, and prioritize your actions 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 on long car rides, as I use the voice dictation feature capture ideas without having to pullover 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.
  • 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

Fulfillment in life is about two things:

1.) Being a student

2.) Being a servant

As 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.




  1. Tyler

    Great, practical write up. Consistency over speed is huge. Remind me of a mantra I say to myself often, “If it’s important give it less time, but more tries.”

    • Mark Fisher

      Love that mantra!

  2. Mark

    Great post, Mark. I can relate. I’m a (audio-)book junkie myself and look forward to use every minute I’m commuting, shopping or sometimes even when I work out.

    I love the idea of summarizing what you read in conversation. I will try that.

    Thanks, also for the good conversations in Vail!

    • Mark Fisher

      Love it brother. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. And looking forward to staying connected!

  3. Heidi

    I had a phase where I was listening to audio books during my hour of stength training. Complemented with reading a book during cardio on the treadmill. 1.5 hours of reading a day. 10.5 hours of reading a week. Not to mention the other times I’d just sit down and read! Thanks for the article. I’m going to cry back into this habit.

    • Mark Fisher

      Awesome Heidi, that’s a serious time investment. Impressive!


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