Reading Habits for Programmers

programmers who read

The benefits of reading are well documented and enumerated. If you are a programmer, reading helped get you to were you are. Of course, as with any intellectual pursuit, consuming prosaic knowledge is a pre-requisite to success.

Having the time to read, think, and write is a luxury. It’s a habit that that many people claim they can’t afford. And ironically, those are the people that could benefit from it the most. Like strength training, it is something I’ve habituated myself to do daily.

Reading makes you a better software engineer, not because of the information ingested, but because of the byproduct mental skill built as a result. Reading, regardless of the subject matter, is strength training for your mind. It is a neighbor to meditation and mindfulness in regards to brain health.

And, to make the connection explicit: if reading benefits your coding ability, then meditation does too. I’m not the only one that thinks that meditation will make you a better programmer. Reading, and writing, can be meditative pursuits that afford the benefits enjoyed by mystics and monks, engineers and enigmatics*.


Literacy seems to date back nearly five-thousand years. It might be even older. I wouldn’t be surprised if the timeline of civilization and humanity turns out to be much longer than what is currently accepted by historians and scholars. Reading and writing are low-tech, non-electrical, super powers that define and augment what it means to be a modern human. Like meditation, reading changes the brain’s physical structure.

Reading is a skill. Even if you “know how to read”, true literacy is highly perishable. Amber Peterson from The NCTE writes, “literacy is the way that we interact with the world around us”. Following the video-game, simulation theory, analogy – being literate is the opposite of being an “NPC” in real life.

This type of literacy flexes same brain muscles as mindfulness. It is the kind of mindfulness that allows us to actually experience life, or what Sam Harris calls “waking up”. Even if you live a very long time, if you were a mindlessly zombie the entire ride, then it might as well not even have happened.

Filmmaker Stephen Apkon is quoted as saying “True literacy is always a two-way transaction. We don’t just consume; we produce. We don’t just read; we write.”

Spoken communication already feels magical. From an alien perspective, it seems I can sing sounds to export my thoughts and ideas into another person’s mind. Writing, then, is an evolution of this transcendent practice that allows brain data to be store, shipped, and unzipped without a livestream.


The best reading habit that I can recommend to you is to write while you read. A professor once told me: If you don’t have a pen in your hand, you’re not really studying. It ensures that you stay focused and engaged, and trains your mind to not wander. I have mentioned before that writing is “calisthenics for the brain“.

Digital devices, like the Kindle, make it easy to highlight text and take notes. Still, I prefer physical notebooks and an ink pen. After each page, I like to jot down a synopsis or any tangental thoughts that were sparked in the past few minutes. I don’t read fast. I record and define any unfamiliar words, and keep lists of unique phrases and idioms.

If I really like a new word, I’ll rewrite it and what it means, multiple times. Sometimes, I’ll rewrite sentences that just sound nice, or have a musical quality to them. Then, I’ll try to author my own in a similar style.

Taking notes is a challenge when I listen to audiobooks. Audible provides a feature allowing listeners to bookmark audio clips, and add text comments. Periodically, I’ll audit my collection and transcribe my favorites into a journal.

Note taking on the Audible app


Audiobooks unlock a new way to consume written words. Many people find it easier than reading. I think that is because it requires less focus. If I listened to a book, can I say that I have “read” that book? My opinion is “yes”, but does that mean that I can say that I have also “read” a podcast? Do we need new terminology to better describe our world?

I can get through a publication more quickly by listening. But, does that forsake the benefits of increased focus that I discussed above? Entrepreneur Naval Ravikant tweeted, “Listening to books instead of reading them is like drinking your vegetables instead of eating them.”

I love that analogy. It’s still good for you, but there is clearly something missing. And, how Faustianly modern it is to prefer a more processed option in favor of palatability. In another tweet, Naval says, “Reading is more efficient when at rest. Audio is more efficient when in motion.”

I agree, and reserve Audiobooks for when I am moving – walking, exercising at the gym, or even driving. Brian Tracy, author and top business-speaker, said “You can become one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in your field by turning traveling time into learning time; by turning your car into a mobile classroom,”

I first discovered this concept of a “university on wheels” around 2008 after listening to one of my first-ever Audiobooks, “The Phoenix Transformation“. Around that time I had just finished college, and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. My primary source of income was delivering pizza, so I was on the road a lot, alone in my car.

This was before smartphones were popular, and as a poor young person, I could not afford a stand-alone MP3 player. I was able to download books and other audio programs (Tony Robbins changed my life), and burn them onto blank CD-R disks. A single book might be ten CDs long. If I heard something impactful or if there was an exercise prompt by the author, I would pull over and scribble my thoughts down onto a blank “guest check” pad, sparking the origins of my hypergraphia.

a blank guest check notepad


Tips, Tricks, and Recommendations

I recommend reading and writing every day.  I like to have two or three physical books that I switch between at home. The Kindle app is my electronic option for when I’m out and have a few minutes to kill. My Audible account keeps multiple audiobooks queued that I can switch between at the gym or on long walks. Here is a list of the books that I listened to in 2020:

audio books read in 2020

Read multiple books, and start new ones before you’ve finished them. Don’t worry about putting a book down and never picking it up again: Life is too short to finish books that you don’t like. Audible allows audiobook returns and refunds credits for reuse.

There’s so much content available, it is hard to decide where to direct your focus. As a rule, I try to not read any new books – meaning, I won’t read material that has been recently published. As a soft rule, I like books that have been released at least five years ago.

I avoid read popular books and best-sellers. I’m excited by obscure material containing alternative, even radical, ideas. If you only read the same books as everyone else, you will only have the same ideas that everyone else is having.

Reading will make you a better writer and content producer. Niall Ferguson mentions that quality books tend to have a thousand-to-one ratio; meaning the author has read about a thousand words on the subject for every one word written.

Niall continues about the compounding benefits of reading: “You’ve got to get that reading speed up early, and then you just have to read and read and read. And it is cumulative, not only in the sense that you get better at reading, but in a fascinating way the knowledge that you imbibe from books is cumulative.”

I am a slow reader. And, I am okay with that. I spend lots of time, in between sentences, thinking and contemplating. My advice is to not try reading faster, but instead to read for longer amounts of time. Like anything worth pursuing, it is about putting the hours in. “Reading is the quiet time in which you reflect and learn,” says author Ryan Holiday.


Mindfulness for Programmers

Our senses keep us plugged into reality. They instantly create a connection to the present. Paying attention is the only way to experience this moment in life. If you’re feeling distracted, panicked, or out-of-touch with reality, try taking time to intentionally notice the things that stimulate you. Note-taking and blogging is a great way to do that.

Writing about how the world seems through your own particular lens fosters mindfulness and appreciation. It keeps your mind grounded in this realm. Journaling is an important ritual that I practice daily, but it is hard to take note of and digest everything that happens in our lives. Doing it here is a way that I can highlight the stuff that has truly touched me.

In diaristic fashion, I will periodically take note of the things I saw, heard, felt, smelt, read, or otherwise consumed. This will give me a chance to share (and keep track of) the things that I love.

Something I saw: The tallest waterfall in New York State. This summer, I drove a few hours north from NYC to Ithaca, NY. It’s a city known for its gorges, cut into stone by natural running water.

It was a short hike (maybe twenty minutes) through Taughannock Falls State Park to get this awe-inspiring view of nature.

Something I read: Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity by David Lynch. David Lynch is a filmmaker and artist. He discusses his development of ideas in this book and likens the process to catching fish:

The beautiful thing is that when you catch one fish, even if it’s a little fish—a fragment of an idea—that fish will draw in other fish, and they’ll hook onto it.

Lynch explains how meditation had helped him overcome the depression that gets in the way of creativity, “You must have clarity to create“.

Something I ate: I live in New York City. I eat a lot of good food. But, this culinary experience happened in Illinois this summer. I ate at the famous Lou Malnati’s Pizza in Chicago.

pizza pie

Deep dish with a few toppings hit the spot, washed down with a cold beer.

pizza slice

Stimulation == Simulation

To get philosophical about it, I think that what’s really out there and what we experience might be very different things.  Like how a the experience of a computer screen showing a beautifully drawn graphical user interface never hints at the reality of computer boards directing electrical circuits to represent the information we see. Our notion of reality is a digital simulation instigated by the sensory input interpreted through our senses.

Mindfulness & Awareness

Even under the richest of experiential excitement, without mindfulness there is no participation with, nor illusion of, reality. If you mindlessly read a book, you might as well have not read it. If you day-dream during a movie, you may know as much about the plot as someone who has never saw it. The same is true for life in its entirety. Don’t miss out – pay attention.

You can train yourself to get better at paying attention. The better you get at it, the more you will experience the richness of vibrancy of this world. The two best techniques I have found for this is: meditation and reading.