Essential Habits is a book borne out of my interest in getting at specific takeaways from books. A few years ago, my very smart friend and I saw the release of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink at a bookstore. We both knew about the previous books he published and I was excited about Blink, his newest book. But my friend opened up the book, read a few pages, and then concluded it was not worth his time or money.

Curious, I asked him how he knew. He told me he read a few pages, got the specific takeaway, which was that we often make intuitive decisions based on a few seconds of understanding a situation and that intuitive decision is oftentimes better than taking the time to understand everything about the situation before coming to a decision, and then when he went to the middle of the book, it was Malcolm talking about the same thing, but with a different story or observation.

I don’t mind reading books like this, but as a reader of many non-fiction books, I want to get the specific takeaway of a book without having to read a few hundred pages of stories, anecdotes, and graphs to conclude I should meditate every day. Or that regular exercise is healthy for me.

But after reflecting on my experience of writing Essential Habits, and reading a lot more books in the meantime, I’ve realized something interesting: there are two contrasting ways I get value out of the books I read.

Read for tactics

Reading for tactics is the way I read books to get the material for Essential Habits. Essential Habits is my attempt at hacking away at the marble and giving you David. I give you what’s essential, though from my perspective, and try to distill hundreds of resources into specific takeaways to incorporate into their lives right away. Want to know the specific morning routine Hal Elrod recommends in his book, The Miracle Mornings? That’s one chapter of my book. Interested in what Tim Ferriss and others recommend as night time routines and get the best night’s rest you can? That’s another chapter.

Reading for tactics is a great way to come up with specific actions you can take to change your situation. Have an upcoming salary negotiation with your boss? There are lots of great negotiation books to help you prepare and execute.

But one challenge with reading for tactics is something I found in my book when I wrote about diets and food. In the book, I advocated for intermittent fasting — I wasn’t an expert, but I had seen enough experts I respected advocate for IF that I thought it had only benefits and no downside. But after my book came out, I had many friends tell and send me articles stating that IF does nothing for weight loss. And I’m sure if I looked, there would be articles out there and experts saying IF isn’t for everyone.

A similar topic? Exercise. In the book, I stated that High-Intensity Interval Training was the best. And again, I had many friends tell me other exercises are better.

When you read for tactics, the tactics can change based on what’s hot, trending, and ongoing research and studies.

Read for principles

Although I partially cover it in my book and you can glean it from the material, I do not explicitly outline principles. Principles are different from tactics in the sense that principles do not change on a whim.

If you want to run a cash-flow positive business, your revenue has to be greater than your expenses. Sure, there are a lot of tactics you can use to increase your revenue (increase sales, increase prices, etc.) or decrease your expenses (fire people, volume discounts, etc.), but the principle of revenue > expenses will always remain.

How do you read for principles? Here is what I do:

  • Read old books. How else will you know if this topic has been covered before? And how else will you know if someone rehashed the topic and made it popular again (i.e., Ryan Holiday and stoicism)? The Lindy Effect is the idea that the older something is, the longer it is likely to be around in the future. In other words, this is why Dale Carnegie’s book How to win friends and influence people continues to be popular — it has been around and popular for many decades, and so will continue to be around and popular for many more decades. How do you know what old books to read? Look for highly-rated books published at least two decades ago. If you are like me, you’ve read a lot of the modern self-help books and you might think, as I naively did, that the old books aren’t as relevant as the newer books, but you (and I) would be wrong.
  • Read a lot of books. You may already be reading a lot of books, but the trick is to read a lot of books on the same topic. If you are interested in the principles for exercise, read about kettlebells, interval training, cardio, running, weight training, and more. If you are interested in the principles for selling, read Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Jeffrey Gitomer, Napoleon Hill, Joe Girard, and others.
  • Look for agreements, but more importantly, look for disagreements. Principles will appear as a result of agreements between thinkers. For example, there is nobody I have read that says you can be healthy by having junk food or processed foods as part of your regular diet. Now what you eat, and how often you eat are the tactics because those change depending on what’s popular at the time, what your friends or coworkers try out and tell you, etc., but the principle of eating quality whole foods is there.
  • Use tactics to test principles. Each principle you develop is a hypothesis — it does not become a ‘theory’ until you have tested it many times over and learned from each experiment. Just because I say eating quality whole foods is better for you, and it makes sense in theory, doesn’t mean that becomes a principle for you. With the hypothesis in mind, you can test the principle through specific short-term tactics. Maybe you try eating junk food for a week and seeing how you feel. Or eating processed foods once a day.
  • Test and refine principles. When I was researching the health section of Essential Habits, one principle I believed in was weight lifting. I saw there were many benefits of lifting weights and little to no drawbacks. But as I read more books on health and exercise, I realized that weight lifting is for specific individuals, with specific goals. A much better principle, to me, is being active, whether that’s sports, running, walking your dog, or other activities.

Final thoughts

To be a more critical reader, you have to marry the two of reading for tactics and reading for principles. Tactics are the experiments you conduct in your life, the actions you take from the books you read. Over time, you learn which tactics work for you, based on your circumstances (time, energy, willpower, discipline, etc.). As you learn which tactics work for you, you start to formulate principles — known truths that form the foundation for the tactics you know will benefit you the most.