I like the idea of books. Who doesn’t? But like a workaholic that’s never home with his kids, I just can’t seem to find the time to be with them.
I mean, I never regret spending time with books. I always look back fondly on my experiences with them. I embrace the attention they bring when I mention them. I carry them around and show them to strangers. But I just suck at reading them.
So like every good 90’s movie about a neglectful father, I decided to get serious about my relationship with books. The problem is that “getting serious” about reading doesn’t help that much. It just makes the relationship more depressing.
But over time my relationship with books slowly improved. It wasn’t because I “got serious” about reading or because I made some sort of resolution. Instead, the key to becoming a reader was to change my mentality in a few key areas. Here’s what I’ve learned about becoming a consistent reader and (usually but not all the time) reading a book every week.
Ten Pages At A Time
Most books are 250-350 pages. Regardless of what I’m reading, my goal is to read 300 pages every week. For me, 300 pages is one “book.” To read one “book” every week, I have to read 50 pages every day for six days.* Fifty pages is not a lot of pages. Depending on the subject matter, that’s 90-ish minutes of reading.
But I cannot sit still for 90 minutes. I also can’t consistently carve 90 minutes out of my schedule every day. I wish that I could, but I can’t. Worst of all, I can’t deal with the daily guilt and frustration of being unable to read 50 pages of a book. I’m better than that.
Instead of trying to “find” 90 minutes every day to read, I create little 20-minute reading breaks. I read ten pages at a time, not fifty. It keeps my self-esteem high and encourages me to create more reading breaks throughout the day.
How do I do that?
*Sorry that I just made you do math
Read During Transition Moments
We do not have to create a reading habits from scratch. In fact, the best way to create a new habit is to piggyback off of an existing habit. Since I already eat, sleep, and work every day, it makes sense to weave my reading habit into these already-existing habits.
What I’ve done is make reading a “bookend” or “transition” habit. It is how I start or finish many of my daily activities. It’s the first thing I do in the morning. It’s the first thing I do at work. It’s how I end my lunch break. It’s what I do before I leave work. It’s how I wind-down for bed. Sometimes I do it after dinner. On the weekend, I like to squeeze in a few minutes before I leave the house (even if it makes me a little late). Sometimes I’ll read right before a workout. Any time that I’m transitioning from one activity to another, I see it as an opportunity to stop and read for 20 minutes. Transition moments are my mental cue to read.
Now, this isn’t the same advice as reading during “downtime.” I don’t like that advice. I don’t like the idea of sneaking little 2-minute reading breaks. That isn’t long enough for me to concentrate or immerse myself into a story or argument. I want to be present and engaged when I read. Your reading habit deserves more than your time scraps.
Aside: You should read at work. If your boss isn’t the biggest fan of you starting and ending your day with 20 minutes of reading, arrive 20 minutes early and stay 20 minutes late. If your boss is a fan of reading at work, you’ve won life. Good job.
Speed Reading Is For Chumps
No one who starts a sentence with the words “News Flash!” is about to say something nice, but…
News flash, speed-reading sucks. Specifically, it sucks the joy out of reading. It destroys retention rates. It is the perfectly-wrong solution to reading more. It mimics the Western ideal of efficiency at the cost of enjoyment and accuracy, which is no one’s reason for reading. Sure, there is a time and place for speed-reading, but it is an exception, not a rule.
Think of speed-reading like eating. If you’re in the military, speed is necessary. You need to shovel as many tasteless calories into your belly as possible. Time is of the essence. But if you’re at a nice sushi joint, there is no need to inhale a California roll. To eat with military-speed is to lose out on everything good about food. It misses the point. Same with books. If you’re reading a book out of necessity, speed-reading isn’t the worst idea. But to speed-read a book you enjoy is to miss the point.
Don’t miss the point of reading by clinging to the false ideal of speed-reading.
One Book At A Time
Books are like girlfriends. They are really interesting and exciting at the beginning. But as time passes, there aren’t as many surprises. They can grow boring and predictable. You might be tempted to pick up another book and “read it at the same time.” But soon, that second book will grow cold and another book will be added to the mix. Chasing novelty rather than depth, you will feel lost and disconnected from your reading. (The same applies to girlfriends, by the way, except it ends with you being murdered.)
I am a big proponent of reading one book at a time. It takes a little more concentration and persistence to engage with the later chapters of a book, but they are (usually) always worth it. Like a quality girlfriend, the later chapters are where the magic happens. Reading multiple books at a time often robs you of that.
Save E-Readers And Audiobooks For Fiction
Paper is better. Almost end of story.
I wish that I could be a Paper Purist, but I can’t; e-readers and audiobooks are so cool. I do think their usefulness is reserved for fiction, though. It is too hard to follow an argument on an e-reader. It is more difficult to stop and think while reading on a screen. It is harder to engage with an author’s thought process and make connections when the book is in audio form. This is fine for fiction, but any non-fiction worth reading should be read on paper.
Now, end of story.
Presence Is Key
I’m confident that reading makes me a better person. It’s not necessarily the books that I read that make me more awesome, but the daily habit of concentrating and being present.
Concentration and presence are lost skills in our culture. Multi-tasking is a virtue. Constant connectivity to social cell phones is expected. Peace and quiet is rarely enjoyed, even in a room that is already peaceful and quiet.
Reading is how I practice being present. I turn off my phone. I choose not to multi-task. I mark my book with a pencil. I take as much time as I need. I stop often to reflect. Sometimes I jot down a few thoughts in my journal.
This daily habit of un-plugging helps combat the restlessness and anxiety in my soul. But I’m going to stop there before I go down a rabbit trail of hippy-talk.
This Is Just What You Do Now
You can tell the difference between real readers and wannabes by how they talk about reading. (You can do this for a lot of habits, but we’ll use reading as an example.)
People who read habitually do not make a special effort to read. They do not say things like, “I might read a little” or “I really need to read today” or “I feel like reading.” Readers just read, yo. There are no heroic exertions. It’s part of their rhythm. It’s what they do.
Sure, it took them time to get that way. Maybe they had to train themselves like a Pavlovian dog. Maybe they had to keep a calendar and mark it with big, red X’s. Maybe they found a study buddy or accountability partner. Maybe they joined a book club and the act of being around a bunch of other readers rubbed-off. But whatever they did, they’re now at a point where it’s just what they do. They read because they read, not because they “feel like it.” That should be your goal.
My Reading Schedule
To end, I thought it would be good to give a rough layout of my daily reading schedule. It is often changing, but the principles still hold up. You’ll see that I treat reading like a transition activity. This allows me to fit in enough 20-minute reading breaks to read about 50 pages every day, which is really not that hard .
I hope these principles help you turn your frustration into concentration and allow you to become the reader you’ve always hoped to be.