In January of this year I set a goal of reading 52 books this year. I accomplished this goal by mid-November and haven’t slowed down. As you’ll soon see, I’ve also set a more ambitious reading goal for next year. Today I’ll share a few secrets to help you read more books.
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I’ll be honest, at the beginning of the year 52 books sounded pretty optimistic. I have read a lot of books in the past; in seven months in Iraq I read over 150 books. With that history I was reasonably sure I could do it but with the constraints of a school, a real job, etc. I wasn’t sure what kind of commitment I was signing up for.
I dove in and I’m so glad I did. I learned so much. I kept myself much more actively engaged than if that time had been spent sharing memes on Facebook or re-watching The Tiger King. Reading is such rewarding, active, high-quality entertainment. TV and phones and computers just can’t replace it. Finishing a book is so much more satisfying that finishing a movie or series. Seriously – once you get that momentum going it feels really, really good.
This year a lot of people have told me, “I wish I had time to read that much.” They probably do, they have just chosen to spend their time otherwise. Habits – good or bad – can be hard to break. Today I’m going to share my “secrets” to reading a bunch of books. They aren’t very difficult…or very secret (please pardon the clickbait title). I sincerely hope this message hits home with at least one, single person – I would be absolutely thrilled if that goal were accomplished. Here goes:
#1: Make Reading Material Available
The real secret to success in reading is keep a ton of reading material readily available. Being able to instantly read when you feel like reading removes a huge hurdle. I also kept books in a variety of form-factors including paper books, ebooks, and audiobooks.
First, I kept a pile of books on the coffee table.This kept them plainly visible where I could see the title I was working on, taunting me whenever I sat on the couch. I also kept any other books I was planning to read so I could see their titles, too. I think this helped me look forward to reading those books and pushed me just a bit more. The main thing, though, was to keep the books easily accessible – not hidden in a drawer, not somewhere that I had to walk to, but within arms reach.
I also made sure books traveled with me. I would routinely pick up the book I was reading and bring it in the car with me when heading to class, to work, to wherever. The little minutes spent waiting around for class to begin or early for work – instead of mindlessly scrolling the internet, I tried to read four or five pages. Those four or five pages really begin to add up.
I always kept an ebook on my phone that I could open during anytime spent standing in line or in waiting rooms – that would have otherwise been spent doing nothing. Those little bits and pieces of time really begin to add up. They probably weren’t quite as impactful this year because COVID seriously cut down on time spent in waiting rooms, but the time I did spend waiting around was used well.
An ebook on a phone has another huge benefit: you can often read when it would be considered rude to pull out a book. I found this to be the case sometimes during meetings or class when the conversation veered off topic. Rather than sit and get frustrated I could simply open my phone and read three or four pages.
Finally, I always kept an audiobook playing in my car. Say it’s not really reading if you like; I consumed the information which was the ultimate goal. Audiobooks turned hours and hours of driving, mowing grass, stacking firewood, vacuuming, and other physical tasks into “reading” time. Quite a few of the books I completed this year were on audio and were completed while turning the compost, feeding chickens, washing dishes, and raking leaves.
#2: Remove Distractions
You’re never going to remove every distraction. You can mitigate or get rid of the big ones, however.
Your phone is a huge distraction, and probably your biggest impediment to reading more. When you sit down to read, silence your phone and leave it in another room. Use tools like Do Not Disturb to help yourself get some distraction-free book time. Whatever you do, get the phone away from yourself. If you keep it nearby, minimize the distractions that emanate from it – the sounds, vibrations, and the lighting up of the screen.
Facebook, Instagram, and Tik-Tok are probably stealing most of the time you could put toward reading. Check your screen-time and see how many minutes a day you are putting toward these apps – it’s probably way more than you think. Those seconds turn into minutes and those minutes turn into hours. My girlfriend got rid of Facebook several years ago. This year she gave up Instagram for the same reason: she found it eating more and more of her time.
Be honest with yourself about social media consumption. Realize that it was optimized to make you spend more time than you want to. Do what you need to do to limit that time, including removing the app from your phone. Dumping social media will probably improve your life for many, many other reasons, too.
Also be careful with TV. Several years ago I found myself coming home, turning on the TV…and not turning it off until 10 or 11 PM. I began to realize what a time-suck it was so I dumped the TV. I have one now but we watch it carefully. We monitor our intake and set limits for how much we watch (usually we have nightly reading rather than nightly TV).
If you have a TV but are unhappy with the amount of reading you’re doing, get rid of the TV. Problem solved. If you don’t want to get rid of the TV itself, set obstacles that make TV accessible but not instantly accessible. Keep it unplugged so you can’t mindlessly turn it on. Log out of Netflix or Prime each time you turn it off to put another obstacle between you and the time-suck. Anything to make it easier to pick up a book than switch on the TV will probably help.
#3: Enjoy Yourself!
I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading things that I don’t enjoy. I got deep into wilderness survival this year so I started checking out every book I could find on the topic. Being very interested in the subject matter made most of those books really fast, easy reading.
Anytime I heard about some interesting phenomenon, I looked to see if there was a book about the topic. I found this became easier throughout the year. By the end of the year I had a list of topics I wanted to know more about – from dreaming to serial killers. Reading stuff that is interesting to you is the most surefire way to stay interested in reading.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to dump a book if you don’t like it. If I spent more than about 50 pages in a book and it didn’t excite me I dumped it. Sometimes it’s good to have the discipline to finish something that’s difficult. But as you’re trying to build a new habit sticking with stuff you enjoy will really help you stick to it.
#4: Just Start…Then Get Competitive
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Every book I read this year began with a single word. Just start – if you wait until you have the time to sit and read for four hours, guess what? Yeah, you’re probably never going to start. I found that once I started, I built momentum.
The more I read, the more I wanted to read. Getting started and creating some momentum was the first step, though. I really found that reading begets more reading. The more I read the more I wanted to read. Books referenced other books and made me curious. Amazon began throwing more and more and more enticing book recommendations my way. I started talking about reading with others and they recommended books.
Once you get started, get competitive. There are innumerable ways to create little competitions with yourself. For example, I would check out 5 books at a time from the library, then challenge myself to finish them all before they were due back. I would tell myself I could only buy x book if I read three others from the library first. I also found that the closer I got to 52 the faster I read. And once I broke 52 I tried my best to drive that number up as high as possible.
If competing with yourself isn’t enough to keep you motivated, compete with someone else. Make a friendly wager with your spouse, a friend, or hell, even your kids. Actually, you know what? See if you can read more books than me in 2021, then email me to gloat about it at the end of next year! I would be thrilled to hear how badly you beat me!
#5: Manage Cost
Books are expensive. I have had a couple of comments from people remarking about the cost of books. Here’s the deal: if I had to buy all these books at full retail I wouldn’t have read nearly this much. There are two secrets to managing cost: libraries and used book stores.
The Library: We joined our local library early this year. Getting books for free is amazing. I don’t know why I resisted this for so long (I didn’t really resist but was lazy about it). I read much, much more when I don’t have to pay for it. The library also has some other benefits. First, our local branch doesn’t have that many books, but it has access to every library in the entire state. So sometimes you place a hold for a book and wait a week or two for it to get here. This means you have to plan ahead and keep a queue of books coming in. This creates some pressure to finish books before others get here, or before they are due back. I think some mild pressure is a really good thing; too much is bad but if you have zero pressure, you’ll do zero work.
In addition to print books, most libraries now also loan ebooks and audiobooks. Since I discovered this the days of my audible subscription are numbered.
Used book stores: in October I had to travel for work. The city I traveled to had a massive used book store. I spent $81 on books in three trips to the store. I came home with over 40 books. Some where nonfiction New York Times bestsellers, some were shooting classics, like Ayoob’s In the Gravest Extreme. Some were fiction classics, like a handful of Hemingway works I picked up. All were really, really cheap (the most expensive book I bought was $8.50 – A Moveable Feast; the cheapest $0.05 – The Monuments Men). After that going into a Barnes & Noble just isn’t the same.
Now I have a stockpile of books at home. This gives me something the library does not: instant access to a small, personal library of books that I have not read. If I am in a gap between library books or Amazon orders (for those few books I want to own or can’t get at the library) I can pick one of these up instantly. It also gives me a small stockpile of entertainment should we suffer another COVID-like lockdown.
Amazon, et al.: Sometimes you just have to spend some money and buy a book. I bought a few books this year that weren’t available through the library. I purchased Greg Ellifritz’s outstanding Choose Adventure. I also purchase the excellent Long Range Shooting Handbook and The CSAT Way, both books that were unavailable in the library. From Chinook Medical I purchased Wilderness and Travel Medicine, not only because the library doesn’t carry it, but because I’d like to possess a physical copy of it.
And of course I pay for an Audible subscription. I paid for two books per month; this was mostly enough. Some months I was home and hardly used any of my allotment of two books per month and built up a nice surplus. Some months I had to buy an extra credit or two.
Bonus Tip: Set Yourself Up For Success
If your goal is to read a book a week and your first three books are It, The Stand, and The Shining, you’ll probably quickly find yourself behind schedule and discouraged. Don’t cheat and and read short books because their short but maybe stack the deck a bit in your favor.
Books have a lot of competition these days. Screens are just always within easy reach, so much faster to grab our attention, and engaging through many mechanisms – sound, bright lights, movement… Reading is harder than watching YouTube or endlessly scrolling Facebook, but it’s massively more rewarding. If you’re not a big reader it will probably take a bit of effort to integrate it into your life. But like most things worth having it is very much worth it.