Five ways to read more this year
Plenty of research suggests that making goals public is the best way to achieve them, if only to avoid the shame of failure.
At the start last year I began a book list. This was mostly out of worry: social media is fun and useful, but I had found a mix of tweeting and parenting made it much harder to focus on reading (and especially so for fiction). In 2019, I managed to read 37. Not bad, although my list is neither as classy as Barack Obama's nor as full as Bill Gates' (who supposedly manages 50), or indeed those obviously ridiculous adverts suggesting the average CEO reads 60 a year.
Finding time to read is hard. The average American gets through 12 books a year; 17 for college grads. Any more than that is a pretty good haul, especially given screen distractions. And that's even without thinking through whether reading more books is actually a good thing. The opportunity cost is clearly high, even if measured only in other reading; one book equals a dozen interesting long-form essays, for instance.
All that said, I did manage to read quite a bit more last year, mostly by being deliberate about it. Here are 5 things I found helpful.
The list. I kept a simple google doc of books I'd read, along with those I want to read next. The retrospective list gave a pleasing sense of achievement. It also helped focus, making it easier to spot periods when I'd not made time to read, and get back on track.
Giving up mid-way. Stopping reading if you aren't enjoying something frees up time for other books, rather the slowly soldiering on to the end. I'm fine giving up after a chapter or two. Life is short. I also typically read half a dozen books at the same time. What you lose in focus, you gain in diversity.
Embracing technology. Trying to read more is mostly about avoiding screens. The advent of e-readers hasn't been the reading revolution many expected. Much as I love podcasts, I've never really clicked with audio books either. Even so, I found putting Kindle's reader on my smartphone was helpful. In particular, it made it easier to continue a book I'd been reading the night before, rather than snacking on other kinds of social media content on the bus to and from work.
Forcing yourself into it. In my case reviewing books for newspapers (with deadlines) was a big thing, as was forcing myself to read things by people I was going to interview or appear with on panels or at book festivals. I'm also a member of a monthly non-fiction book group too: I make only about one meeting in two, but that's still another six more books a year I wouldn't otherwise have read. In short, any arbitrary commitment device that forces you into reading is good.
Making more reading time. The most obvious challenge. Reading requires hours. So where to get them? Prioritising reading on long-haul flights was one big bonus: you can get through most of a book if you forgo movies. Even with kids, holidays also were critical for the fiction I did manage. I also tried a new routine of set-aside reading time between 9pm and 10pm. Mostly this was a total failure, but I did manage very occasionally, and every little helps.
This year my aim is to hit 50. Plenty of research suggests that making goals public is the best way to achieve them, if only to avoid the shame of failure. Here's hoping.
My 2019 list was heavy on stodgy contemporary non-fiction, and weak on fiction and books not written last year. So in 2020 I'm hoping for a better balance of fiction and classic non-fiction titles, too.
James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of 'The Billionaire Raj'.
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