This is my latest article in a series on owning your professional learning.
According to a Pew Research poll, over a quarter of the U.S. adult population said they hadn’t read a book within the last year, whether that was in audiobook, ebook, or physical book format. For those with a college degree, the percentage is significantly lower (8%). Moreover, while the average person reads 12 books per year (the mean), the median was 4. In other words, a small segment of the population read tons of books.
Reading is one of the best ways to own your professional learning. Previously, I mentioned how book clubs allow us to wrestle with ideas as a community. But reading multiple books from many perspectives can help us wrestle with these ideas in solitude. They can help us gain new perspectives and ideas, which can spur innovation and creativity. Books can help us gain empathy toward other groups. Reading across genres and topics can allow us to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.
Avid readers are the type who can read roughly a book a week. It’s easy to imagine these super readers as being speed readers. However, you can read 50 books per year even if you aren’t particularly fast. It doesn’t require a massive time commitment, either. By making small tweaks to your daily life, you can carve out the time to read 50 books in a year. This article explores how to make that happen.
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Small Tweak #1: Small Ways to Make Time for Reading
Let’s do some nerdy math for a moment. Most people read somewhere between 200-250 words per minute. Let’s go on the safe side and go with 200 words per minute. Most books are around 50,000 words. So, each book takes about 250 minutes to read. So, that’s 12,500 minutes. If we assume you are reading around 357 days a year, then that puts you at about 35 minutes per day. If you read at a faster pace (250 words per minute) you’ll end up closer to 27 or 28 minutes per day.
One approach would be to carve out 35 minutes per day for reading. It might might be your lunch break or it might be an activity you do to unwind each evening. Or you might take two 20-minute chunks and devote them to reading. You could even put those times on your calendar and treat them like meetings. This approach allows you to get into the flow of reading and spend time with more focused concentration on the text.
However, life is busy and sometimes you don’t have an extra 35 minutes to spare. A different approach is to make time for reading by converting downtime into reading time. You might take a physical book with you when you run errands and are stuck waiting. Or you might have a book by your desk and read a few pages in those eight minutes between two video conference calls. It also helps to take advantage of multiple book formats, which can them allow you to turn monotonous tasks into reading opportunities.
Small Tweak #2: Read in Multiple Formats
You can download the Kindle app and read while you’re stuck in line or when you’re waiting for that friend who is perpetually late. You can also take advantage of audio-books and use an anytime/anywhere approach. You might listen to a book while you’re on a run or while you’re walking your dog or while you’re doing chores. Suddenly the time you spend vacuuming, doing dishes, making dinner, and folding laundry become opportunities to explore new worlds and gain new insights. If you don’t have an Audible account, you can check it out here. If you sign up now, you can get two free audiobooks. Another option is Kindle Unlimited where you pay a monthly fee to get unlimited access to various ebooks and audiobooks.
By taking advantage of multiple formats, we are now in a place where you can read anywhere at anytime. And yet, the very devices that allow for this ease and accessibility often pull us away from reading. At any given moment, we have pings and alerts competing for our attention and by default, we tend to hop onto a game, mindlessly check our email, or cruise social media. In other words, sometimes the issue isn’t one of time but attention.
Small Tweak #3: Make Reading Your Escape
There are certain steps we can take to minimize the distractions on our phones. For example, we can get rid of most notifications. We can delete social media apps from our phones or maybe hide them in a folder that we place on another screen. In some cases, we might leave our phones at home and take a book with us to a specific location.
But another option is to make reading your distraction that you escape to when you’re bored or frustrated. In other words, if you’re going to grab your phone, why not put the Kindle app on the front page and make it the first thing you see? If you’re tempted to hop onto social media while you’re at your desk, use a work mode block on your browser to replace Facebook or Twitter and instead keep a browser open with Google Books, the Kindle Cloud Reader, or OverDrive.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to the cycle of cue, routine, and reward. So, you see the cue (you see your phone), you move into the routine (check the app), and you get the reward (a dopamine hit from seeing “likes”). But if you replace the cue, it becomes easier to change the routine and reward. Now, you see the cue (your phone), you move to the routine (tap on the ebook app), and get the reward (the excitement of new ideas or the immersion into a story).
If we want reading to become a habit, we need to make accessibility to books more prevalent than accessibility to apps. It can help to create visual cues in every space where you might be tempted to grab your phone. This is a strategy that James Clear suggests in his thought-provoking book Atomic Habits. Here are a few ideas you could try:
- Set a book by your nightstand and read when you go to bed. Research has demonstrated that the blue light from phones can disrupt our production of melatonin, which, in turn, makes it harder to go to sleep. This, in turn, can keep us from hitting our REM sleep which we need in order to be more productive and more creative. You might want to charge your phone in another room and keep a few books by your nightstand instead. This is why I love the Kindle Paperwhite. You get the ease and functionality of an e-reader without the blue-light or the distractions of other apps.
- Leave a few books by your kitchen table. Ever read the cereal box because you were bored? I’m pretty sure I memorized the ingredients to Honey Nut Cheerios as a child. But with phones, I’m often tempted to catch a Pokemon or catch up on Twitter when I’m drinking my coffee in the morning. I recently started leaving a few books at the table and reading those instead.
- Set a book by your remote. There’s nothing wrong with watching television. However, by setting a few books next to the remote, you now have a second cue offering another alternative to decompress at the end of the day. Sure, you might want to watch The Great British Bake-Off. How else are you going to avoid having a soggy bottom? But you might just choose to read a novel instead.
- Set a book in your backpack or purse. A general rule of thumb might be to take a book with you wherever you might take your phone with you. You could set it in your purse or backpack or you could make cargo shorts cool again and putting multiple books in multiple pockets. Or maybe not. But the idea is to make books accessible everywhere.
Ultimately, we live in a world of incessant distractions. Willpower alone is rarely enough to get us focused on reading. However, by turning reading into a distraction, it becomes our default go-to when we need a break. By changing the cue and the routine, we internalize the idea that reading is a reward in itself.
Small Tweak #4: Treat Reading as a Reward
Many of us grew up with special reading competitions that offered prizes for those who read a certain number of books. If you read enough, you end up with pizza coupons or a prize from a box. But a small unintended consequence of this is that many children grew up believing that reading was something that required a reward rather than being a reward in itself.
Reading shouldn’t feel like a chore. It shouldn’t feel like a grueling workout that you need to do in order to reach a goal. Instead, reading should be fun. For this reason, your fifty books should all be books that you actually want to read. It helps to begin with a massive list of books. Ask friends and family for suggestions. Go online and look up reading lists. Check out lists of diverse authors so that you can gain a broader perspective that includes more BIPOC.
Consider books outside of your immediate profession. This might not seem relevant to your professional learning. However, sometimes the most innovative ideas occur when you pull from other disciplines and domains. Here, you gain new insights that you can apply to your context and you often have a new lens that you can apply to your current processes and challenges. This requires us to shift from viewing relevance from “shiny and new” to “better and different.” In other words, the most relevant idea might initially seem less relevant at the time.
Once you have a large set of books, start diving in. Read the books you love. Be ruthless with your approach. If a book isn’t helpful or interesting, put it down. Never feel guilty for failing to finish a book. It’s not a waste of money if you buy a book and it isn’t for you. After all, your money helped pay an author for their ideas and their work. They get paid regardless.
In this sense, reading is more like Netflix and less like a college course. You should be able to check out multiple options, get started, and then walk away if the book is a bad fit. You might be tempted to create a year-long plan of every book you want read. And that might work for you if you already have a strong reading habit. But if you want to focus on habit-building, you’ll want to have multiple options and then choose whichever book is most enticing at the moment.
It also helps to read multiple books at the same time. You might have two novels, one general book about education, a biography, and a book about creativity. At one moment, you feel like something light and comical. At another moment, you want a deep-thinking science fiction dystopia and in another moment, you might be drawn toward a counter-intuitive book about motivation. When reading is inherently rewarding, our process will be messy and idiosyncratic. But that’s okay. This messy process often leads us to make critical connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. This, in turn, can increase our divergent thinking and help us become more innovative.
You might also use reading as a reward for other activities. This might include taking a bath or getting in the hot tub and reading a novel after a grueling day at work. Or you might give yourself twenty minutes of free reading after doing annoying paperwork or answering emails. In some cases, you might even reward yourself for reading a certain number of books by buying or checking out new books. Here, a trip to the library or bookstore can feel like a trip to the candy shop.
But even as rewarding as reading may be, some people are highly motivated by the sense of accomplishment that comes from hitting the 50-book milestone. In these moments, you might want to gamify the process.
Small Tweak #5: Treat it as a Game
Smartphone apps succeed by using key elements of game-play to get users to spend more time on their platforms. Often, they include levels with incremental success. They use visual cues to show progress toward a goal. Often, they will include badges that you earn as you accomplish specific goals or objectives.
These elements of game-play exist in Candy Crush and Pokemon Go. But they’re also present with social media (friend counts, alerts, notifications, and badges) and on fitness apps, where you get badges for reaching your step count or having multiple days in a row of staying within your calorie count. Productivity apps have have incorporated these ideas by including badges, progress bars, and reminders.
We can take these elements of game-play into our 50 book challenge. Here are a few ideas:
- Make it easy to start. As mentioned before, place high-interest books all over the place in order to get started. These borrows from the gaming concept of having a low barrier of entry.
- Check your progress each week. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” This also provides a small ritual or celebration each time you succeed.
- Create “levels” for yourself by starting with shorter books. You might enjoy reading the shorter Austin Kleon books or reading a graphic novel. Yes, graphic novels count as read books! There’s actually a strong rationale for this approach. By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we are then able to stick with a habit over time.
- Create reward for reading. I know, I just mentioned that reading should be rewarding. But link finishing books to finding new books. Create smaller celebrations when you hit certain milestones.
- Join a community. Some of the most successful games thrive on Xbox and Playstation platforms because of the community of players. As a reader, you might join a book club or you might participate in Goodreads, which has many gaming elements embedded within it (progress tracking, notifications, stars, metrics).
Ultimately, there is no formula for developing this book-reading habit. Some people read ten books at the same time and others read one or two. Some folks check their progress by reading a certain number of pages per day. Others read a book per week and others aim for four to five books per month. Some people schedule “book vacations” and binge-read while others stick to a reading whenever they feel bored. The key is to find specific small tweaks that work so that you can reach a place where you are reading multiple books that push your thinking.
Getting Started in Six Steps
Step 1: I would start off by making sure you have anywhere / anytime access. Here are a few ideas:
- Get started with Audible and get two free audiobooks.
- Try out Kindle Unlimited and pay a monthly fee to get unlimited access to various ebooks and audiobooks.
- If you don’t have an Amazon Prime account, you can try it for a month for $3. You’ll not only save on shipping (many books ship free) but you’ll also get to check out certain Kindle Books for free with Kindle Unlimited.
- If you don’t have an e-reader, you might want to get an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite or the slightly pricier Oasis with warm light options.
- Add a cloud reader to your browser.
Step 2: I would then make a massive list of your favorite books. Consider the following:
- Reach out to friends and family for recommendations
- Find specific reading lists online
- Do an audit to see if you are including voices of marginalized groups
- Look for recommendations on Goodreads or Amazon
Step 3: Go out and pick certain books. Here are a few locations:
- Go to used book stores (if they’re open)
- Visit Goodwill for cheaper books
- Stop by your local library or visit your library online
Step 4: Place the books in various locations:
- Backpack or purse
- In your car
- Coffee table
- By your bathtub
- By the remote
- By your exercise bike
- Near the kitchen table
Step 5: Do a time audit of where you would like to change your habits.
Step 6: See if there are any gamification elements including:
- Starting small
- Tracking: daily? weekly? monthly?
- Celebrations or rewards
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