Reading used to be my favorite pastime. Emphasis on past.
But then, school started forcing books I didn’t want to read down my throat. I fell asleep on too many boring textbooks. The Internet happened.
And one day I coldly appraised my life and realized that books weren’t a part of it anymore.
There’s nothing wrong with this–that’s why I shared my story. Has it happened to you? If it has, you can rewrite your story, too.
What I Did
To get back to reading regularly, I wanted to start small. Small enough that I wouldn’t have any excuses for failure.
I had an idea. I would read one page from a book each night, as soon as I got into bed.
Of course, I was always free to read more than just a page. But I didn’t pressure myself to do that. I wanted to set a pace I could sustain.
I chose bedtime because it’s easy and natural–the kid with a flashlight reading under the covers is a cliche for a reason. I picked a book from high school that I wanted to re-read, since I was too young to really get it the first time, and I plopped it down on my nightstand.
The first few times, I did only read one page. It wasn’t a lot, but it felt good. I was restoring my familiarity with the simple act of opening a book.
I missed a couple days, as will happen. Maybe I was too tired to do anything but sleep. Or maybe I just forgot.
Summoning my strength, I stayed positive. “Tomorrow,” I said, “I must make be determined to get my page done.” I sensed danger: miss two in a row, and I would squander all my hard-won progress.
As I got sucked into that first book (The Great Gatsby), I began anticipating my nighttime reading. And I learned that if I got ready for bed before I got tired, I wouldn’t have any trouble–there was nothing to do but read.
Excitement built. I started reading 10, 20, 30 pages per night. When I neared the end of one book, I got the next one ready to go by placing it on my nightstand. As soon as I finished a book, I went right into the next one. Even when I was exhausted, I didn’t let the night end unless I’d read at least one page in the new book.
Within a few months, my habit was thriving. And it was spreading, too: I was reading when I got home from work, on the weekends, even in spare moments throughout the day.
Before I knew it, I was a reading machine.
Crash Course on Habits
First, a word about habits.
Our brains are wired for habits. We would implode in minutes without them.
When a task becomes a habit, we do it without thinking. This saves precious brainpower; we’ve mastered something, so now we can focus on harder problems.
If you had to think hard about how to get ready for work, you’d be tired by the end of breakfast. Instead, you have a morning routine.
You’ve gone through it so many times your body seems to automatically accomplish all its tasks, leaving you free to think about higher-level stuff: a presentation or an email or an interview.
I put my shoes on in the same order every morning. I towel off from my shower in exactly the same way. I take my pills and vitamins in the same order, too.
Breaking these deeply ingrained habits just feels wrong. If you always put your left shoe on first, try doing it the other way–it’s like your body becomes a magnet, repelling the unexpected motion. It’s an ingrained, physical reaction.
We’re all experts on habits; we just don’t realize it. And we don’t understand how powerful it is to create our own habits.
A habit arises when we want to learn a task that makes our lives better–like getting clean in the morning. We do it at the same time every day, in this case because we don’t want to smell at work. And we feel good once it’s done. We feel refreshed and ready to go.
Even though our habits don’t form naturally, most of them are so well-worn that they feel natural.
Creating a new, higher-level habit like reading takes planning and deliberation, but the method is still the same.
Here’s how to do it:
- Choose the habit
- Choose the time you’re going to do it, and
- Celebrate successful completion of the task
If you pick something you have strong feelings about, and do it at a natural time, then the hardest part is just remembering to do it. That’s why starting really small works. When the action itself is trivial, you focus on the most important part: the remembering.
Even if an activity like reading one page feels like nothing, realize that it isn’t.
Because I already had a habit: to get into bed and go to sleep. I added a new step in between, something I wasn’t used to doing. So in order to make the new behavior automatic, I had to forcefully disrupt my existing automatic flow.
What’s not-nothing about reading the page is that I had to remember to do it, despite my body being habituated to do something else.
This is a classic Catch-22: since the system is so powerful (which is great!), making a change to it requires serious effort (which is hard!).
That’s why the celebration is the most important step. You have to give yourself recognition for this work you’re doing. Anything that increases your well-being and makes you feel you’ve accomplished something. Because you have–even after one time.
Think about the people you see every day. How many of them are incorporating new skills into their lives, actively finding ways to increase their joy and productivity? And how many are content going through the same stale routine, never growing or improving themselves?
If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Here’s an advanced tactic: you’ve may have noticed that habits can be chained. So if you have a habit of brushing your teeth every night, and you want to start flossing, it’s very simple. Concentrate on flossing right after you finish brushing your teeth.
You can even floss just one tooth. And when you’ve worked that tooth over, take a bow. You made a plan and executed it.
After a few months of steady flossing, you won’t even have to think about it.
Building Your Reading Habit
Now, how can you adapt this process to reading?
The most important thing to start with: don’t be hard on yourself. This is a hard habit to start–starting it with negativity won’t help. So realize that you’re already ahead of the game for making it to this point.
Reading regularly is a lot harder than flossing. There are a million other things you “should” be doing. It requires preparation and concentration and sitting still, all of which I find difficult.
So it’s crucial to start off with books that you’re really excited about reading.
1. Make a list.
Don’t just put any book on it. Think of the books you’ve been putting off, the books that make you want to read more in the first place.
I’m trusting you on this one: if these aren’t books you’re desperate to read, it’s not going to work.
2. List as many as you can, then narrow it down to three.
You’ll feel a rush of energy at this point. You’re psyched that you’re finally going to read these books.
3. Make sure you have access to your books before you start.
If you’re going to use Kindle or another e-reader, purchase and download them right now!
If you’re going physical, order them online or get to the bookstore. Immediately.
Your strategy is to get all the logistics out of the way. Make it easy for your future self, so when it’s time to start, all you have to do is: open book; read book.
4. Write a short paragraph about when and where you’re going to do your reading.
Be as detailed as you can. What room are you in? What time is it? What have you just done? Do you have coffee, tea, a beer, a snack? Envision yourself in this place, at this time, reading your first book.
Remember chaining. Try to find something that’s already a habit and make that your prelude to reading. This is your trigger.
Here’s an example:
“After I get home from work, I take the clean dishes out of the dishwasher and load the dirty ones. After the dishwasher is loaded, I pour myself a glass of water and sit down in my armchair in the living room. I pick up my book from the end table next to the chair and start reading.”
5. Put the book in your spot.
Do this the second you have a book and a spot. Not having the book within reach when you sit down is a big-enough barrier to squash your habit before it even gets going.
Optional, but highly recommended: schedule this time on your calendar. Do whatever you can to stick to the schedule, even if it means only reading a page or two. There is no shame.
6. Tell someone.
My man Bassam showed that accountability drives results.
But I’m not talking about heavy-duty stuff like weekly accountability meetings or written reports.
Instead, simply tell a close friend what you’re doing. Ask them to help you stay on track. Maybe you already talk on the phone once a week: have your friend ask you each time what you’ve been reading.
That’s only one suggestion: there are many ways to make yourself accountable, and it doesn’t need to be hard or stressful.
In fact, the point is to make your work easier by mobilizing your brain’s social wiring. The best thing you can do to cement your reading habit is to be around other people who are practicing too.
You know what to do. Two reminders that may help:
- Don’t pressure yourself. It doesn’t matter if you read one book, one page, or one word. Honestly. The important thing right now is just sitting down to read–you’ll pick up speed in time. Think about how much reading you’ll get done, that you wouldn’t have otherwise, if you do this every day for a year (or ten years).
- Congratulate yourself for following through. If throwing yourself some mental love isn’t enough, do a fist pump. Jump in the air. Eat chocolate. Whatever makes you feel good. That feeling is important: your body lives in the short-term; it perceives a new habit as an unwelcome disruption. Your celebration signals your body that this change is worth it.
Do It Again Tomorrow
Think about the other habits you’ve mastered over the years: they all took time. Studies peg habit formation as taking, on average, 66 days. The truth is, you’re not going to realize what’s happened the instant the habit is “formed” (whatever that means).
So, after you congratulate yourself? Visualize doing it again tomorrow. Make sure the conditions remain right. Try to think about it over the next 24 hours.
(Hint: if you’re loving the book, anticipation is easy. That’s why choosing the right one is paramount.)
Don’t Let Up
Odds are, you’ll miss a day, especially in the beginning. This is totally fine. Forgive yourself for it—and come back the next day.
Shit happens; life intervenes. If you’ve missed several days, and you feel the habit’s broken? Relax. It’s not a big deal.
Experiment. Mess around. Try a different book. Chain a different habit, at a different place or time of day. Get help from a friend.
And always give yourself credit for good effort.
Take it easy and start again. Over a life of reading, a couple false starts are small potatoes.
Keep at it. It’s worth it.