Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, is back with Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Here, Rubin shares 10 tips for becoming a better reader.
Reading is an essential part of my work, it’s an important aspect of my social life, and most importantly, it’s my favorite thing to do. I’m not a well-rounded person.
But reading takes time, and most days, I can’t read as much as I’d like. As I was writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I adopted many new habits to help me get more good reading done. Consider whether these habits might work for you:
1. Quit reading. I identify as a reader, and as part of that identity, I’d developed the habit of finishing every book I read, because a “real” reader finishes books. I know I wasn’t alone. According to Goodreads, 38 percent of readers always finish a book. I’ve now adopted the habit of putting down a book as soon as I lose interest. What a relief. When I let myself abandon a boring book, I have more time to read what I love. As Thoreau observed, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”
2. Skim. Especially when reading newspapers, magazines, and the internet. Certain kinds of materials don’t need to be read carefully. Also, even if you spend many hours a day reading, you may feel as though you don’t have any time to read. The habit of skimming ensures that low-value reading doesn’t crowd out high-value reading.
3. Set aside time to read demanding books. It’s satisfying to stretch. Try setting aside some time each week to read books that are a bit challenging—a dense biography, a religious work written hundreds of years ago, a scientific book with a lot of unfamiliar terminology. I used the habit-formation Strategy of Scheduling to form the habit of doing “Study Reading” each weekend, to ensure that I make time read books that I may not exactly feel like picking up, but that I’m very glad I read.
4. Always have plenty of reading material on hand. Never go anywhere empty-handed—digital devices are a big help in this respect. Nothing is more terrifying to me than the prospect of finding myself on an airplane, with many hours to read and a book that I don’t like. So much great reading time—wasted! I always have several options, each time I board a plane. And in order to have plenty to read…
5. Keep a reading list, and keep it handy. For years, I kept my library list on a little pad at my desk, but I’ve switched the list to my phone. A handwritten list can be left behind, but a cell- phone list is always available. Whenever I hear about a book I want to read, I add it my library list. It currently contains the names of 194 books, and one day, I plan to read them all.
6. Try audio-books. Listening to a book can be a way to experience it in a terrific new way, and makes books available in situations where it’s impossible to read—say, when driving. Also, if you’re trying to form a habit, it’s also a great way to use the Strategy of Pairing. If you don’t particularly enjoy going for a daily walk, but want to get that exercise, try pairing your walk with an engaging audio-book. The time will fly.
7. Don’t fight reading inclinations. Sometimes I feel like I should be reading one book when I actually feel like reading something entirely different. Now I let myself read what I want, because that way I read so much more. Also, I love to re-read. I used to think that I “should” spend all my time reading books that I’ve never read before, but now I realize that there’s a special pleasure in re-reading.
8. Read Slightly Foxed. I’m a huge fan of this British quarterly magazine. Book coverage is almost exclusively focused on the books being published now—but what about the excellent books that were published decades ago? Slightly Foxed is a mix of short essays about people’s favorite books from the past. (If you don’t know your book-collecting terminology, “slightly foxed” is a term used to describe books that are showing their age.)
9. Start or join a book group. Many people struggle to find time to read, even though they love it. Use the Strategy of Accountability to hold yourself accountable for reading: being part of a book group will help you make time to read. And while most book groups read fiction, you can have a book group organized around any kind of book you love. I’m in three—yes, three—book groups where we read children’s literature and young-adult literature. I’ve always been a huge fan of kidlit, and I love talking about these books with like-minded people. You could have a biography book club, a foreign-policy book club, a romance book club…I heard about a book club where they read classic New Yorker profiles.
10. Join my monthly book club. Speaking of book groups and getting great recommendations for reading…I have a monthly “book group,” where I recommend one great book about habits or happiness, and one great work of children’s literature, and one eccentric pick (a book that I love but may not appeal to everyone). If you’d like to receive the reading recommendations, sign up here.