This post was originally written for The Startup.
People often ask me how they can read more books. The honest answer is: spend more time reading. There’s literally no other way. As you devote more time to it, you’re likely to become a faster reader too. But the follow-up question to that is always: how do I find more time?
We find time for whatever our priorities are. If you think you’re too busy to read, at all, it’s about making tradeoffs.
I’m currently on my 94th book this year (excluding the many I didn’t finish) which is far less than usual, though still requiring a reasonable time commitment. The tradeoff is that I watch very little TV and don’t use social media. If I did, I doubt I’d have time to read. As a kid I read up to 100 per month with the tradeoff being…that was all I did. All day.
Maths has never been my strong suit, but let’s do some semi-mangled Fermi calculations.
Let’s assume it takes a minute to read a page and the average book is 300 pages. If you read for 5 minutes per day, that’s 1825 minutes (30.4 hours) per year. Divide by 300 and that’s 6.1. The average person probably takes a bit more than a minute to read a page and some books may be longer, so let’s round it down to 5.
Five books a year is not many, but five minutes a day is nothing.
Five minutes. You’d spend five minutes deliberating over which pizza to order. Or staring at a coffee pot, waiting for it to heat up. Or reading an email from a supermarket. Or reading this article.
If we increase 5 minutes to 15 minutes a day, that’s 5475 minutes (91.3 hours) per year, equating to 18.25 300-page books, which we can again round down to 15.
You probably spend 15 minutes looking at your phone after waking up or before falling asleep. If you commute by train or bus that’s easily 15-minutes.
(If you’re about to start picking holes in my maths, please look up the definition of a Fermi calculation.)
Heuristics are imperfect. But the 1 minute a day = 1 book a year rule is useful for spotting little time slots in your routine you can use for reading. Instead of overlooking them, recognise that they do add up and you don’t need hours a day. Get into the mindset of turning dead time into alive time and making reading part of your routine.
I rarely set aside big blocks of time to read. I read while I eat. While traveling. Waiting in line. Sitting at the pharmacy for 2 hours waiting for a prescription to get filled. Before bed. It adds up.
Now to deal with the highly predictable objections/questions I always hear when I write about this stuff:
‘I have ADD/dyslexia/a similar condition and reading takes me much longer’
Then this doesn’t apply to you, any more than an article about training for a marathon applies to me, a person who couldn’t run 1km without dislocating her knees.
‘Five minutes isn’t long enough to get into a book’
No, not really. Once again, the numbers are arbitrary. It’s a starting point. Reading is too valuable and enjoyable an activity to squeeze into the little cracks in your day. But that’s better than nothing. Especially if you’re not used to reading and your attention span has shrunk.
‘How do I find the motivation to read?’
I can’t tell you that. No one can. You can’t rely on other people to give you motivation. If you want to read, you’ll read. Like time, motivation isn’t something you can just ‘find.’ It does help to actually choose books you like though.
‘I can’t focus on books’
‘How do I speed read?’
You don’t. Speed reading is a sham. I know how to speed read and I do it when I need to skim through ~10-30ish books in a day while researching for work. It’s not reading, it’s just a way of ferreting out the information I need. I certainly don’t count that as having read those books any more than I’d count reading the back of a shampoo bottle as reading a book.
‘What about audiobooks / Blinkist?’
As with speed reading, if you think listening to a sped up audio book or reading a 10 sentence summary is reading, you’ve missed the point. To quote from a fabulous post by J. Westenberg 🌈which says this better than I can:
Can you imagine how it would feel to be someone who thought that actually reading a book was too much work? Can you imagine being somebody who thought that the greatest invention of humankind, the written word, was either obsolete or unworthy of their time?
People have died for books. People have died for reading. Books have brought down governments and changed the world order, and sparked ideas that are still felt to this day. And that’s not good enough for the life hackers. They have to find a short cut. How poisonous — how sad.
Blinkist is reading in the same way a multivitamin is a meal and looking at your friend’s Instagram is hanging out with them. I absolutely despise the whole concept. It’s 100x better to take 1 minute a day and read just 1 book a year than to waste that minute swallowing a summary that tears apart a work of art someone spent months or years of their life working on.