How to Improve Your Reading Habits

A young man recently sent me an interesting e-mail. “One of my biggest problems,” he said, “is disciplining myself to read books. My problem is not that I lack good books (I have way more than I need), but that I lack the discipline and determination to read them. I tend to start in one, am really engaged in it, then I find myself picking up another, and another, and another....and I never actually finish the book I intended to finish…Any suggestions for me? What has worked for you in consistently plowing through books?” This is a good question, so I decided to turn the answer into a blog post.

It’s Okay to Not Finish Books!

You should know that I also start lots and lots of books that I don’t finish. Every year there are at least two dozen books that I start but never finish. But I would argue that being willing to drop books is the mark of a smart reader. Not every book you start is worth finishing.

Adjust Your Expectations to Match Your Season and Station in Life

My job allows me more reading time than most people get. Since I’m a pastor, my schedule is largely self-managed. And since I have to preach every week, I need to read a lot in order to stay fresh. So, I probably spend an average of 12-15 hours a week reading. But that’s more than most people could or should attempt. So, adjust your expectations to what is reasonable for your season and station in life. Before I was in full-time ministry (or had children!) I managed to read around 30-35 books a year. I think that’s manageable for most people. But even folks who just read one book a month get a lot of reading done over a decade. Figure out how many hours in a week you have for reading, and then plod along.

Don’t Be Afraid of Long-term reading Projects

I currently have at least four or five books going that will be multi-month, maybe even multi-year, reading projects. These are long books that aren’t easy to read, but I believe they are worth my time. So, I keep my place marked and whittle away an hour or two at a time, once or twice a month. There are some books that I will only be able to read if I take a slow pace. And I’m okay with that. I’ve got a friend who can knock out a 500 page book of theology in a week. He’s young, single, brilliant and can read three times faster than most people. That’s not me. I’m middle-aged (well nearly, I’m 37!), married with three kids, and don’t read particularly fast.

Redeem the Time

Buy up the nickels and dimes of time. I always have a book with me when I’m meeting people, and often get an extra 15 minutes to read while I’m waiting. I scan new books while sitting at traffic lights. I read almost every night for at least 15-20 minutes prior to bed. Those brief minutes here and there add up and help me read more.

Read Multiple Books at Once, but Focus on One or Two

Go ahead and read more than one book at a time, but focus on one or two. I actually don’t even know how many books I’ve got going right now. Maybe 15 or 20. But I’m actively working hard on one and have less than 100 pages left. I’ll finish it in a day or two. Then I’ll focus on one of the others I’ve been slowly working on and finish it. I usually focus on whichever book is most interesting to me and try to read a chapter or two a day until I’m finished. If a book really grabs me, I’ll sometimes read more in a day, devoting several hours at a time to it. But most of the time, my reading is piecemeal: a chapter here, a few pages there.

Read for both Breadth and Depth and Adjust Your Speed Accordingly

Read different books with different levels of speed. I skim some books and speed-read others. (A simple and learnable method for speed-reading can be found here.) Practice speed-reading on books that are easy to read (such as popular fiction), content you’re already familiar with, and books that you’re just skimming. This is one way to read for breadth. But some books deserve to be read slowly and repeatedly. For some books, the goal shouldn’t be to finish the book, but to learn as much as you can. For example, I’ve now worked through Jonathan Edwards’ classic The Religious Affections three times, once very slowly with a highlighter in hand, once a gentle but steady pace mingled with more self-examination and prayer, and once more quickly in conjunction with sermon preparation. I’ve done similar things John Owen’s books on mortification, temptation, and indwelling sin. And these books have benefited me far more than dozens of others I’ve read put together. So learn which books will help you the most and read them very slowly. Then read them again. Mastering a few is better than reading many. But it is good to read for both breadth and depth. So speed-read and skim books for breadth. And read slowly and multiple times for depth.

Eliminate Time Wasters and Unplug

Eliminate as many time-wasters as you can. These will vary from person to person, but most of us spend too much time watching TV, browsing the internet, and managing e-mail. We need to learn to unplug. Instead we should choose leisure activities that are genuinely recreational. These will enhance our overall productivity, including our ability to concentrate when reading. When tempted to waste away the hours watching television, turn it off and pick up a book instead. Make yourself start reading. When you do this, you will almost always end up reading for longer than you originally planned. Thirty minutes turns into an hour quickly. The hard part is shutting the other stuff off!


Unknown said...

Excellent advice! Will copy to my colleagues and students at church

Amrita said...

Dear Brian, Greetings from India.

I like your suggestions, very practical & stress relieving