How I Built a Reading Habit as a Working Adult
I grew up surrounded by books… that I didn’t read.
Until recently, my record looked something like this:
It was not for lack of trying by my parents. The importance of reading was a message that rang loud and clear in my household. And my parents walked the talk. Despite being extremely frugal people, they spared no expense (or effort) with books. On some weekends, we would make 3-hour drives into the city just to get few new titles, whether from the library or a warehouse sale.
I was around books all the time, literally. Our house was strewn with piles of any reading material imaginable. A complete mess, but a conducive one to build reading habits. It worked for my brother and sister; both became avid readers since an early age.
But it was a different story with me. Was it lack of discipline? The early introduction to computer games? Some disposition to resist authority? Whatever the reason, I could barely get myself to open a book, let alone finish one.
In the years to come, my lack of reading would become a source of guilt and shame. It was engrained in me that reading was not only a virtue, but that it was a vice not to do it. So every time and I tried — and failed — I plunged deeper into a downward spiral of self-hate.
This article is my story of how I think I reversed this — in 7 lessons. It’s not a framework (for that, James Clear has good general guidance on habit-building). It’s what worked for me at the beginning of my journey.
#1 It’s never too late — but if you can, start earlier
I started at 24 years old, when I was out of university and into my first permanent job. As with new beginnings, the possibilities felt endless. Reading a few books? Are you kidding me? I’ll do that, and write one!
This surge of self-belief, however delusional, got the engine started. But as a working adult, the odds weren’t great. I worked about 11 to 12 hours daily (how else was I going to make that proverbial dent!?). After about 7 hours’ of sleep, I had 5 hours left each day.
5 hours is more than enough time for books. My only problem was that reading was only one of many goals — all of which was set to make me the modern Renaissance man, sculpted like a Spartan, and pretty much the next big thing — nay, the biggest — the world has ever seen.
My point is this: despite my eventual success at reading regularly, it could well have failed, like many of the other goals on that list. I was just too ambitious.
Lesson 1: It’s harder to start reading as a working adult. If it really matters to you — and arguably, it should — you’re more likely to succeed if you have less competing goals. Be conscious of that strong — but temporary — surge of motivation from new beginnings, at the star of your career, year, etc.
#2 Distractions were minimal, and I kept it that way
I think this played the biggest role in getting me to read regularly.
At the time, the smartphone was my only way to access the Internet outside of work (the Wi-Fi at the room I rented was spotty at best). But being a cheapskate, my phone had a basic data plan of only 1GB per month (translation: 4 hours of YouTube at 480p, less than 8 minutes a day).
Being an introvert, I also didn’t crave a vibrant social life. It was hard to have one anyway, because I didn’t own a car then. I lived near a train station, but public transport connectivity was limited (as anyone in Kuala Lumpur will tell you).
My options for leisure were thus limited. At some level, I turned to books not because I wanted to, but because I had no other choice.
Lesson 2: Remove distractions ruthlessly, at least for a prolonged period. I admit that my circumstances — while effective — were a little extreme (not as extreme as a certain famous civil rights leader though!). You don’t have to go so far, but every distraction removed is another step closer to making reading a habit.
#3 I set a goal based on where I was in my journey
I had one goal and one rule only:
- Goal: Read one book every month. If each book was about 300 pages, I figured I would need to read only 10 pages a day. It was easy, but still felt great whenever I surpassed it. To be clear, 12 books a year is not much; I found out recently that Bill Gates reads 50 books a year. But I’m glad I didn’t know this then. It probably would have made me feel inadequate about my own goals — which would make it easier for me to give up.
- Rule: Read only one book at any time. Some say that you should stop reading a book if you don’t enjoy it. I think that’s fine, if you already have a habit of reading. For me, following this rule meant that I didn’t allow myself excuses for missing my goal.
Lesson 3: Set goals that work for you. Measure what they mean in terms of daily commitments; make sure these are doable. Avoid unfair comparisons, such as with those who are years ahead of you in their reading journey.
#4 I made my progress public
On my Facebook, I created a photo album called “The Bookshelf”. Every time I finished a book, I would post a picture of the book. I would specify when I started, when I finished — and if I knew — what book I planned to read next.
This helped in three ways:
- My progress — however small — was visible. The bigger the photo album, the more motivated I became.
- It was a place where friends and acquaintances could encourage, suggest and comment. These interactions deepened my commitment to my goals.
- Completion came with commitment. Having “what’s next” as part of my update reminded me not to rest on my latest achievement.
Lesson 4: Make your progress tangible, visualise it, and show others too. Do this until your reading habits are stable.
#5 I wasn’t picky with what I read (when I started)
Well, to begin with, I couldn’t be picky if I wanted to . Most of the time, I didn’t know what was ‘good’ or what I would like or dislike. Also, I wanted to avoid exerting too much energy trying to decide what to read. I wanted to reserve it for actually reading.
To get started, this is what I did instead:
- Asked for recommendations on my social media. In no time, titles and authors poured in. The suggestions lasted for more than a year!
- Went to massive warehouse sales. With deep discounts, I wasn’t worried about getting something I didn’t like. I literally judged books by their covers. This made the process easier. By chance, I even stumbled upon a few gems that I ended up enjoying.
- Looked for a few titles related to my work. At the time, my topic of choice was financial crises — interesting to me, and relevant to my work as a regulatory policy analyst.
Lesson 5: Don’t worry about what you’ll enjoy when you start. Take a leap of faith and clarify your preferences along the way. For some assurance, consult a few experts first and trust them. Trust your gut too (about what matters to you).
#6 I read anywhere and anytime
I carried a book with me almost everywhere I went. Whenever I was idle or bored, I read. For example:
- Waiting for the train, something or someone? Read.
- On the train? Read.
- 10 minutes of lunchtime left? Read.
It helped that I had modest goals; even if I only read just a few pages at any one time, I saw those as big strides towards my goal.
Lesson 6: Have a book with you everywhere you go. If you’re comfortable reading off a screen, even better!
#7 I alternated between heavier and lighter material
Like running, some books are a marathon. I gravitated towards those because I learned more. But I lacked the stamina to keep doing it over and over again. To manage this, I made some deliberate choices to my sequences of books. The heavy stuff (‘marathons’) was always followed by lighter reads (‘sprints’).
Here’s the thing about “lighter reads” — they don’t always mean shorter books. On any given subject, most authors write about similar things. This meant there was a compounding effect for reading; the more familiar you are with a topic, the more likely any book on that topic becomes a “lighter read”.
This helped me read more efficiently, as I became better at deciding what to skim and what to pay greater attention to. By slipping more familiar topics into my reading plan, I had opportunities to catch my breath, so to speak, while regaining momentum.
Lesson 7: Have a balanced reading list. Mix things up — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose. Identify books on topics or themes that you’re more familiar with, and read those every now and then.
A closing message — don’t obsess over the goal; focus on the underlying behaviours and your journey
When I started in 2013, I read over 30 books — almost 10x what I used to read. That number has actually declined a lot since then:
If you made it this far, you might be thinking — why am I still reading this, when it looks like this guy is regressing!?
Well, there are three reasons why I beg to differ.
One, my reading habit has stabilised. I no longer feel like I’m doing it because I have to, but because I want to. After a prolonged period away from books, I start to feel like something is missing in my life! Reading is no longer something I do, it is part of who I am.
Two, numbers only reveal what is being measured. Over time, I’ve shifted my focus from the quantity of books read to the quality of reading in three ways:
- In planning my reading list, I aim to have a larger share of heavier material than before.
- I synthesise what I read, trying to go beyond writing summaries to sharing my views about what I read.
- On topics related to my work, I identify insights that are relevant to my organisation, and what it means for us.
These aren’t measured by the number of books read, but it’s progress too. Consider this revised chart:
Naturally, this shift in focus takes additional time and energy. In a way, these are new habits that I am trying to build to improve my existing reading habits. If it means that I am reading ‘less’, I don’t mind at all.
Three, it’s about the journey! There are plenty of people that I read more than I do, and many as well who do so while retaining what they read.
And that’s okay.
Because I know where I started, where I am now… and things can always get better from here. You can do it too.
Are you trying to trying to build a habit of reading books? Or are you already a habitual reader with similar — or different — experiences? I would love to hear your thoughts.