“What is going on with me? I am about to become an analphabet” I came to such a conclusion two years ago whilst staring at a bookshelf in my home library. It was packed with books I had bought five years earlier and had never even opened.
Back in school I used to read all the time. It took me only three days to read “Lord of the rings” while I was still in the primary school. In high school I found a list of the most important books of the XX century and read each of them one by one.
Books have helped me understand myself and others. They enriched my vocabulary, which significantly improved my communication skills. A love of literature, that I inherited from my parents and then further developed thanks to my high school teacher, Mr Waszak, encouraged me to get a Bachelor’s degree in linguistics!
When I jumped into a full time job right after high school, my reading habit got replaced with learning from everyday challenges and mimicking other peoples’ successful behavior.
I got stuck with that mindset for a while, reading less and less. And then finally/eventually the day came when I took that glimpse at the bookshelf and realized that I had read less than 10 books in a year!
The reading system
What a shame! All I felt was uncomfortable emptiness, guilt… a simmering itch to rebuild my habit. I knew I wanted to put books back on a pedestal, but had no clue how to bring that idea to life. It took me a few months of experimentation to come up with a reading system that I have used since then. It works as follows.
I. Choose a book
If you have not read much in a while you may realize that your former genre of choice does not apply to your new self. So feel free to experiment. Today I enjoy biographies, which used to bore me, while I read much less fiction, which used to be my favorite.
The book selection process that I use:
I note down titles mentioned in other books, recommended by friends or quoted by mentors.
I verify this list by scanning through reviews written by other readers on goodreads.com (an online book community). I hardly ever read books with an average grade below 4.0.
I add selected titles to my “Want to read” list. This is where I look each time I am about to order books.
II. Choose your form
Don’t start with a book that feels heavy. I am serious! It is easier to start small. I recommend selecting one that is no longer than 250 pages. You will maintain focus and complete it with ease. This little accomplishment will give you the strength to make another step on your way to establishing a reading habit.
Test different formats. I read mostly paperback copies — they are easy to carry and affordable. I often listen to Audible audiobooks while commuting. I never got used to e-books. The screen beam irritates me and… I miss turning pages. Also I cannot share them easily with a friend (unless she or he uses a Kindle).
III. Define your time
You may say – I want to read books, but I just don’t have time to actually do that. This is exactly what I kept telling to myself before I got back into the habit of regular reading. Start with finding short slots of time that you can fill in with writing without changing your established schedule.
In the car or Uber – this is where I listen to fiction — it is the right time for me to enjoy literature and unwind. It is a great mental break on the way to a meeting. Sometimes I even stay in the car for a while after arrival to finish a chapter that really intrigued me. A book I recently finished and enjoyed is “Dune” by Frank Herbert.
I read biographies and essays right before falling asleep. You can always put aside 15 minutes for reading before turning the lights off. It serves as a great replacement to staring at a smartphone, scrolling useless content or thinking about things to do. I highly recommend starting with “You must be joking, Mr Feynman!” an autobiography of a Nobel Prize winner in physics.
While on holiday I take my time to digest inspiring reads. This is a great time to rethink both personal and professional goals . I get so excited that I sometimes read even during breakfast, which can sometimes drive my companions crazy. Recent holiday inspirations include: “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight, “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and “Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
IV. Don’t let perfectionism thwart your habit
If you are reading this you probably are a self-growth driven perfectionist who needs to achieve goals and enjoys ticking off tasks on to-do lists. I know perfectionism and it doesn’t necessarily help in establishing new habits. Just a few notes that will make your life easier:
To NOT finish a book is OK. If you don’t feel engaged after 50-100 pages put it aside and start something else. Feeling obliged to finish what you have started can build negative mental associations with reading that should become fun. Return this book or give it away — maybe you will find someone else fascinating.
Feed your pragmatic monster. I always read with a pencil ready to underline and annotate. I write down on the front page whatever I find interesting by pointing to a certain page and adding a short comment. If I feel that a book was certainly valuable to me I compose a one page document with major take-aways, that I can share with my team.
Give yourself a choice and treat the thing lightly. I usually buy books in bundles. I order a few titles at once, look at them when they arrive and start from the one that intuition draws me to. That gives me the notion of spontaneity and lightness of choice. Moreover I tend to be reading a few books at a time. This is how I fill every moment of reading yet still feel the diversity.
V. Find more reasons to do it
If you need more encouragement on the way to build a reading habit — remember that books are a great small talk topic. Especially when talking to strangers doesn’t come naturally to you or you love to share your findings with others. Talking about books indirectly delivers a message that you are a person that wants to keep up-to-date and cares about personal growth.
I also find literature is the cheapest way to learn from others. For 10-20 bucks you can mimic someone’s way of thinking and learn their insights. Anytime and anywhere you want.
Moreover – books are a beautiful gift and a way to bring value to another person’s life. I love lending my books… even though they tend not to come back.
If you happen to be recruiting people — ask your candidate about the last three books she or he read. It can help you establish a conversation on a different level and also help both of you understand other viewpoints and values.
What business-related reads may I recommend? Those three titles I read recently can be useful to every leader:
1. “Hard Thing about Hard Things” — an amazing story about building business, dealing with people and overcoming challenges by one of the world’s leading venture capitalists – Ben Horowitz. Honest, entertaining and free of sugar coating.
2. “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” — shows negotiating through the lens of a veteran FBI hostage negotiator – Chris Voss – who has been dealing with kidnappers for over 30 years. What I enjoyed most about this book was the set of psychological strategies to be used as the top layer before getting to the well known rational strategies. Interestingly, Voss smartly challenges some of the most popular negotiation techniques.
3. “How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know” — it provides you with data to understand what really matters in marketing and brand building. For example — why you probably shouldn’t build a loyalty program. I have personally seen Byron Sharp’s ideas at work in a major company and was really amazed with the results.
For more reading ideas visit my profile at goodreads.com and find out what I read and what I am about to read.
The first step
I am sure that most of you have never experienced a reading crisis like myself. I believe though that in times of overwhelming clickbait titles, distracting real-time notifications and constant pressure to be your best self, it is not easy to focus on a long read.
If you have decided to take that challenge — choose a short book that you are really interested in and decide on a specific time and place that you will be enjoying it. If your first choice happens to be boring, don’t give up. Try another one. Finding your way in the literary world is a journey in itself. Start today and build that reading habit.
Please share below the title of a book that has inspired you. It can help others (including myself).