Reading challenge: How to read more than 40 books every year
If I could offer two pieces of advice to my younger self, it would be to travel more and to read more. Seeing as travel is off the cards for most of us during the current troubled times, I’ve been dedicating more and more time to reading over the last twelve months or so. Here's what I've learned.
Until recently, I wasn’t much of a reader. I used to spend way more time reading social media feeds than books. Then, in January of 2020, I decided to set a reading challenge for myself. I aimed for 40 books (a ridiculously high number) and ended up reading 24. It was my best year by far!
This year, I set the same objective, but now I am confident that I can achieve and probably surpass it. At the end of the first quarter, I’m already five books ahead of schedule.
Is reading just a vanity metric?
There is a reason why, when asked about the key to success, Warren Buffett said, “Read 500 pages every day. That is how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
Books are sources of wisdom. And if reading is so important (which it is), it stands to reason that we ought to measure it. What gets measured gets done.
One of the biggest criticisms that I see towards people who read a lot and share their reading journey publicly is that they only do it to score points on a “socially accepted vanity metric.” To those critics, I say that they’re missing the point.
Vanity metrics are measurements that have no direct correlation to the results you want to achieve. They might make you feel good, but there’s no substance behind them. Marketing is rich in vanity metrics - like having an increasing number of followers that never engage or even see your posts anymore. For the number of books read to be a vanity metric, there would have to be no benefits to reading large amounts of books.
On the contrary, I have reason to believe that reading fuels knowledge, boosts creative thinking, and improves writing skills. And the more you practice, the better results you get. As George R. R. Martin said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only once.”
Quantity versus quality
I have observed that in many cases, the "quality versus quantity" dilemma is not worth worrying about because quantity inevitably leads to quality. It might even be necessary to achieve it.
As much as you would like to think that every book you read will become a favorite, you will occasionally pick up a dud. Reading more books helps you to power through so that even if you struggle through one book and don’t enjoy it, the chances are that your next one is going to be better. When you read enough, you’ll start cultivating a habit of DNFing (DNF stands for “did not finish”) books that you’re not enjoying. Life is too short for bad books!
Quantity also boosts diversity. Some people even set themselves diversity challenges. Perhaps, each month, you can read one book from an LGBTQIA+ author and one from a translated author. It will push you to read different books, authors, and genres and expose you to novel ideas.
In their book (see!), David Bayles and Ted Orland tell the story of a ceramics teacher who divided his class into two groups.
Group A was judged on quantity and measured by the weight of their work.
Group B, on the other hand, only had to make one pot during the semester. The second group was to be rated by the quality of their work.
You can guess what happened next. It turned out that the best pottery was created by the group graded for quantity, not quality.
The authors explain, “While the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end, had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
Reading books is like sculpting clay. The more you read, the more you reap the rewards.
How to read more
Learning how to read more is like learning any other skill. Practice makes perfect, and you’ll find that the more often you read, the faster you’re able to do it. That’s how people are eventually able to “speed-read”.
It helps to have a dedicated time each day to spend reading and then sticking to it until it becomes a habit and a part of your routine. Some people read while eating their breakfast, some read on their lunch break at work, and some read in bed before they go to sleep. The key is to find something that works for you.
One thing to mention is that you can’t read if you don’t have a book with you, so it’s a good idea to carry one around at all times, even if it’s just on your phone. You can read when you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or sitting on the train.
If you’re competitive like I am, you’ll probably find that the number one way to read more books is to set yourself a reading challenge. The cool thing about this kind of competition is that you’re not competing with other people - you’re trying to beat your own personal best.
Choose a yearly target that’s ambitious but achievable and track it regularly. Every time you finish a book, check your score. And if you can get ahead of your target, even better. I love that feeling because it means that I have some breathing room if I don’t get a chance to read. More often than not, knowing that I don’t have to read means that I’m more likely to want to read.
You don’t have to make this objective public. However, for some people, that can be the extra push they need. Do whatever works for you, but either way, consider using Goodreads. It has a built-in tracker that will do all of the hard work for you.
Finding the time to read
You will learn that it’s easier to create a new habit if you have a space to do it and a consistent trigger. If you plan to read before bed, you should make sure you have a good bedside lamp, that you keep your book next to it, and that you go to bed half an hour earlier than usual to give yourself time to read.
Reading before bed is a no-brainer because it can help to disconnect and unwind and make it easier to get a good night’s sleep. Books can even help to send you to sleep if they’re dry enough.
If you commute to work, you can read during your commute, and that’s true even if you’re a driver, thanks to audiobooks. Audiobooks are the secret weapon for any reading challenge because they allow you to squeeze another book into what would otherwise be dead time.
As well as listening to audiobooks while driving, you can also listen to them when you’re doing the housework or carrying out any other time-consuming task that doesn’t require mental focus. I usually speed them up and listen to them at 1.25x speed so I can score faster.
Reading several books at once
This tip is a personal choice, and it might not work for you. I find that reading multiple books at a time means that if I temporarily lose interest in one, I can quickly switch over to another. I always have something that I can pick up, regardless of the mood I’m in.
With the rare exception of a book that grabs me from start to finish, I usually read a couple of books in parallel and jump from one to another every day. For example, I might have a book for the daytime, an audiobook for the commute, and one of those dense non-fiction books for when I’m winding down before bed.
Joining a book club
Abraham Lincoln said, “My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” I’m not sure whether he ever joined a book club, but if he had, then he would have found a new best friend every month.
I don’t have much experience with book clubs, but I know that they’ve worked out well for some of my friends. They can be a great source of inspiration and recommendations if you’ve set yourself a 40 book challenge but don’t know what to read next.
Joining a book club makes the challenge more social, and it puts you in touch with people who will both support you and hold you accountable. Being able to discuss a book after you read it also adds another valuable dimension to the act of reading.
My reading recommendations bot
Just because you read many books, it doesn’t mean that you have time to waste on bad ones. You still want to focus on the books that are worth reading, and worthiness is inherently subjective.
One of the best ways to find new books to read is to receive recommendations from people you know and trust. When you find someone that always suggests books that you love, treasure that relationship! It constantly beats any algorithmic recommendation engine.
I’ve built a book recommendation bot that automatically recommends my favorite books, what I’m currently reading, and more! The recommendations are my own, the bot simply automates the sharing process.
Check it out here or click the chat button on the bottom right corner of this page - it's pretty cool.
You can do it!
Since I started keeping track a little over a year ago, I've finished reading 39 books. The reading habit has solidified, and I could probably stop the count, but I'll keep challenging myself to read more.
Anyone can do it, really. I got started with non-fiction books that were closely related to marketing, startups, and leadership. Then, once the habit formed, I began expanding into other domains. I picked up books on whatever topics interested me and also started reading more fiction. I can't wait to see what comes next.
I couldn't be happier with the results, and I know that if I can do it, so can you. Happy reading! 📚