If your doctor suggested a cheap medication that could increase verbal intelligence, make you a better leader, reduce stress, and fend off Alzheimer’s, would you find a way to take it every day?
As it turns out, that “medication” is reading. As John Coleman notes in Harvard Business Review, reading can deliver all of the above benefits and more. Yet a quarter of U.S. adults haven’t read a book in the past year.
Americans actually want to read. In fact, 35% of people indicated it was the activity they wished they could do more. If you fall into this camp, you might have encountered advice such as “carry a book everywhere you go” or “read a paragraph while your lunch reheats in the microwave.”
But time management experts and real-world data both suggest that making time to read isn’t about forcing it into the nooks and crannies of your schedule. It requires sustainable systems and habits.
Here are five practical strategies you can implement immediately to reach your reading goals.
1. Read first thing in the morning
Picking up a book, newspaper, or magazine as soon as you wake up ensures your reading time won’t be impeded by inevitable distractions, like email, phone calls, or errands.
A survey conducted by RootMetrics found that almost two-thirds of Americans check their phones within ten minutes of waking up. Replacing scrolling with reading can be a tough habit to break, but for busy people, early morning is often the only time that’s completely under control.
“The day so easily gets away from us,” says New York Times bestselling author Ryan Holiday in his guide to reading more. “Well-intentioned plans fall apart. Our willpower evaporates. So it’s key that we prioritize the important things and it’s key that we habituate doing them early.”
If you can’t find time to read in your current morning routine, you can always make time by setting your alarm earlier than usual. Even if you wake up 15 minutes earlier each day, that’s enough time to read 450 pages over the course of a month — way better than zero.
2. Designate reading time on your calendar
In a 2015 report for Behavioral Science & Policy, researchers concluded that making plans — not lists — increases the likelihood of people following through on important intentions (such as reading).
“Prompts to make plans are simple, inexpensive, and powerful interventions that help people do what they intend to get done,” the researchers wrote.
For busy people, leaving reading time up to chance is a recipe for frustration because it can easily get pushed off the priority list when other tasks inevitably pop up. However, proactively blocking off an hour each day on your calendar to read can dramatically increase the chances of sticking to your goal.
Remember, blocking off time to read shouldn’t be confused with adding it to your to-do list. As Kevin Kruse, New York Times best-selling author and LEADx founder, points out, to-do lists don’t account for time. “When we have a long list of tasks, we tend to tackle those that can be completed quickly in a few minutes, leaving the longer items left undone.”
Instead, block out time on your calendar to ensure you have the proper time for your priorities.
3. Join or start a book club to hold yourself accountable
When willpower and time-blocking aren’t enough to propel your reading habit, you can leverage the power of a group to stay accountable. That’s where book clubs come in.
“Book clubs make it easier to commit to systematic reading habits,” says John Coleman in Harvard Business Review. This is primarily because there’s a social consequence (albeit a minor one) for not living up to your reading commitment: you won’t be able to actively participate in weekly or monthly discussions, and therefore will feel left out.
New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin echoes this point, noting that joining a group is one of the most effective ways to build good habits and, most importantly, hold yourself accountable.
Your book club doesn’t have to be hyper-organized. It can be as simple as rounding up a few coworkers, choosing a book to read each month, and scheduling a time to chat each week. You can host your book club via Zoom, in a Slack channel, even in-person if it’s convenient for your group!
“If you believe in the benefits of reading but have a hard time developing a habit of reading, public commitment to a group might be just the accountability you need,” says Coleman.
4. Swap a portion of your screen time for reading
If you’ve convinced yourself you’re too busy to read, make a time log for a week, or simply look at the breakdown of your screen time on your phone. How many minutes (or hours) per day do you spend scrolling social media or watching TV shows you don’t really like anyway?
If you reach for a book instead of a device during those fallow times, the compound effect of your decisions will add up quickly.
“Read for at least a few minutes first before you turn on the screens,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. “Most likely you'll keep reading, but even if you don't, reading for 20 minutes first, 4-5 times per week, will add quite a bit of reading time to your life.”
If you find your willpower isn’t strong enough, consider setting time limits on your most-used apps and use the extra time to dig into a book or educational article. Even if you only reclaim two hours per week, that gives you time to read 120 pages — about two books per month.
5. Read whatever you want and enjoy
Having a stack of books or a list of articles you’re genuinely excited to dig into will almost certainly increase the likelihood you’ll actually read them. This might seem obvious, but don’t feel compelled to read bestsellers or the classics if they don’t interest you!
Want to read a sci-fi novel instead of the latest pop psychology bestseller? Go for it. Your brain will still glean the same benefits. As Laura Vanderkam points out, reading what you feel you are “supposed” to read is a momentum killer.
“The upside of being done with college is that you can read what you want,” says Laura Vanderkam. “You will never read everything out there, so you may as well choose books you enjoy. If you don't like it after a few pages, let it go. Save that time for something more motivating.”
If you’re struggling to find solid reading material, start asking for recommendations from people you admire and trust, whether a coworker, industry thought leader, or your next-door neighbor.
Make reading a commitment, not a decision
Your brain doesn’t like making decisions all day. This is the foundational idea behind decision fatigue, which posits that the more choices you make, the more likely you are to become impulsive and take shortcuts.
“If you have a particularly decision-heavy day at work, then you come home feeling drained,” says James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. “You might want to go to the gym [or read], but your brain would rather default to the easy decision: sit on the couch.”
The key to preventing decision fatigue from obstructing your reading habits is being proactive: make a plan for what, when, and where you’re going to read. Don’t leave such an important activity up to chance. Your brain will thank you later.
How do you make time to read? Let us know on Twitter @reclaimai.