I’ve been a subscriber of Audible for over five years, though for long stretches of time my downloads collected digital dust within the unopened app.
Growing up, I prided myself on being a reader. The word was not just a description, but an intrinsic part of my identity.
When summer time came around, my middle school would have an informal competition between the literary-inclined (read: nerds) for who could devour the most novels over the break. While I may not have quite stacked up to the more sophisticated eighth-graders (see: the guy next to me) my fifth-grade self enjoyed the friendly rivalry.
I read throughout high school too, often forgoing whatever book had been assigned for English 10 to instead read something that actually peaked my fifteen-year-old interest. While more fast-paced media like Youtube began taking on more of my daily attention, I still tore through novels — admittedly slower than before.
Then, I packed up and shipped off to university. Things changed. My relationship with reading became entirely focused on requirements. And unlike English 10, I couldn’t get by just skimming though them. I was forced to spend hours reading novels I wasn’t remotely interested in as well as an obscene amount of academic literature whose citations were often longer than the text itself. I dreaded it. I did it, but half-heartedly.
As a note, there were many classes I took — usually my favourite classes — whose readings I thoroughly enjoyed. Professors, you know who you are.
But the combination of slogging through text alongside the drain on my mental energy and time created a dangerous cocktail of circumstances that led to the worst thing that can happen to a passion: apathy.
I grew apathetic towards reading. I still considered myself a reader, but I didn’t really read. Story after story would go unfinished, or would only be completed after two, three, fours+ months of sporadic reading sessions. There were periods where I would return to a book after such a long wait that I had forgotten the plot, which would land it back on the shelf. I would make empty promises to it, like someone keeping a Tinder date on the hook after repeated ghosting. Next weekend we’ll hang out, I promise… as long as I don’t have anything more interesting to do.
In April, at the prompting of an Audible “you have six unused credits and won’t get any more unless you spend them” email, I downloaded a few books that peaked my interested and, for once, actually loaded one of them: Atomic Habits by James Clear. As a connoisseur of bad self-help books, I recognized the genuine difference in this one. I took notes, sometimes mental, sometimes typed haphazardly on my phone. Many of the points hit home, but two did in specific.
“Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. … After all, when your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.” — James Clear
This thought process aligned perfectly with what I considered to be true about myself already. I didn’t just love reading, I was a reader.
The author also talked about setting an “upper limit” for habits. This meant not only quantifying the minimum amount of [x] that you would expect yourself to perform during this habit, but also quantifying the maximum you would allow yourself to perform before stopping.
As the end of my undergraduate university experience rapidly approached and I looked towards the beginning of my Master’s degree, I began considering the type of person I wanted to be as a graduate student. I value a high level of discipline, and I decided to set myself the task of using my month and a half of freedom prior to the beginning of my graduate career to build habits. I sat down and thought hard about what I felt would be important habits to cultivate during this relatively short time period. One I chose was reading every day for 30 minutes.
I knew that sitting down and reading a book for 30 minutes wouldn’t be feasible — as much as it may sound like an excuse, it’s rare that I have 30 minutes during weekdays where I can’t find something important to do. Pressing tasks like cooking dinner, finishing work projects, or spending quality time with my partner would take precedent over reading a chapter of a novel. So instead of opening up a physical paperback, I decided audiobook listening would count. This choice checked off another one of James Clear’s habit building tips: make it easy.
That night as I cooked dinner, I listened to 30 minutes of an audiobook. I wanted to listen to more but instead turned it off and checked off the task on my habit tracker app. 30 minutes was my upper limit.
The next day, when I was driving to work, I chose the audiobook over my usual Spotify playlist, eager to continue at the place I’d begrudgingly stopped. Again, I hit my 30 minute mark and forced myself to close the app.
It was painful. I recognized a feeling that hadn’t been stirred a long time: the urge to binge read. To read and read and read — well, in this case, listen and listen and listen — until I was satisfied. But I didn’t let this trick me. I’d done this before. During summer holidays and Christmas vacations I had occasionally allowed myself to dive into one book, consume it in one sitting, and then feel like I’d fulfilled my quota. I’d let apathy take over again.
And so I kept listening in 30 minute increments. Two weeks later, after having reached seven hours of reading in 14 days, I increased my listening capacity to an hour a day. While my goal was still a 30 minute minimum, I wouldn’t shut the book off until an hour in if I so pleased. Other than a few particularly busy work days, I reached an hour every single day for the next two weeks.
I listened to just under 26 hours of audiobook in April, and thus far I’m at 14 hours in May. In a month and a half I’ve finished five books.
What are my takeaways from all of this? I have three.
- The older you get, the more that doing what you need gets in the way of what you love. This wasn’t really a surprise to me, but the next point was.
- The above fact often leads you to forget what you love, as you are forced to consider it as something that prevents you from doing what you need. It becomes a nuisance of its own.
- Combining doing what you need and doing what you love is the best way to build the habits that you want.
I need to brush my teeth and drive to work and cook dinner and fold the laundry. But I also need to feel like my identity — reader — is being fulfilled. And I just needed to be reminded that I love to read. So now, I listen to audiobooks as I brush my teeth and drive to work and cook dinner and fold the laundry. I am rekindling my love with reading, and my identity as a reader. The unintentional benefit of this is that I often find myself actually looking forward to doing menial chores, because it means I get to continue the story I hadn’t wanted to turn off earlier.
And now I let myself listen for as long as I’d like.