How I read 125 books last year — A guide by a behavior designer

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

So I read 125 books last year… Crazy? Tell me about it. In a couple of years, I’ve gone from reading 5 books per year to increase my reading by 25x. So due to popular demand, I thought I’d share my strategy and help you can get some good reading done in 2018.

My grand experiment.

I spend my working days as a behavioral designer and have previously also worked as a habit coach. Much like some scientists from action movies (think Bruce Banner or Norman Osborn), I’ll admit that I’m also inclined to some self-experimentation. This means I have pretty much tried and seen it all when it comes building habits and creating lasting behavior changes (luckily without turning green).

So for the last couple of years, one of my many self-experiments has been to see how I could increase the number of books that I read. At the same time, I also wanted to make sure that I still get the most out of every single book, not sacrificing reading quality for quantity. I now feel like I’ve done that and I hope to pass on my formula of success to you.

The five pillars of reading success

So here is the formula that I have developed through professional and personal experience. There is nothing groundbreaking here, yet I am confident that if you apply all of these five simple steps, you should be well on your way to reaching your reading goals for the year.

1. Make reading ridiculously easy
Start by making it easy to read. This simply means finding a way to always have a book at arms distance. This could mean leaving a book on the bedside table or always having one in your bag. If carrying a book feels cumbersome consider getting an E-reader (like the Kindle or Kobo) or just download a reading app on your phone or tablet (I use the Kindle app). Either way, you should never find yourself in a situation of where you want to read, but are not able to.

Photo by Thomas William on Unsplash

Making it easy to read also means removing some of the things that might make it hard. When you read, consider putting your phone on silent and removing other distractions which might prevent you from getting into your reading flow.

Making it easy for me has been a combination of the above. When I am traveling or commuting, I do my readings on my iPad for convenience sake. I still enjoy reading from paperbacks, so I always have one on my bedside table which I usually read before I go to bed. I also subscribe to an audiobook service (audible) which means I always have access to a great audiobook to listen to on-the-go, for example, in the car, at the gym or when I’m going for a walk. As you can see; wherever I go, I always have a book to read.

2. Make reading a habit.
Reading becomes easier if you do it on a regular basis. Start by taking a look at your calendar and ask yourself what time during the day/week would be a good time to read. In other words, see what regular space of time you would consider dedicating to reading on a daily or weekly basis. This could be anything from part of your evenings to time during your commute or your weekend mornings.

Once you’ve decided when you want to read, say “weekday evenings before bed”, then you want to set a trigger to make sure you don’t forget. Triggers are a form of call-to-action to help us make sure we are nudged to actually do what we plan to do — in this case read. I recommend that you create two types of triggers:

  1. Trigger event: Try to piggyback your new reading habit on an already established habit. It could be as simple as “after I brush me teeth in the evening, then I go read in bed” or “after I’ve made my morning coffee, then I sit down and read a few pages.”
  2. Trigger reminder: To really make sure you don’t forget it helps to have a good reminder in place. This could be a calendar notification, a post-it note or simply leaving the book clearly visible and close to where you plan to read, for example on the bedside table if you intend to read before bed.
Photo by Lukas from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-of-computer-keyboard-on-table-317353/

You can plan out your reading time as it suits you best. Some like to read a little bit every day, for example in the mornings, and other like to binge read once a week (more on this next).

3. Find a way to read that suits you
Everyone is different, and this means that you will have to figure out not only what types of books that suit you, but also how you read them.

  • Some like the convenience of a Kindle while others love the feeling of turning physical pages in a paperback.
  • Some people love binge reading on Sunday afternoons; others like to read in shorter chunks every day.
  • Some read quite fast, while others (like myself) are quite slow readers, often re-reading the same page and frequently pausing for reflection.
  • Some people love audiobooks while others find it hard to concentrate and prefer reading from a page.

When it comes to reading, you simply need to find a way that suits you. It doesn’t matter when or how other people read— you are not them. What worked great for Einstein might not work for you. So don’t worry about how others read, instead just focus on figuring out when reading feels most fun and enjoyable for you.

As an example, One weird reading rule I have is that for books that I read for knowledge I mostly read them on my Kindle (to highlight and take notes) and books that I read more for pleasure (for example fiction) I like to listen to as audiobooks. I’m also a slow reader, and I don’t believe in speed reading. For me, one book that I’m able to remember and use to improve my life beats speed reading hundreds of books that I forget as quickly as I finished reading them.

While having read 125 books feels like a lot in hindsight, it never felt like I did that much reading last year. For me, finding a way to read that I enjoyed plus adding the consistency of reading a little bit every day really made all the difference in the end.

Tip: You also don’t always need to finish a book. While I finish reading 90–95% of my books, there are still books that I don’t finish. If you don’t like it, then don’t force yourself to finish it. Many people fail their reading goals because they stubbornly force themselves to stick to finishing a book they don’t like. This leads them to start reading less and less and eventually finding more fun things to do instead.

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4. Set progressive goals
Once you’ve created the process of how and when you will read, it can be helpful to set goals of how many books you want to read. I feel hesitant to recommend this as many people often abuse goals by focusing too much on them (start skim-reading really short books), or they set unrealistic goals that just sound good (“I like to read a million books”). I still include this because setting good goals can be very motivating and it is definitely something that has helped me increase the amount of books that I read.

So the first thing you need to do is to consider status quo — how much are you reading now and how many books have you been reading in previous years? If you already have a reading habit and read 20 books last year, then reading 30 books this year is very achievable. If you, on the other hand, only read 3 books last year than reading 30 books becomes quite unrealistic.

So when setting your reading goal, make sure it is in that sweet spot between being attainable and challenging. If you really want to increase your amount of reading, one rule of thumb is to still limit your goal to 2–3x of what you did last year. If you’ve read around 5 books in 2017, then 10–15 books would be a good goal this year. The year after you can then look at reading 20–30 books. In other words, progression is key.

This is how my reading progression has looked like over the years:

  • 2013: 5 books (no goal)
  • 2014: 9 books (no goal)
  • 2015: 25 books (goal 20) — Year I started my reading habit.
  • 2016: 55 books (goal 53)
  • 2017: 125 books (goal 100)

For me, there is no case to be made for the idea that if you shot for the moon and miss you’ll land among the stars. Unattainable goals only create unrealistic expectations that become impossible to live up to and demotivating. Make your goals realistic and take one step at a time.

Only 16% of people on Goodreads reached their reading goal last year. Meaning 84% set too high goals.

PS. I say it again; goals always come after process. You need a good process first in order to eventually reach them.

5. Read great books
Finally, the truth is this; with all the above strategies in place, I would still not have read a single book if it wasn't for all of the books that I genuinely found interesting and enjoyed reading. When it comes to behavior, you can force yourself to do a lot of things in the short-term, but you are likely to only do the things you enjoy in the long-term (part of why most diets fail).

So a good start to reading 100 books is to start reading books you genuinely find interesting or entertaining. You might be questioning whether there really are that many great books out there. Funny enough, this was what I was worried about. After having read over 50 books in 2016, I was afraid that I might run out of good books in 2017 — oh how wrong I was. In fact, the opposite was true.

I now have a reading list of over 1000 books, of which at least 60% are books that I genuinely can't wait to read. We are simply spoiled to live at a time where the accumulation of hundreds of years and innumerous great writers have created a never-ending smorgasbord of amazing books available at the touch of our fingertips.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

So how do I find these great books? Well, I use a mix of gathering recommendations from friends, looking through Goodreads and following a couple of good online sites and newsletters. Below are some good places to start.

  1. I’m actually working on making a review of my favorite books from last year. It will include my top 3's in categories ranging from Psychology to Biographies, Science Fiction and Self-improvement. If interested, sign up for my newsletter.
  2. Join a book club. I was fortunate to be part of a great book club in 2016 as my reading habit was beginning to take off. Not only did the book club provide me with some incredible book recommendation and motivate me to read more, but it also gave me the chance to meet and connect with some amazing people. Check out meetup.com (if in Sydney, join this one).
  3. Join Goodreads (think IMDB for books, but more awesome). Great site which also lets you log and share what you read with others. You can see all the 125 books that I read in 2017 here.
  4. Ryan Holiday has both a great reading list and monthly readings newsletter that has supplied me with plenty of great books over the years.
  5. Design Luck have created a great reading list divided into various subcategories.

For more tips on learning how to get the most of reading a book I also recommend reading this great article from the Farnam Street Blog: https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/how-to-read-a-book/

Bonus: Print and put up this amazing poster by Austin Kleon.

I hope this article proved helpful and I wish you a year filled with many great books. Happy reading :)

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