You Start Books and Never Finish Them. This Is What You Should Do
You are not the only one.
Today is the day. You’ve committed to developing the habit of reading. You choose a book and you begin. The next day is a little bit harder, but you gather every bit of will power you have left and you pick up the book once again. The third day goes by and you don’t even notice. You had to work late and traffic crushed whatever little reading spirit you had. On the fourth day, you don’t remember where you left your book. You’ll find it tomorrow. Finally, on the fifth day, you remember your commitment and try to continue with your book, but the truth is you don’t feel like reading this one at all. So you find another book and you begin…
When you realize it, you’ve started 13 books. And every book was abandoned about 17 to 30 pages in. You don’t remember the last time you finished a book.
No, you are not the only person who has started dozens of books and never finished them.
This phenomenon is just a symptom of a deeper problem: humans get bored easily. The shine of a new book captivates us for a very short time. When things get familiar we get annoyed; we quickly look for something else to catch our eye and satisfy that craving of newness we just can’t get rid of.
I don’t have anything against reading several books at the same time. In fact, that’s my preference. My “now reading” list on Goodreads usually has about 5 books. Why? Because finishing each one is going to take me a while, and I don’t want to spend every moment reading just one thing. I like to have a variety of choices. Sometimes I want to read science and sometimes I want to get lost in a novel. I might have the energy to ponder deep ideas or I might just want to lay down and relax with an easy read.
Reading several books at the same time is not the problem. The problem is our impulsivity. When we get excited about a book we persevere, but as soon as we find some resistance we give up.
What can you do to deal with the “thousand started books” problem? Here are six ideas that can help you.
“Don’t you get confused?” That’s the most common question I get when I say I like reading several books at once. I find this question a bit weird. After all, nobody asks that when you say you’re watching several shows on Netflix.
Be that as it may, if you find reading several books at once confusing, what you’re missing is probably variety.
If you are reading two (or more) books at the same time, try to avoid themes or genres that are too similar. Try reading a classic novel and a contemporary book on parenting, for example; you could maybe read a biography and something that helps you build a skill for work.
There will be occasions in which you won’t be in the mood to read a certain genre. If your books are too similar, you won’t be in the mood to read either and the easiest thing will be to start yet another book you’ll never finish… or worse, the easiest thing will be not to read at all.
Maybe you’ve decided as I have: reading several books at once is your thing. Great. But that means you have to be aware of which are the books you are actually reading right now. You can’t add to your list just any book you glanced with curiosity. Maybe you skimmed a couple of pages and decided that you don’t want to read that book right now. That’s fine. I don’t add a book in my “currently reading” list until I’ve reached at least page 50. (There are a few exceptions: an extremely short book, a book I know I have to read for work, a book that I completely loved from the very first pages.)
To avoid the trap of starting dozens of books and never finishing them, you have to establish a limit for yourself. How many books are you able to read without neglecting the rest? My limit is 5 or 6. If you just started to develop a reading habit, I recommend you don’t go beyond 3.
Prevent starting yet another book before you finish the rest using a tool like Goodreads. Or maybe a list in your journal or a note on your phone. What you need is a visual reminder of which are the books you are currently reading to avoid committing to anything else before you finish.
3) Let go:
Even if you add a book to your “currently reading” list, you have no obligation to finish it. There’s no gun to your head. There’s no book police ready to humiliate you because you’re a terrible reader. If reading a book has become more a chore than a delight, you should probably let it go. In this article I explain why.
3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Finish a Book You Don’t Like
Abandoning books will help you finish more books. I want book recommendations. I want them all. Books to be smarter, a…
There are times that, after a while, we realize that a book is just not working for us. It might be temporary; maybe the book is not ideal for this season of your life and you can pick it up again later. Or it might be permanent; you tried but the author is simply not able to grasp your attention or what she has to say is not interesting to you.
Feel free to let go. When I believe that letting go of this book is temporary, I move the book from my “currently reading” list on Goodreads to my “want to read” list. If it’s a book that is not going to get another chance from me, I add it to my “abandoned books” list. This allows me to “get closure” (either temporary or permanently) and start another book that’s hopefully more suited for me right now.
A useful strategy to move ahead with every read without neglecting the others is having a specific context where you focus on each book. For example, you can have (1) a book to read before going to bed, (2) a book to read when you are out, (3) a book to read while you’re on the toilet, (4) an audiobook to read while you’re cooking or driving… etc.
The key is deciding which book you’ll read at a specific moment. Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you are really into the plot of a novel you’re forbidden to read it outside your bed. What we want is to have some structure that helps us move ahead without leaving a book behind. If in a certain context you are really in the mood to continue with a different book from your list, that’s fine. Again, the book police won’t come and get you. The tool of context will simply help you not to have to think very much about what and when you’ll be reading. Assigning the books beforehand will eliminate some resistance. That way, when you go to bed, instead of scrolling through social media, you can simply pick up the book that’s already on your nightstand and spend a few minutes reading. If you are in a waiting room, instead of skimming an old magazine, you can grab the book that’s already in your bag.
Assigning a context makes a lot of sense in certain cases. If you are reading a fairly heavy book that you want to take notes about, the most logical thing is not to read it in bed before sleeping. For that, you will prefer a lighter book that helps you relax.
Eliminating all the resistance you can is crucial. Make sitting down to read your most accessible option. If you are going to read on your phone, don’t have the Kindle app in a hidden folder while Facebook is on your home screen. If you are going to read before bed, consider leaving your phone (and TV) out of the room; always have a book at hand on your nightstand, along with anything else you need to enjoy your reading session without interruption.
If you are just beginning to develop the habit of reading, you can’t trust your good intentions. Believe me, they don’t last long. What you must do is to plan. Set one or two reading moments during the day. They don’t have to be very long; 15 minutes are enough to start. Put them on your calendar (reminder included) and stick to them as if they were a work meeting.
You are the one who knows yourself best. Are you a morning or night person? Do you need coffee or a snack to be able to concentrate? Do you have idle time in the middle of the day that you can take advantage of but waste on Facebook? At what time of the day can you find 15 to 30 minutes without anyone interrupting you? Create routines considering all these things. Don’t try to copy other people’s reading habits. Do what you have to do. Maybe what works for you is leaving home 30 minutes earlier and read for a while in the parking lot before work. Glamorous? No. Instagram-able? I doubt it. Functional? That’s what we are looking for.
Little by little you’ll find it increasingly natural to set aside reading moments every day. While that happens, don’t underestimate the power of routine. 30 minutes a day of concentrated reading will be extremely fruitful in the long run. In this article I explain how.
There will be days when you don’t feel like reading anything. Not the books from your list nor anything else. That’s normal. It happens to all readers, even those who read 50 books a year. The difference is those good readers don’t allow apathy to prevent them from persevering. That’s why it’s good to set a modest daily goal (15 minutes a day instead of an hour). That way, on your good days, when you are filled with encouragement and you have enough free time, you can meet your goal without a problem and even read much more. On the other hand, when you are having had a bad day and get to bed without having been able to read a single letter, fifteen minutes (or maybe five?) won’t be something too hard to accomplish before you go to sleep.
Maybe you haven’t reached your reading goals in two days, two months, or even two years. Well, that’s in the past. Don’t let discouragement prevent you from returning to the discipline and joy of reading. There is nothing left to do but to dust off and move on; there is no other way forward. Remember, reading a minute today is better than not reading anything at all.
A version of this article was originally published in Spanish on Medium.