How to Read More: What I’ve Learned Reading 100 Books in 2020

Before 2020 started, I set a goal of reading 100 books. Then the pandemic happened…. and I still achieved my goal? Some would say the pandemic made it harder, some easier. I’m not sure how it affected my goal, all I know is I made it!

Over the years I’ve made a concerted effort to read. Back when I started this journey I thought there was no way I’d ever be one of “those people”. It started around 10 years ago when I decided I needed to track what I read. At that point I realized, while I’d never been a reader growing up, reading was one of the few reliable ways to grow once out of college. I started slow, between 10-20 books a year and by 2015 read 50 books for the first time. In 2017 I read 70 books and thought that pace was insane! So for the next few years, I oscillated between 50-70 books per year. Something clicked at the end of 2019… I realized I was only limited by my imagination on what I could do. So I took a step back and set my goal of 100 (also, I could have been motivated by my wife finally beating me and reading more books than I did).

So, in this year, weird or not, I met my goal and learned a few things along the way.

Get rid of all your goofy, made-up rules

We all create little rules for ourselves that set our norms, even if we don’t realize it. Some rules will revolve around food, others around relationships, others around more simple things.

Some common rules around reading include having to finish any book you pick up, only reading one book at a time, and claiming audiobooks and shorter books don’t count towards a reading goal. These are all nonsense rules and have no purpose at all. I’ll address each of these below.

Be okay with not finishing

One of the biggest hurdles to reading consistently is getting stuck on a book you don’t enjoy. Sometimes I find myself reading things I think I should want to read but cannot really get into. Nothing hurts your reading momentum like slogging through something you’re not enjoying. The result is you spend less time reading or end up not reading at all. Trying to force yourself to finish a book you’re not enjoying can kill the momentum of the habit you’ve built and make it hard to get restarted.

It’s okay to read many books at once

I created a rule for myself that I would only allow myself to read one book at a time and not move onto the next until I finished what I was on. I guess I thought I couldn’t focus on more than one thing or that reading more than one book would lead to 50 unfinished books. This rule goes hand in hand with the first one of wanting to finish every book because reading two books means you’ve not finished a book before starting the next.

The reality is that some books are better at a certain time or place. Samantha has to read fiction in the evening. Anything else gets her mind going too much, making it harder to fall asleep. For me, a book cannot be read while in bed if it requires lots of physical note-taking. These books have to wait for another time. There have been times I’ve started reading a book at night only to set it down because I realize there are too many takeaways to chew on. You might say that is a rule I’ve created for myself, but in my mind it’s different: it’s a rule that allows me to get the most out of what I’m reading. It’ll take some practice to figure out what works best for you, but juggle 2, 3, 4, or 10 books until you find the right spot (time and place) for each.

Audiobooks DO count

Somewhere along the way came this idea that audiobooks are not real books. Now, certainly, it can be a little bit more difficult to process a complex topic on audiobooks, but a lot of books work just fine in the audiobook format. In fact, some are even better! Sometimes you have a great author who does a great audiobook (looking at you Jon Acuff) or sometimes there is a book that’s great to listen to with your spouse (Hillbilly Elegy was this for us). Just as each book has its time and place, each book has a medium. If I need to digest something that is complex, an audiobook isn’t the best medium. But if it’s lighter and has a charismatic reader, an audiobook may allow you to get even more out of the book than you could have with the physical copy.

Also, who came up with this idea they didn’t count? The only reason could be to judge and reduce the number of books someone reads to those read in a traditional way. That’s just goofy and a book snob thing.

You’re only limited by your ability to plan

Everyone says they don’t have the time to read books. When it comes down to it, you have time, you just aren’t prioritizing reading. 15 minutes a day equates to 15-20 books read in a year. That’s easy and something anyone can find the time for. Quit with the excuses and just do it. I’ve heard so many parents say they don’t have time to read because of their kids, but I’ve seen other parents read tons and tons of books. It comes down to priorities and whether reading is really a priority of yours.

As I set the goal for 2020, I knew I had to plan out how to read more. If I’d done what I’d been doing, I wouldn’t have been able to reach my goal. So I sat down and put together a plan. I set aside some time on the weekend, made plans to read some during my lunch break, and committed to reading in the evenings instead of watching TV. The specifics of your plan don’t matter, just as the number you’re committing to doesn’t matter either. What matters is that you know your plan and stay committed to it.

A few other points to expand on that helped me along the way.

Read before bed

For me, it started with reading 15 minutes before bed. This required me to watch one less episode of that sitcom (The Office or Parks & Rec anyone?), but resulted in a habit today that means we literally cannot fall asleep without opening a book for at least a few minutes.

Put the kids to bed, turn the TV off, and go sit on your bed and read. I promise it will become a cherished part of your day!

TV is a time vortex

We all (well most of us) watch way more TV than we’d like to admit. If you asked me how much TV I watched a day I would have told you I averaged less than one hour per day. We would generally watch one or two sitcom episodes while watching dinner, but many days this extended even longer. I realized at some point that I wasn’t “counting” those extended sessions or the weekend movies or the sporting events. When it came down to it, I spend way more time than I was comfortable with in front of the TV.

As a result, we made an effort to turn the TV off or in some cases not even turn it on. This effort has allowed us to spend some time in the evenings quietly reading, taking or reviewing notes, and in all reality just slow down a little bit. This time has been so good for my soul and I know it would be for you too. Another benefit of watching less TV: you have more time for other activities as well! Playing board games, connecting with family and friends, or just some solid downtime are all things that TV squeezes out of our days making us feel too busy and overwhelmed.

Take great notes

When I read 70 books in 2017 I felt like I was running. Anyone who has trained for a run of any kind knows that when you push yourself to your limit it feels slightly out of control. Eventually your body normalizes to the new pace, but it takes some time and training. You would also know you can’t just keep pushing yourself at that pace. If you did it day after day your legs would get more tired, feel lead weighted, and eventually your running would suffer. You could eventually even slow down in pace because your training was too much.

With reading, the same concept applies. When I picked up my pace reading I wasn’t used to taking in all the information. My mind would spin and it felt like I was sprinting. I also didn’t allow for breaks. I would jump from one book directly into the next at a sprinters pace.

Along the way, I realized I needed to take better notes. Reading books doesn’t mean anything if you can’t remember and you can’t remember without reflection. Since that time I’ve slowly built a system for taking notes, which is continuously refined. That note-taking system jumped into high gear in 2020 and partially contributed to my renewed pace of reading. It sounds counterintuitive, but establishing a good note-taking system actually improved my reading speed. Taking good notes immediately upon finishing reading allowed my brain to offload all the stragglers that caused me to get distracted. It allowed me to record my thoughts and move on.

In the past I’d saved writing up my notes “for later” and many times that “later” never came. Do yourself a favor and quit sprinting to the end of the book. Stop, reflect, and record and your reading journey will be so much more fruitful.

I never thought I’d read 100 books. But now that I’ve read 100 in a year, I can see how I could read 120 or 150. That’s not to say I will, but I can see a path. With a little refining and focus, I could take another step forward.

But the moral of the story isn’t that. The moral of the story is this: if you’re intentional about your reading (or really any other habit you want to form), the possibility is there for things you’ve never imagined. Not just in the number of books you read, but in the number of things you learn. And that is where the real value is.