Why don't I read more?
I love books. They bring me joy. But somehow never end up reading very much.
On the rare occasion that I do finish a book, I always promise myself to continue this joyful momentum, but I never succeeed. I always end up spending months between books.
I got a Kindle e-reader which has made the experience as comfortable and seamless as possible, but it did not help my momentum.
Now that I am working from home due to COVID-19, I should have more time to read.
So why don't I read more?
"I'm Too Busy"
It's easy to say you're too busy to read. I thought the same thing.
The solution is to eliminate parts of your day that are less desirable than reading. Seems easy enough, so what should we reduce?
If you write down all of the activities you do on any particular day, you would likely not have a fully booked schedule. And yet where does the time go?
I found that my own "schedule" was consistently "free" yet I never felt like I had enough time to read.
In Search of Lost Time
If you have an iPhone, you can enable a feature called "Screen Time" which measures how much you use your phone every day. Despite my best efforts, I was averaging over 2 hours of "Screen Time" on my iPhone every single day.
The vast majority of my Screen Time was spent mindlessly browsing Reddit or other social apps. Only 15 minutes was work related.
I also found that I had an alarmingly frequent "check my phone" habit, which was entirely involuntary. According to Screen Time, I had 100+ "pickups" in an average day. Given that I have 16 waking hours, I was looking at my phone every 10 minutes.
I don't remember any of these "checks". It was time lost in the void. I was wasting 14+ hours of my life every week on something that has little value. I couldn't even remember doing and if it.
None of this mindless browsing was bringing me joy the way reading does, so clearly I needed to make some changes.
To start, I conciously put my phone face-down and on silent for the entire day. I only looked at it 3 times to respond to messages. I did miss one call, so I configured my notification settings to be silent for everything but phone calls.
Dopamine Fast (kind of)
Putting my phone done did not solve my reading problem. My "phone checks" were not solid chunks of time that I could easily convert to reading. I did spend less time on my phone, but I just replaced this with the web versions of my distracting apps.
I already use an app to track my computer time, but I decided to go analog. I wrote down all of the activities I did in any given day, and categorized them into four groups:
- Productivity (work or side projects)
- Brings me joy (reading, walking my dog, watching a movie with my girlfriend, playing video games with friends)
- Biology & Chores (exercise, eating, showering, doing laundry)
- Distractions (checking phone, checking Reddit, checking Twitter, anything else I wanted to stop doing)
It was startling to see just how many distractions I had.
Coincidentally (or maybe because of my search history), the YouTube algorithm showed me a video from someone talking about their "Dopamine Fast".
A Dopamine Fast is where you bore yourself to death by sitting in your bedroom all day (or week) with nothing but a notebook and pen. The idea is to "reset" what activities your brain wants to do by starving it of dopamine.
After this fast, you re-introduce only the things you actually want to do (in my case reading). Your brain no longer has access to any other source of dopamine, so you end up manipulating your brain into craving the "correct" activities.
It's like being on a desert island with nothing else but one book. You're going to read that book front to back, since there's nothing else to do.
I decided against suffering for a week in an empty room, but there is a compelling idea in this method. Many of the distracting habits I performed both on my phone and otherwise did not bring me joy, and yet I was compelled to waste so much time on them. Was this because of how my brain craves the easy dopamine?
It's well known how apps and websites are engineered to become addictive, so there must be some truth here, even if the science is sketchy (I have no idea, I did no further research).
I opted to run this experiment rather than read any science or articles, just to see what happens.
Removal of Distractions
My new plan was simple: avoid activities that were part of the "Distraction" category. Easier said than done.
When I found myself looking at my phone or Reddit, I would return to my original task. Every time I "caught" myself, I counted it as a victory, since it meant I was becoming more mindful of my actions.
This made me both more productive, but also tired. I suspect that a lot of the mindless time spent on distractions was also a convenient way for my brain to take a rest from focused work.
When I felt tired or burnt out, I lay down on my couch and started to read on my Kindle, with a timer set at 30 minutes. If I got bored of my book or the timer ran out, I just got back to what I was doing before. I also "found" more time in the evenings & weekends to continue reading the books I was now hooked on. I suspect my work time was approximately the same since I reduced my "phone checking" time.
I started to really crave my reading time, and I averaged three reading breaks throughout the workday, and continued to read in larger chunks into the evenings.
After two weeks, I finished 6 books. I was very motivated to continue reading, so spent nearly all of my free time doing it. My reading time has slightly come down since the initial furious pace, and I now average 10 hours of reading every week.
- Write down and categorize everything you do
- Try to consciously stop yourself from doing things in the "distraction" category
- When you do get distracted, smile because you've won a small victory of mindfulness
- Consciously replace feelings boredom with reading
Concluding Thoughts & Side Effects
I have gained 520 hours of joyful reading every year because of this silly method.
I struggled at first because I abruptly starved my brain of the small addictions it was so used to. I felt a bit tired and burnt out. I am also far from perfect, and continue to have mindless moments at random, however they are becoming more and more rare, and I am usually quick to become conscious of them.
What helped was a lack of pressure to succeed, I simply tried this out of curiosity and for fun.
The "method" I employed is very simple and it's funny to even say it out loud, but it worked for me.
If you want to read more, I suggest you give this a try. You can even go a step further and pretend you're actually on a desert island if you want. Pretend your phone or distracting activities do not exist, and just go read when you feel bored. It just might work.