We Aren’t Too Busy to Read (If We Really Want to Read)

Person Holding 

Person Holding Kobo E-reader

I’m a Reader, a capital-R reader. For me it’s an art, a sport, a hobby, a calling—it’s a way of life. So nothing irks me more than people who say, upon learning I am a Reader, that they would love to read, but they simply don’t have time. If they didn’t have a kid/a poodle/a spouse/a lawn/a job, why, they’d be reading up a storm, too. This is the same type of person who will raise an eyebrow skeptically and wonder aloud what it must be like to have all that free time to engage in something so decadent as reading, as if I had just admitted I fly in fresh lobster for lunch each day or that I use five-dollar bills as toilet paper. The person may say that one day—maybe in retirement—he’ll read books too. But until then, he has too much to do; in fact, he’s so busy he doesn’t have time to even tell me how little time he has to read books!

The “I’m-too-busy-to-read” argument is really quite bizarre because no other activity warrants the same response. I recently met someone who was traveling to Antarctica on a polar expedition. I couldn’t imagine saying to him, “Well, I’d hike polar icecaps myself, but I’ve simply used up all my personal days at work.” Likewise, I’ve never once played the no-time card to explain why I don’t run marathons or carve butter sculptures or have a PhD in physics. I don’t do any of those things because I lack the motivation, commitment, and/or desire to do them. Why don’t the same rules apply to reading?  If we think we are too busy to read—let’s face it—it could be that what we really lack isn’t time. It’s the motivation, commitment, and/or desire to do it.

If you really want to be a Reader, here are four things you can do to read more:

Set readings goals and determine a training schedule. Readers treat reading like a polar expedition. You can’t just decide to do it without planning and careful training. Go ahead. Set your goals right now. How many books a year do you want to read—1, 10, 50, 100? Pick a number and write it down. Be careful not to pick an outrageous number. If you haven’t run since you were eleven, you wouldn’t get on a treadmill and run for five miles at full speed. Reading works the same way. If you haven’t finished a book since high school, start small—maybe a book a month. If you’ve already been in training, you can set more audacious goals.Once you have your number in mind, let’s do some math. Let’s say you read at an average speed (300 words per minute—go here to test yourself) and you intend to read typical-length books for adults (about 100,000 words). If you settled on one book a month, you will need to read about an hour and twenty minutes a week to finish your book by month’s end. That’s about twelve minutes a day. That’s it! The average adult spends fifteen minutes a day on Instagram. You can read for twelve minutes and still have three minutes a day leftover for Instagram. And let’s face it: That’s all you really need on Instagram anyway.

Block time on your calendar for reading the same way you block time for any other important task. Then turn off your phone, step away from your computer and other devices, and immerse yourself for your daily training time. Set a timer so you aren’t tempted to cheat.If you aren’t used to focusing for more than a few minutes at a time, you’re going to struggle at first. The average office worker switches tasks or is interrupted about every three minutes, so you may be used to letting your brain off the hook. Your brain probably doesn’t focus for very long in its day-to-day work, which means reading will feel like a serious workout. Don’t give up. Gently prompt your brain to get back to reading.

You may discover that your brain focuses better at certain times of day. Experiment. If you are reading at night and find yourself falling asleep, get up a few minutes earlier and read right after you get up. Or take a few minutes in the middle of your workday (if you can). Read during your commute. Read while you eat or while you cook. Listen to audiobooks at the gym. The point is to set a time that works for you and then stick to it.

If you reach the end of the day and you haven’t done your reading, you know what you need to do before you go to sleep.

Recognize that reading is a valid use of your time.You’ll be tempted to convince yourself that you have more important things to do than read. That’s because in our culture we tend to treat reading as leisure time. That’s why the “I’m-too-busy people” respond as they do. They are not telling you anything about the time they have in a day. They are telling you that they are too productive to have leisure time. Your reading, they think, is evidence that you aren’t producing as much as they are. But reading, whether its leisure or not, is a valuable use if your time if you decide that’s the case.If you really want to make the case to Mr. I’m-Too-Busy, you can tell him about all the research that points to the value of reading for increasing empathy, building fluid intelligence, and improving your memory. But it’s also perfectly fine to read because you want to read—whether you consider it leisure or not. It’s valuable if we believe it is.

Embrace that saying yes to reading means saying no to other things. I frequently hear non-Readers say that they don’t read because they don’t want to give up TV, exercise, or time with friends and family. The truth is that reading does require time and that time has to come from somewhere.To be a Reader is to commit to devoting at least some of your free time to your books.

But reading doesn’t have to take all your time. It can co-exist with the other activities you want to do. You can shave a few minutes from your evening TV time. You can read with your friends and family—either out loud or silently. Turn off the TV and tell the family that everyone is going to read for a half hour. Meet a friend at a coffee shop and bring books to read. You can listen to audiobooks on the treadmill or while you walk the dog. Reading can be incorporated into your life in all kinds of ways.

Reading is a choice I make every day. I read because it fills me in a way nothing else does. I’m not reading because I have so much spare time than everyone else. I’m reading because that’s how I actively choose to spend time, it’s a way of life for me.

I’m never too busy to read because I’m never too busy to live.

The Tyranny of Meetings

Executive Boardroom

My reading schedule has suffered this week (already) because it’s the first week of school. If you are a professor–or a human being with a job–you probably get invited to a lot of meetings. A lot of soul-sucking meetings.

For that reason, I decided to return to my regular and impassioned rant against meetings. A well-run meeting with a clear agenda and defined outcomes can be useful. But many (most?) meetings are not just a waste of time, they are a waste of money and energy.  Let’s look at three ways meetings may be costing you more than you realized.

  1. If you spend an hour in a useless meeting, you’ve just wasted an hour of energy and time. Was it worth it? Meetings drain time and energy that could be spent in creative work that’s far more valuable than the meeting itself.
  2. Given that half of any workforce is likely introverted, meetings may very well be making half of those in attendance stressed out, more distracted, and less likely to use their non-meeting hours productively. Extroverts like meetings because they need the stimulation. Introverts die a little inside
  3. Meetings beget more meetings. Meetings are a habit, and just like any other habit, the urge to meet may overrule our critical thinking skills. How many meetings are absolutely necessary? How many meetings could be an email or a post on office discussion app, like Slack?

So let’s all try an experiment right now. Go to your calendar and select one meeting this week. Cancel it. Don’t reschedule it. Just cancel it. Ask yourself how much you—or anyone else—will miss if you don’t attend the meeting. 

If the sky doesn’t fall, take your message to the streets. Make meetings a strategic choice, not a habit.

Now let’s go read a book.