If you could see my YouTube recommendations, you would notice a lot of videos featuring “normal” people training for ultramarathons. On it’s surface, this is a little bit strange because I have absolutely no desire to ever run more than 26.2 miles. Honestly, I have no desire to run more than 10 miles. I’m perfectly happy with going out and jogging a 5k a couple of times per week. So why watch these videos? Every time, without fail, I get to hear the story of someone who made a small change in their life that led to an accomplishment that they never thought was possible. I like to apply that same process to goals that are relevant to my life, like reading 52 books in a year.
I hope this article is like one of those ultramarathon videos. It doesn’t matter if you want to read 52 books in 2021 or if you don’t want to pick up a book at all. I have no doubt that there is something productive that you want to do with your time at the start of the new year. The approach I took to increase the number of books I read is the same approach I encourage you to take with your goals for the year, whatever they may be. All that it took for me was a small change and a good system.
A Small Change
I set a New Year’s Resolution in 2019 to read one book per month. I bought books that sounded interesting, I put them on my bed-side table, and I’m guessing you know the end of this story already because I put it right in the title. I read 2 books during the entire year.
That was not for lack of desire to achieve my goal or a lack of interest in the books. My goal was simply too nebulous. A year is a long time to keep a goal on the top of your mind. After a few weeks, I found myself in the mindset that if I didn’t read tonight that was okay because I could always read tomorrow. I just had to read one book per month after all, how hard could that be? We all know the answer. Much more difficult than I imagined.
In 2020 I took a fresh approach. I still wanted to read more books, but I decided to only make reading my priority for the month of February. I didn’t set a goal for how many books I would read (that would come later) and I didn’t set a goal for how long I would read per day (that would come later too). Instead, I told myself that if I did anything productive with my free time that month, that productive THING would be reading.
In February alone, I read 4 books. That was double the number of books I read the entire previous year. I was surprised, certainly, but I was equally encouraged. If I managed to read a book a week without a real strategy in place, what was holding me back from reading a book a week for the rest of the year?
A Good System
Using my February reading success as momentum, I created a system for my reading habit. I used James Clear’s formula for creating a routine.
After [trigger], I will [behavior] for [time] in [location].
Using this formula, I established the following system.
After coming home from work and taking off my shoes, I will read a non-fiction book for 30 minutes on my couch and take notes.
Adding the trigger “After coming home from work” helped me get in the habit of reading every day. At first, overcoming the temptation of pulling out my phone instead of a book was difficult. But each time I stuck with my new system I strengthened the link in my brain between coming home and reading a book. Soon, I was subconsciously and automatically reading every single day after work. Using this system I read 41 non-fiction books this year.
Here are a few notes about taking notes:
If you’re reading a physical book, I don’t recommend highlighting the book or taking notes in the margins. Instead, take notes digitally. You don’t want to waste time flipping through a book 6 months later when you can pull out your phone and search your notes in a fraction of the time. Ever since I started taking digital notes about books, I find myself referencing them all the time. This system has been like uploading a searchable portion of my brain to the cloud.
Don’t take notes in Microsoft Word. Use a program that is searchable across devices (phone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, etc.) You want to be able to access these notes from anywhere. I highly recommend Evernote for it’s great design and searchability, but I have also used Google Docs and One Note in the past.
Don’t take notes while you’re reading. I recommend finishing a section before going back to take notes on the most important details. I try to read at least 2 pages before going back to take notes. I used to struggle with this because I thought I would forget the most important details if I didn’t take notes right away. But I’ve realized that the important stuff always sticks.
After I got used to that system, I wanted to see if I could squeeze a few more pages into each day and achieve my goal of reading 52 books per year. So I added a second system to my day.
After plugging in my phone and setting my alarm, I will read a fiction book until I’m too tired to keep reading.
I will admit that most nights I was not able to keep my eyes open for more than 15 minutes. But using this simple system, plus some casual fiction reading on the weekends, I was able to read 11 fiction books this year.
41 non-fiction books + 11 fiction books = 52 books. That’s 50 more books than I read in 2019, and I am not exaggerating when I say that all it took to accomplish this goal was a small change and a good system.
A Small Change + A Good System = A Productive Habit
Your goals don’t have to be reading-related to develop productive habits using this formula. Start by making a small change. Instead of setting goals for the whole year set a specific goal for one month. I recommend the following strategy:
Do it most days for a month
Once you figure out what your THING is, create a system that helps you get in the habit of doing your THING automatically. Use James Clear’s formula for creating a routine.
After [trigger], I will [behavior] for [time] in [location].
Here’s to accomplishing your goals in 2021. By the way, if your goal is to run an ultramarathon, please make a YouTube video of your progress and send it my way. I always have room in my life for more of that content.
If you’re interested in learning more about developing healthy habits, I wrote a free eBook titled “Fill Your Free Time With Purpose”. In it, I challenge you to think critically about how you are spending your free time and I provide strategies you can use to develop productive habits.