Three Steps to Cultivate a Reading Habit — Even If You Haven’t Read a Book in Years

I started reading at a very young age. At five years old, I was already devouring series after series of chapter books. As a six year old, I remember being assigned homework to read a story over the weekend and narrate it in front of the class on Monday. I didn’t take the assignment too seriously because I thought “I’ll just pick any story from the ones I read this weekend”. I remember noticing the teacher’s face while I was telling the story — I had gone on for much longer than the other kids in class, and she had to stop me halfway. She said, “did you really read that story yourself?” I said “yes, Ma’am.” She said “okay, go sit down, I’ll give you an A.” I went and sat down, and didn’t think too much more on it.

I’m not sure whether I was a gifted child or hyperlexic, but either way my reading skills didn’t stand out to my parents because my sister was the same. In our household, we were both just “normal”. The difference between us, though, was that my sister never stopped reading — her taste and exposure expanded and her collection of books grew exponentially, while mine dwindled, and eventually hit a complete wall. I don’t know how much my sister actually reads now, but my impression is that she still reads at least a hundred books a year. I, on the other hand, sometimes barely manage three.

A Good Year: Twenty Books

A few years ago, I had an unusually good reading year: I read twenty whole books, of varying lengths, across different genres. I was so pleased with myself because I hadn’t read that many books in one single year since I was a teenager, and while it wasn’t quite two books a month (my original goal for that year), it was still a lot of books. I proudly told a relative (who is a voracious reader) what I had accomplished, and she looked puzzled, trying to work out why I expected her to be impressed. I was immediately deflated, and realized that my twenty books a year was impressive to no one but myself.

It took me six years after that to realize that it did not need to be impressive to anyone but myself.

Between that year and this year, I have not yet had another year where I’ve finished reading twenty books. I’ve started several every year that I haven’t completed, and I’ve gotten to the end of at least a couple each year, but it’s only this year that I’m noticing myself prioritizing reading again, achieving reading streaks (currently on a nine week streak), and feeling like this is completely natural and not an effort at all. I reflected on the similarities between this year and my good twenty book year, and realized there were three important similarities which I’m going to call my three steps to cultivate a reading habit.

Step One — Motivation

Reflect on what motivates you to read, and infuse that into your life. For me, social motivation is a huge factor — in my good twenty book year, I was close friends with a high school English Literature teacher who also ran a book club. Simply being around her, hearing her talk about so many books, inspired me to read more. This year, I live with one housemate who works in a library and is passionate about all kinds of books, especially fiction, and another housemate who is passionate about learning and growth, and consumes a lot of non-fiction — the two of them together inspire me to read both for pleasure and for personal progress.

I am incredibly motivated to read when I can share what I’m reading with others, so scheduling in book discussion sessions with friends and other people is also a great incentive for me. If you have friends you can read with, get recommendations from, discuss with, etc., it’s worth organizing it to give your reading health a boost. Other forms of motivation can include tying reading to work or study, reading to deepen awareness or engagement with an area of interest, joining a reading challenge with other people you know or with strangers on a website like Goodreads, or really whatever does it for you.

Step Two — Access

Keep the books you want to read within easy reach, in places where you’re likely to reach for them. Handbags, bedside tables, kindle reader, audible app — or whatever your preferred way of reading is. I can’t easily listen to audio books due to auditory processing issues (a common feature of autism, like childhood hyperlexia), but I know of many people who can “read” with their ears much more effectively than with their eyes, and reading is valid in any form.

My preferred way to read is using the kindle app on my phone, so I keep a shortcut to the app on my home screen, and try to sneak in a few pages when I’m waiting for something, or between tasks, or having a meal by myself, or winding down to sleep (a screen filter app may be helpful to protect sleep quality if you want to sleep immediately following phone use). The main thing is to have your book within reach, and to reach for it whenever you get a chance. A short ten minute reading sprint often leaves me feeling more fulfilled than mindlessly scrolling social media feeds, where it can be easier to both lose track of time and gain little of value.

Step Three — Presence

I heard someone say a long time ago (and I have sadly forgotten the source) that many people read not for the joy of reading a book, but for the pressure to have read a book. This is akin to not caring for a task, but simply wanting to get it done to check it off a list. I have felt this pressure many times in the past, feeling like I need to read this or that book in order to feel cultured/educated, or to be able to have a conversation with someone, or to be able to call myself a reader, or to justify my claim of having an interest in a subject, etc.

I have only recently learnt to relieve myself of this burden, and I now unashamedly read only what I want to read and can enjoy the process of reading. I enjoy books across several genres, but not every book in those genres, and I feel no guilt about dropping a book if it doesn’t hold my interest. I no longer pressure myself to finish reading within a certain time frame, eager to finish this book so that I can start the next one (although sometimes I read multiple books at the same time, and that is okay).

I find that taking my time to read, freeing myself from distractions if I can while I read, savouring the text, observing my emotional and intellectual states as I read, making notes, re-reading stimulating sections, and being present in a variety of other ways has greatly enriched my reading practice. Recently, reading The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick was such an intense emotional experience for me that I realized that my next book needed to be a very average read, something that would occupy me but not overwhelm or consume me — The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary is turning out to be perfect for the job, so far. An older version of myself would be appalled at the time “wasted” reading a book that I couldn’t be very proud of “having read” — the present version of me has released the burden of a checklist, and am able to read more simply because I’m listening to my body about what it can handle right now. I’m simultaneously reading Dr Nicole LePera’s excellent book, How To Do The Work, but I’m averaging one chapter every two weeks or so because I need that sort of time to actually do the work, which is the point of that book.

Why I Don’t Need to Impress Anyone But Myself

Playground isn’t just a space of mentorship and performance among clients for me. Playground is the philosophy by which I live my life. I am not in competition with anyone else. I am not defined by anyone else’s standards. My worth is not determined by anyone else’s approval. I exist because I exist. I play because I am human. It is my most natural, raw instinct to engage, to connect. Reading, art, relationships, work, life — these are all avenues for engagement and connection, and I love being free from the pressure of competition and arbitrary standards. All I need to be is me, and I will find connection with people and books and art and other things which share resonance with me. I will read for the joy of reading, and not for the pressure of having read.

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