19 Powerful Techniques to Build a Reading Habit (2019)

Most of us would like to read more books, which means establishing a consistent reading habit. But like starting and keeping up with any new habit, becoming a regular reader can be difficult.

This guide contains 19 of the most effective techniques I’ve found to help me be a productive and consistent reader.

And because they’re based on fundamental principles of habit building and behavioral psychology, I believe they can help anyone learn to build a solid, more consistent reading habit.

Okay, let’s dive in!

Note: You can use the links below to jump straight to a technique that looks interesting:

  1. Quit More Books
  2. The To-Go Box Method
  3. Book Summaries Aren’t Cheating
  4. Embrace the Audio Book
  5. Skip the Stories
  6. Read with a Pencil
  7. Get a Book Buddy
  8. Create Some Book Nooks
  9. Use a Commitment Device
  10. Use a Reading Tracker
  11. Cultivate a Board of Recommended Reading
  12. Consume Less News
  13. Read in Bursts
  14. Always Have a Book On Deck
  15. Write a (Tiny) Book Report
  16. Create a Reading Bucket List
  17. Master the Art of Reading
  18. Schedule a Library Day
  19. Find Your Why

1. Quit More Books

I can appreciate the irony of beginning an article on how to build a reading habit by encouraging you to quit reading. But bear with me…

A fundamental motivating force for reading more is enjoyment. When we enjoy a particular book our motivation to continue reading is stronger. Makes sense.

But the converse of this statement is something we don’t consider enough: When we read a book that we don’t enjoy, our motivation to read is weaker.

One of the biggest obstacles to reading books we enjoy is that we think we should read books even if we don’t enjoy them—specifically, the idea that if we start a book, we must finish it.

This is nonsense, of course.

We’ve just been conditioned through decades of schooling to read everything we’re assigned, which is why “quitting” books just “feels wrong.”

But it’s not. And life’s too short to spend reading books you don’t enjoy or find satisfying in some regard. It’s also a recipe for never reading much. I mean, why would you if reading’s an unenjoyable chore?

So, if you want to build a stronger reading habit, start by making the commitment to quit more bad books.

Helpful Resource: Quitting: Why We Fear It—and Why We Shouldn’t—in Life, Love, and Work by Peg Streep and Alan Berstein

2. The To-Go Box Method

There’s a fairly common dieting and weight loss hack called the To-Go Box Method. It goes something like this:

As soon as you order a meal at a restaurant, ask immediately that half of it be put in a to-go box once it’s ready and only the other half served to you. It’s basically a stricter version of portion control.

We can apply the same technique to get ourselves to read more.

I think many people would acknowledge that they’d prefer to spend some time in the evenings reading rather than vegging out in front of hours of Netflix. But when evening rolls around, we tend to automatically sink into the Netflix habit.

If two hours of Netflix each night is the equivalent of a huge meal at a restaurant, then cutting it in half would still give you the satisfaction of watching Netflix in the evenings but also free up time to read as well.

So set an intention of watching one episode of your favorite rather than two (or five), and for the first hour of your evening, read instead, then switch over to Netflix.

TV shows not your thing? The same principle applies to movies.

Why not commit to watching half a movie one night and half the next. Like the strategy of quitting bad books mentioned above, it feels “weird” initially, but in my experience you quickly acclimate. And the result is that you still get most of the satisfaction of unwinding with a good movie and also fit in 30 or 60 minutes of reading each night—which very quickly adds up to a robust reading habit.

3. Book Summaries Aren’t Cheating

As we discussed in #1, quitting a bad book early is a great strategy for moving on to better, more satisfying books, and a stronger reading habit generally.

But you know what’s even better? Not getting into a bad book in the first place.

One of the best ways I’ve found to ensure a high “hit rate” for the books I read is to vet them first, often by using book summaries. The website/app Blinkist is great for this. They give accurate and concise summaries of many of the most popular books out there and are constantly updating their library.

The other way to relatively quickly get a preview of a book in order to vet whether or not it’s worth investing your time in is to use podcast interviews with the author.

This is especially useful for new books since authors often go on the podcast circuit to promote their books. Instead of spending hours reading through a book, dip into a 20 or 30-minute podcast interview and see if the book sounds like it will be enjoyable and/or valuable. An added bonus is you get a chance to hear how the author thinks, which can often be a good proxy for the quality of the book itself.

4. Embrace the Audio Book

If you’re anything close to the average American worker, you’re spending close to an hour round-trip commute to and from work. While it’s easy to lose yourself in mindless talk radio or yet another podcast, this is a great opportunity to read more and build/strengthen your reading habit.

Tip #1: Combine this strategy with The To-Go Box Method. Rather than setting out to spend your entire commute listening to an audiobook, just pick one leg of the commute. Making time to read more doesn’t have to mean giving up on other things entirely (like podcasts, for example). And in fact, your reading habit will probably be more enjoyable and sustainable in the long run if you’re not resentful toward it for booting out other activities you enjoy.

Tip #2: Listen on a higher speed. Most apps that let you stream or play audiobooks will let you slightly increase the speed at which they are read. Even moving to listen at 1.3x speed can add up to a lot of extra time in the long run.

5. Skip the Stories

This one applies specifically to non-fiction books, especially contemporary self-help and business style books.

A lot of these newer non-fiction books contain huge sections devoted to telling elaborate stories or anecdotes to support the primary argument or idea of the book. And while some of them are helpful and interesting, don’t feel badly if you want to skip them. I do this all the time and it allows me to be a much faster and more efficient reader when it comes to non-fiction.

Stories support the ideas but rarely are they necessary.

A good general principle to follow if you want to read more is to read more efficiently. And judiciously skipping stories is a good way to become a more efficient reader.

6. Read with a Pencil

I find that when I read with a pencil—underlining, making little notes, etc.—I tend to be more engaged with the book, which in turn leads to a more enjoyable experience in the moment. But I also think it leads to better memory for the book long-term, which contributes to a more satisfying experience of reading generally.

So when I read, I always read with a pen or pencil. And I have a little system for marking up my books that goes like this:

  • Anything interesting I underline. Or, if it’s a long bit of text, I’ll just draw a vertical line next to it in the margin.
  • Anything that feels like a really nice quote that I want to remember or maybe use in my own writing, I put a “Q” next to in the margin.
  • Any particularly good concept or technique I circle or draw a box around.
  • If a passage reminds me of another book, or really anything else, I briefly note that in the margin next to it.
  • Usually, a book has a handful of really key, important ideas. These get a star next to them in the margins.
  • Finally, I try to disagree with and argue with the author of the book as much as possible, which I do by writing disagreements or counter-arguments in the margins.

In addition to making the whole reading experience more engaging and fun, reading with a pencil and having a simple notation system like this makes it really easy for me to review or skim back through a book I’ve already read to find quotes, main ideas, techniques, etc. Then I can literally flip through the book in a matter of seconds, notice stars in the margins, and know exactly where all the key ideas are, for example.

Learn More

Austin Kleon has a nice little article on Reading with a Pencil that includes photos of famous authors’ own books that they’ve marked up and taken notes in.

7. Get a Book Buddy

Sadly, book clubs never seem to work out the way I envision them—intellectually stimulating explorations of deep ideas and important concepts. Instead, they usually end up being a round-table of excuses of why nobody had time to read the book, followed by lots of eating, drinking, and gabbing.

But, I still believe that making reading a more social endeavor helps to build and maintain a reading habit. And one way to do this is to get a single Book Buddy.

A Book Buddy can take a lot of different forms:

  • It can basically be a book club of two, where you read the same book at the same time and meet regularly to discuss it.
  • A Book Buddy can also be a friend with whom you share similar taste in books and occasionally swap recommendations and quick thoughts.
  • They could be someone who you admire as a thinker and reader and occasionally ask for recommendations from—almost like a reading mentor.
  • Your Book Buddy could be an accountability partner, someone you agree to check in with periodically and who will keep you accountable for a reading intention or goal you set.
  • You could even have a Book Buddy who’s essentially a training partner, someone you compete against, perhaps by setting a mutual challenge and using that as fuel to read more.
  • Or it could be something else entirely I haven’t thought of!

The point is, some form of social interaction can really enhance both the enjoyment of your reading experience and also help you stay on track with your reading goals and aspirations.

Make your reading habit social!

8. Create Some Book Nooks

People have strong opinions about whether it’s good to be reading multiple books at once. As a pragmatist, I say go for it if it works for you.

Specifically, I think having multiple books can actually boost your motivation to read and the enjoyment you get from the process. For example, it’s nice to have both a fiction and non-fiction book that I’m reading at the same time. They seem to balance each other out in some way and increase my overall enjoyment with reading as a general activity.

In any case, one little trick you can try is to strategically place books you’re reading in different physical locations. After a while of reading in specific locations, the locations themselves become associated with the act of reading, and then cues for the behavior. This is a powerful way to take reading from something that’s effortful and difficult to relatively easy and automatic—in other words, to create a reading habit.

For example, I often have a book on the window sill behind my couch so that when I first sit down on the couch in the evenings, it’s a cue to start reading rather than instantly turning on the TV.

I also keep one current book face up on my desk at work, so that if I have some free time, my environment is cuing me to read instead of me having to remember to do so.

Reliable cues are an essential component of any habit, and that’s no less true for a reading habit. So consider setting up some books nooks that will function as cues for reading more regularly.

9. Use a Commitment Device

A Commitment Device is a psychological technique to help us stay committed to our long-term aspirations when faced with short-term distractions or temptations.

Let’s say you set a goal of reading for 30 minutes every day. And your plan is to read in the evenings after dinner. But despite your good intentions, when you’ve finally finished dinner, done the dishes, and tidied up around the house, sinking into the couch and cuing up some Netflix shows feels a lot more tempting, and often that’s what you end up doing instead of reading.

A basic example of how to use a commitment device to help you stick with your goal of reading a little bit each night might be to ask your spouse or partner to remind you of your intention to read for 30 minutes and then watch TV.

Or let’s say your goal was to read at least a book per month for the entire year. If you subscribed to and paid for a Book of the Month Club, you might be less likely to avoid reading because you already committed your money to it and wouldn’t want to see it wasted.

There are countless examples of commitment devices you can apply to your reading habit, but the broader principle is this: When embarking on any new goal or habit, never rely on willpower and good intentions alone to see you through. Instead, try to build in some mechanism that helps you get there regardless of how you may feel at any given point along the way.

10. Use a Reading Tracker

A lot of people hear the term “tracker” and immediately associate it with confinement and obligation—like tracking your expenses or logging homework assignments. And while it’s true that a tracker can help keep you accountable for a new reading habit, the more significant benefit of a tracker is that it will boost your motivation to read more.

One of the most important but underrated sources of motivation is the experience of progress. Seeing with our own eyes and feeling in our bones that we’re moving forward—no matter how slowly—feels really good and increases our motivation to persevere, even when it’s difficult.

As a result, one of the best ways to establish and stick with a new reading habit or commitment is to boost your motivation with a reading tracker. I use The Seinfeld Method, which I’ll describe below, but really any form of tracking can work.

How to Use The Seinfeld Method to Track Your Reading

The Seinfeld Method is a technique for establishing good habits popularized by comedian Jerry Seinfeld. You can read more about the details of it here. Here are the basics:

  • Get a wall or desk calendar and place it wherever you want to do your reading. In my case, I put it on my desk.
  • Each day when you successfully achieve your reading goal, fill in the day with a bright green or blue marker.
  • If you miss a day, put a big red X through the day on the calendar and note the number of consecutive days you had achieved your goal prior to this miss.
  • Now try to beat your previous record.

The Seinfeld Method works so well because of a few key factors:

  1. It’s highly visible, which means it helps you remember to do your reading habit in the first place.
  2. The act of filling in a green square is itself surprisingly pleasurable, which serves as a reward and reinforcer for your target behavior of reading each day.
  3. Similarly, the pain of having to put a big red X through a missed day is an aversive incentive not to miss again.
  4. Keeping track of your best streak gamifies the process, again making the whole activity more enjoyable and therefore more likely to continue in the future.

Whether you use The Seinfeld Method or some other way to track your reading, remember that the point of tracking isn’t primarily to hold you accountable, it’s to provide positive reinforcement, and therefore motivation, to increase your likelihood of sticking with your reading habit.

11. Cultivate a Board of Recommended Reading

The idea here is to cultivate a small handful of relationships with people whose taste in and knowledge of books you admire and respect.

Of course, this could be people you know personally, but it doesn’t have to be. And really, why limit yourself when the entire Internet is your oyster?

As you read online, look for people whose writing you admire. Then, sign up for their newsletter or somehow try to follow their work regularly. Good writers are usually good readers. And good readers who write regularly, usually can’t help but talk about and recommend what they’re reading.

You can also poke around their websites and look for articles or guides they’ve written about their favorite books of the past year, recommended reading lists, etc.

Once you’ve identified this handful of people who give out consistently high-quality recommendations, make sure you have a reliable system for taking advantage of their recommendations.

As I mentioned, be sure that you somehow follow them so that you get updates on their latest posts, articles, etc. But you also want your own system for capturing their recommendations and ensuring that they end up as things you actually read.

I use an Amazon Wish List for this. Wish Lists are like a shopping cart but without the buy function. You simply leave books (or anything else) that you find on Amazon in them so that when you’re ready to buy, you know where they are.

For me, every time one of my favorite writers online mentions or recommends a good book, I immediately click the link to find it in Amazon, then hit the “Add to my List” button so that it’s immediately saved for future reference and/or purchase.

12. Consume Less News

By far the most common excuse or rationale people give for not reading as much as they’d like and having a hard time establishing a reading habit is that they just don’t have the time.

But this is silly.

We all have time, we simply choose to allocate it differently and accept different tradeoffs. Maybe you’re the busy CEO of a fledgling startup with a young family and a sick parent who lives in your home. Yes, you are objectively far busier than most. However, if you look closely, there are likely still pockets of time that could be spend reading if you were willing to give up other things.

And while these pockets of time can be difficult to spot if you’re busy, one of the most commonly overlooked pockets of potential reading time is the news.

Most of us spend far more time consuming the news than we realize. Whether it’s listening to a morning talk show on the way to work, reading The Wall Street Journal on our lunch break, or catching 20 minutes of the evening news before bed, there’s often a significant chunk of our day dedicated to the news.

Add to that the fact that rarely does our consumption of the news—especially daily consumption of news—lead us to meaningful new information or growth, consider reducing your news consumption each day and week and replace it with a reading habit.

For example, instead of listening to a daily news podcast on your commute and browsing twitter news at lunch, listen to an audiobook on your commute and read a long-form article you saved to Pocket on your lunch break.

I think you’ll find that you actually lose very little meaningful information by significantly pairing down your daily news consumption. But you stand to gain a tremendous amount of substantial knowledge by building a reading habit of even 20 minutes per day.

13. Read in Bursts

For most people, establishing a consistent reading routine is the way to build a better reading habit. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to read.

In fact, for some people, reading in bursts is a better way to maintain their reading habit.

For example, one year during grad school, my schedule was such that I was extremely busy four out of five workdays, and it was a real struggle to make time to do outside reading, even a little bit. However, I had much more flexibility on the weekends, and especially, Mondays, the one day of the week that wasn’t super busy.

Rather than trying to force myself to read 30 minutes per day (or something similar) every single day, I basically gave myself a pass on the four weekdays that were packed and made up for it by reading in big bursts on the weekends and especially on Mondays. It wasn’t uncommon, for example, for me to go to a coffee shop on Monday morning and read for two or three hours at a stretch.

Like I said, this strategy may not be ideal for some, or perhaps, most people. But it’s important to understand that if reading in bursts works for you given your preferences and life situation, that can be just as much a reading habit as smaller more incremental and consistent spurts of reading.

14. Always Have a Book On Deck

This one’s super simple: Always know what your next book is going to be and have it ready to go.

While it seems like a small thing, not knowing what your next book will be and not having it ready are really easy ways to kill your momentum for a steady reading habit. What’s more, the decision fatigue involved in having to choose a new book as soon as you finish one can often be a subtle source of friction in maintaining a consistent reading habit.

Here’s the little trick you can use to help you always keep a book on deck:

Whenever you start a new book, doggy-ear a random page about two-thirds of the way through the book. Then, when you stumble upon this page, if you haven’t already, it will remind you to cue up your next book.

15. Write a (Tiny) Book Report

I know the last time you did a book report was probably in the sixth grade, but there’s actually an interesting case to be made for writing a kind of book report as a way of helping establish and maintain a reading habit.

Like we’ve talked about, one of the strongest motivators to continue reading on a regular basis is a sense of achievement and accomplishment. And one of the ways I think we all feel a sense of accomplishment and progress with our reading is to not only be able to say yes, I read 30 books this year, but also, to feel like you actually learned a lot from each book and can recall what you’ve learned.

Imagine how much more motivated you would be to continue your reading habit if you could easily recall the big ideas and main points from the vast majority of the books you read, able to discuss them intelligently and apply their lessons to your life and work?

Sounds pretty great, right?

Well, a really good and fairly simple way to do this is to start writing book reports again. Importantly, writing book reports doesn’t mean page-long essays with immaculate grammar and structure, it simply means taking a little bit of time to jot down key ideas from a book, a few favorite quotes, and maybe some of your own impressions of the book.

I do this pretty regularly with most of the books I read. Here’s an example of one of my recent “book reports:”

Atomic Habits by James Clear: A Quick Summary

16. Create a Reading Bucket List

Whenever I ask people what’s something they really want to do more of in their life, they inevitably mention travel. But what’s surprising is how they respond to my follow-up question of, So where would you like to travel?

A shockingly high number of people, it turns out, value the idea of travel in the abstract, but actually haven’t thought through many of the specific about how they would prefer to travel, what type of person they enjoy traveling with, or even something as basic and essential as where they want to travel.

Similarly, it’s surprising to me how many people say they want to read more, or be a reader, or build a reading habit, but have no idea what they want to read!

I think the best answer to this dilemma is to create a Reading Bucket List. Spend a half hour or so one day and jot down as many books as you can think of that you’d like to read. They could be specific classics like Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice. But the items on your Reading Bucket List could also be a little broader and categorical like I want to read more Stoic Philosophy.

In any case, it’s important to have a specific and tangible list of the reading you aspire toward. This will provide a powerful motivation to read more as well as a regular source of new books to read.

17. Master the Art of Reading

We learn to read at a very young age, and we spend decades of our lives reading tremendous amounts as part of our schooling and then careers. As a result, most of us are quite proficient readers. But very few of us are actually expert readers, capable of reading on multiple levels and extracting maximal information and insight from a book.

And while this may sound like an impressive skill (which it is!), becoming an expert reader and mastering the art of reading will help you build a reading habit by making the process that much more satisfying and rewarding.

To master the art of reading and become an expert reader, you must begin thinking about reading beyond the basic of what you learned in school, and instead, start to see it for the extraordinarily complex, multi-dimensional skill that it is.

And there’s no better guide to doing this than the classic book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren:

How to Read a Book

This is far and away the best book on reading I’ve ever read. And it’s benefited me more than almost any other book, class, presentation or any other form of instruction on reading.

Read it. Study it. Practice its methods. I think you’ll find that your reading abilities will jump to an entirely new level.

18. Schedule a Library Day

Ask any habit change expert and they will tell you that one of the most powerful but underrated aspects of building better habits is your environment.

Because our environments are full of countless cues and reinforcers for behavior—both helpful and unhelpful—being conscious of our habit environments and understanding their effects is paramount. And this is certainly true for building a reading habit.

If your goal is to read more there are few environments more conducive to this than libraries. Of course in our modern age of ebooks, and online reading, and Amazon, I think most of us have nearly forgotten that libraries even exist. But they do and they can serve as a valuable asset in your goal of reading more and building a lasting reading habit.

Here are just a few ways libraries can powerfully support a new reading habit:

  • You can read new books for free! For many people, the expense of buying new books can be a major obstacle to building a reading habit. Why pay when you can get books at no cost?
  • You can discover new (old) books. As wonderful a resources as the Internet is for curating and informing us of new books and reading material, there’s something special about spending an hour wandering through the stacks of a library and letting your curiosity unearth interesting finds. In particular, while the Internet is great at helping you discover new books, the library can often be far more useful in helping you uncover older, more timeless books.
  • Librarians are awesome. Librarians and most people who work in libraries generally are both book experts and book lovers. If you want to build a reading habit, spend more time around people like this. Talk to a librarian, tell them what your interested in, ask for recommendations, or inquire about what they’re reading.

In order to make libraries a consistent part of your reading habit building journey, consider scheduling a Library Day once a week or once a month. Look at your calendar, find a free morning or afternoon one day, and schedule in a couple hours for spending at the library. Whether you simply read, go sleuthing for new old books, or have an illuminating conversation with a librarian, scheduling a Library Day its one of the best investments of time for building a new reading habit.

19. Find Your Why

Identifying and clarifying the why of your reading habit is essential because the key to sustaining any habit in the very long-term is to make it a part of your identity.

Ultimately, a painter doesn’t paint because of some clever set of techniques they’ve duct-taped together; they paint because they’re a painter. It’s just who they are.

In order to craft a sustainable reading habit, then, requires that you become a reader. That you identify not just as someone who reads occasionally but as someone for whom reading is an essential part of their being.

Now, while all this sounds a bit grandiose and perhaps intimidating, it doesn’t need to be. It’s quite possible to make reading so much a part of who you are that you can’t help but do it. But to do that, you have to start with values, with identifying and clarifying the value of reading to you.

While there are countless techniques, tips, strategies, and methods for building and maintaining a reading habit, ultimately the thing that matters most is your Why. That is, what’s your essential reason and motivation for building a reading habit? Why is it important to you? Why is it meaningful and valuable? What does it represent and what will it ultimately lead to or help you achieve.

What’s your why?

To get started on this, simply sit down with a pen and piece of paper and start jotting down ideas and thoughts. List various reason why reading is fun or enjoyable or important. As you stumble on things that seem especially meaningful, try to elaborate on them. Write more about them, talk to a friend or spouse about them, read up on other people’s similar experiences.

Because the more clear and specific you are about why a reading habit is valuable to you, the more it will become a part of your identity and therefore an enduring habit.

6 Comments

Blake February 5, 2019

Okay this article rocks. I will be implementing some of these habits. Thank you!

Nick Wignall February 5, 2019

Thanks, Blake!

Zay February 5, 2019

I love the ideas of writing a book report because, frankly, I forget a lot of the material. I also want to read How to Read a Book to learn how get to that level of reading where I can read the surface story but can also go levels deeper. I love to write so I want to learn to read like a writer. I think both of these techniques will work well. Thank you for the time and effort you put into creating this for the many of us who really miss reading on all of its many levels.

Nick Wignall February 6, 2019

You’re welcome, Zay!

And I think you’re totally right about reading as a way to improve your writing. I think this is one of the most underrated habits of great writers!

Dean Yeong February 11, 2019

Many valuable tips in one post. Well done, Nick! I use quite a few of these techniques to read more books.

I would add one more on starting small: focus on reading — anything from one single paragraph to 20 pages — every day instead of thinking about completing an entire book.

Nick Wignall February 12, 2019

Dean, I love it! It’s true, sometimes if we’re so far out of the habit of reading, starting extremely small can be encouraging.

I’m planning to do a second version of this article in the future incorporating everyone else’ suggestions, so much appreciated!

–Nick

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