Why Ditching My Yearly Reading Challenge Helped Me Read More Than Ever

published Jun 11, 2022
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I used to set a New Year’s resolution to read a certain number of books in a year. One year, I very nearly hit my goal to read 26 books, but fell a few short. Mildly stung by the defeat, I doubled my reading goal the following year. I failed spectacularly and wound up reading even fewer than I read the previous year.

I was perplexed. I have always loved to read, and I thought a reading challenge would motivate me to get through the backlog of unread books I had on my shelf. It did just the opposite. Overwhelmed at the thought of finishing a book a week, I reached for my phone to scroll through social media, marveling at the many Bookstagrammers I followed, who seemed to be reading a book a day. I felt jealous, even though I knew the only answer was to pick up a book and read.

How did I manage to turn a beloved pastime into something that made me feel bad about myself?

“When you’re giving yourself permission to sit and enjoy [reading], you are more likely to stay with it as opposed to forcing it in,” says Kristen Krista, success coach and founder of Pennsylvania-based Platypus Strategists. “You’re trying to meet this goal that might not necessarily be serving you.” 

Krista encouraged me to remove the words have, should, and need from my inner monologue when it came to books, as in “I have to read,” “I should be reading,” or “I need to read more.” So I did. I granted myself permission to just read. This year, I ditched all attempts at conquering a challenge, and I’m reading more than ever. What’s more? I’m enjoying books now instead of seeing them as boxes to check. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

In the morning, I spend about 10 or 15 minutes reading a book while I drink my coffee (which is either tasting better or I’m just enjoying that more, too). I’m trying to be better at taking lunch breaks — I work from home, so lunch typically involves taking a few bites out of dinner leftovers while cleaning up my kitchen. But now, I sit down and eat from an actual plate while I squeeze in a few more minutes of reading time. At night, I put down the phone and pick up a book or my tablet and read a few pages at bedtime, sometimes more if I’m not feeling sleepy. My husband is also an avid reader, so it’s a nice, relaxing way for us to end a long work day.

All told, I’m now reading at least 30 minutes a day without putting any pressure on myself. I’d probably finish books a lot more quickly if I were reading the same book throughout the day, but I’m one of those readers who have three books going at any given time. These days I’m not in a race to get to the last page of any of them. And strangely enough, I’ve actually found that my reading speed has increased. It’s not something I set out to do, but I’ll take it as a happy byproduct of the daily habit I’ve established.

“Reading is such a special thing,” says Krista, noting it doesn’t matter whether you’re picking up a book to learn, imagine, or relax. “If it’s something you take pleasure in and you’re forcing yourself to do it, it counteracts that piece of it you enjoy.”

This is what exactly happened to Erica, an avid reader from New Jersey who runs the Instagram account @therestjustfallsaway. She regularly gets ARCs (advanced reading copies) from independent authors who depend on her and other Bookstagrammers to get the word out about new must-reads. Normally, it’s a dream for her to get the sneak peek of so many wonderful stories. But at one point, it all backfired. 

“The more books being sent to me, the less I was enjoying reading because now it was like I was on a schedule [to finish and post about them],” says Erica. She talks about how some books would sit unopened on her shelves for months, some even a couple of years. “It would make me so mad,” she said.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. Erica got her reading mojo back by branching out. Her favorite genre is romance, but she realized it was time to open up her shelves to more diverse authors. Rather than try to keep up with the ARCs as they rolled in, she once again gave herself permission to be a “mood reader” — if the mood struck her to pick up a certain book and start reading, she would do just that. Her shelves are still full and always will be, but they no longer overwhelm her.

Credit: Cathy Pyle

I indulged in some mood reading recently when I received a gift card to one of my favorite independent Brooklyn bookstores, Books Are Magic. I bought a slew of books that I displayed on my shelf when I got home. I stared at my new titles, then looked over at the backlog I had on other shelves. I could have easily guilted myself into picking up one of the books that had been lingering on my shelf, but I was really excited about one of the novels I had chosen. (It was “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh, for the record.) So I grabbed it, sunk into a comfortable chair, and got lost in the pages. It was a blissful experience, and one that I had been sadly denying myself for far too long, all for a reading challenge that was meant to impress … who? 

In the end, I realized that the challenge was my way of chasing an accomplishment. I like being able to point to a shelf and say, “Why yes, I have read all those books.” But do you know what I like even more? Having unread books waiting for me. And now that I’ve put the enjoyment and fun back into my reading, they won’t have to wait very long.

This piece is part of Go Slow Month, where we’re celebrating taking your time, taking a deep breath, and taking a step back from it all. From deliberate design ideas to tips for truly embracing rest, head over here to see it all.