How I’m reading 2× as much as last year with a smaller goal

In 2013, inspired in part by this post by Julien Smith, I decided to try reading 52 books over the course of the year. I was doing really well for a number of weeks, but then I fell behind, and ended the year with only 21. For 2014, I tried something totally different, and it has worked amazingly well: we’re now halfway through 2014 and I can count 15 books that I’ve finished. More importantly, I can count 61 that I haven’t.

What gets measured, gets done

Or, whatever you measure, you will optimize for.

The problem, in 2013, was that I only got points when I finished a book. I had started keeping track of all of the books I finished in a spreadsheet. I wish I’d done this sooner. If you haven’t done this but you wish you had—do it. The feeling won’t go away, and you’ll just feel sillier when you finally do start. If you have kids, start one for them. My old system looked like this:

  1. Objective: read 52 books in 2013 (a book a week, don’t get behind)
  2. Tracking: record finished books in a spreadsheet with a rating and remarks

I remember distinctly one book I picked up in 2013 that was not for me. It was called “Slack”, and I was excited at the possibility that it might help me with introducing more slack into my life, but it was extremely focused on management and it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to get much out of the book. I made a new tab in my spreadsheet called “Dismissed”. Slack is the only book in there, but it was a start.

The problem was twofold:

  1. I would avoid starting books because they didn’t look like they’d be worth reading in their entirety, and I didn’t want to waste reading time on books I couldn’t count.
  2. If I found a book wasn’t interesting me, I would typically try to finish it anyway so I could count it.

Laid out explicitly like this, my old tracking schema was quite obviously problematic. But these two points were not very apparent to me for most of that time, so I kept it up for quite a while.

Focus on Starting

Or, you won’t finish everything you start, but you’ll finish nothing you don’t.

For 2014, during my annual preflection, I decided I would instantiate a new reading system, based around starting rather than finishing. Here’s my new system:

  1. Objective: every day in 2014, read at least a page of fiction and a page of nonfiction.
  2. Tracking: in a Gantt-chart-like spreadsheet, the “Bookantt Chart“, record how many minutes I spend on each book, each day.

I wasn’t really sure what would happen when I made this shift, but it seemed well-worth trying and I think the results speak for themselves.

2013 — full year:

  • 21 books total
  • maybe 5-10 other books got more than a cursory glance

2014 — first 6 months:

  • 15 books total
  • 61 other books read at least somewhat (there are 5 that I am confident I will finish, and would guess that I will also finish 1 or 2 others of those 61 someday)
  • 7662 minutes = 127.7 hours = 5.32 days spent reading. That’s 3% of my time.

What’s fascinating to realize is that I’m actually succeeding better by my old standards too: (A) I’m finishing more books. I was surprised to realize that 55% of my reading has gone towards books I ended up finishing. And another 21% towards those books I expect to finish. I had supposed there would be more time on dead ends. Then again, 26/61 books had 20 minutes or less spent on them. And (B), if I’ve read 15 books in 4185 minutes and I’m at 7662 minutes total, then that’s the equivalent of 54 books by the end of the year. So I’m reading as much as I’d have to to finish a book a week.

Another part of what I think is so interesting is that I’m still mostly finishing most of the books I spend any significant amount of time reading, but I’m reading way more, because I’m giving myself permission to start even if I don’t expect to finish a book necessarily. Also, because of the way I’m tracking, a book can slip to the side a bit and still feel motivating to pick up later, because I can punch more time. In this way, I’ve made it halfway through Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow over the course of 5 months.

Try new systems

This system was kind of forced upon me by external, contextual factors. As you’ll know if you’ve read many of my other blog posts, I live in a very interesting house. What you might not have been aware of is that this house has around two thousand books in it, that have been curated quite heavily for quality. And there are often new books entering the system, which I want to peek at. If I felt like I had to finish Thinking, Fast and Slow before I could pick up In Over Our Heads by Robert Kegan, then… I wouldn’t’ve. Which would have been a huge loss.

My new system has worked really well for me over the last 6 months. So I’m sharing it! Click below to access a templatey version of this spreadsheet that you can use for your own tracking. In addition to the tracking cells, it has some analytics. Once you’ve opened it, select Make a copy... from the File menu. I’d love to hear back from you about your experience of using it, either privately via email or in the comments below.

Bookantt Template »
(now with upgrades from @tkadlubo! If you make your own improvements and want to share them, let me know and I’ll give you edit rights to the template ^_^)

I think if you want to see anywhere near the same success with this as I have, you’ll want to have both parts of the system—not just the tracking but the daily minimum. Doesn’t have to be the same as mine, but something to get you to just open up a book every day. No matter how busy you are on a given day, you can grab a book and hold it in front of your face as you fall asleep. But I predict that you, like me, will find yourself feeling more attracted to opening strange tomes midday as well 😉

(It’s also worth noting that maybe your problem is the reverse of mine and you’re constantly picking up books and never finishing anything and you wish you were. In that case, please reverse this advice.)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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Tadeusz » 4 Jul 2014 » Reply

Hello, Malcolm.

I did a number of small bugfixes and improvements to your Bookantt spreadsheet. Please take a look at

– Fixed formatting of borders between months
– Added months up to December
– Fixed alignment of week boundaries
– Fixed formulas of weekly sums, which had some copy-paste errors
– Added last day of the previous year and the first day of the next year for ‘…’ and ‘f’ respectively.
– Improved wording of the weekly moving sum (unless you didn’t mean them to be moving)
– Fixed missing sums in column G
– Fixed missing formulas for the first days of January

    Malcolm » 4 Jul 2014 » Reply

    Awesome! I’ve updated the link, given credit in the blog post and the spreadsheet itself, and given you edit access to the Template so we don’t have to send versions back and forth as much 🙂

Naomi » 4 Jul 2014 » Reply

I’ve been wondering, how much of your time do you think goes to planning and tracking what you’ve been doing? How often do you have to task-switch to tracking and planning? Do you ever interrupt productive headspaces to track things?

I would love to have more data about how I spend my time, but historically I’ve tended to ignore or forget about my tracking attempts until I can’t remember the data well enough to record, and if my tracking system isn’t extremely simple I can get a little stuck fiddling with it at the expense of other tasks. Any thoughts?

(On the other hand, HabitRPG has made me drastically more likely to maintain a thing I’ve set out to do, so maybe I’d be more successful at tracking endeavors today. Who knows.)

    Malcolm » 4 Jul 2014 » Reply

    Not that much! And I think it pays off in effectiveness (planning/intentions) and self-knowledge (tracking). As this blog post describes, having this system appears to cause me to read more.

    My main time tracker is TagTime, which is very interruptive or very uninterruptive, depending on what you mean by “interrupt”. It pings you totally at random, when you could be in the middle of anything. However, it typically takes 2-10 seconds to complete, and doesn’t disrupt your flow.

    I’ve definitely noticed myself fiddling with this chart, but that has mostly amounted to a lot of really great improvements for it. A bit annoying if I had other priorities, but I’m glad in the end.

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