We have all heard that reading is great, however, many of us find it difficult to read consistently. So what can we do to develop a reading habit?
To develop a reading habit you should create an environment that inspires reading such as having a book next to your couch and having dedicated time(s) in a day specifically for reading. Furthermore, you should make reading as easy and pleasant as possible and provide yourself with a reward at the end of each session.
Of course, the above is just a brief summary, so if you want to learn how to exactly build a reading habit read on! First, I will briefly cover why building a reading habit is a good idea, then provide a bit of theory behind habit building and lastly I will give you the exact steps on how to develop such a habit.
Why develop a reading habit?
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out”Charlie Munger1 – Warren Buffet’s business partner and a famous investor
By forming a reading habit you will make reading easier and will end up reading more books. And the more you read the more you will learn. For example, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says that he learned how to build rockets by reading books.2 Elon Musk is not the only one, many successful people, such as Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, and Patrick Collison read a lot of books. 3
And there are many other benefits to reading more books such as becoming more open-minded and creative4 and improving your focus, memory, communication skills, and mental health. 5 There is even evidence that people who read live longer.6
How do we develop habits?
Before we begin discussing the steps toward developing a reading habit it is helpful to understand how we develop habits in the first place. This will also provide you the context for the advice and actionable tips that will follow afterward.
The way how we form habits can be described by the cue, craving, response, and reward framework presented in “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.7 This framework is grounded in cognitive and behavioral sciences and I describe it more thoroughly in my other article.
The first phase is cue – it is a trigger that calls our attention to a specific behavior. For example, it could be a new phone notification.
The second phase is craving – it is the motivation and emotion that gets triggered by the cue even before we perform any action. For example, once you get the notification, you crave/want to learn what the full message says.
The third phase is response – it is the habit or the routine you perform as a result of the cue and craving. In the example above it would be you taking your phone out and reading the message.
The fourth and last phase is reward – it is something you get after you complete the response. Generally, it is something good that satisfies or benefits us. In the example of the message, after reading the message you satisfy your need to learn the contents of the message.
The more the cycle of the four phases gets repeated the stronger the habit becomes, and eventually, the process becomes automatic. In the case of the message example, once you get a new message notification you will almost immediately click on it without even consciously realizing what you are doing.7
Based on this framework I have created a list of actions that you can take to build a reading habit and have categorized those actions into three main steps:
- Set up the cue(s) – create an environment that inspires reading
- Enhance the response – make reading enjoyable and easy
- Set up rewards – make reading desirable and rewarding
You will notice that there is no specific step for craving and this is done deliberately since most of the actions that are proposed in the three steps in one way or another way will create craving – for example, you might be more likely to crave reading because you will make it more enjoyable by choosing interesting books as discussed in step 2, or because you expect a reward as discussed in step 3.
Step 1 cue – create an environment that inspires reading
Step one contains all of the actions you can make reading more obvious and accessible – by having many reading cues, you will be more likely to begin reading books.
1.1 Make books extremely accessible
“Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.”James Clear, “Atomic Habits”7
If you want to begin reading more often, you need to make it easy to begin doing so. You should design your environment so that it would have many reading cues.
This means putting books in almost every room of your house – have a book in your kitchen, your toilet, your bedroom, your living room, your study, etc. And put these books in places where they would be noticeable.
For example, in front of your toilet seat – so that when you sit down for poo poo – you would see a book in front of you. Or another example, after you make your bed, you could put a book on top of it, so that once you come back to your bed you would see the book and consider reading before bed.
That way not only you are making a beginning to read easy, but also you will have many reminders that you should and could be reading. So next time you are in your toilet you will see a book in front of you and you might think – what the heck, let’s read a couple of pages 😉
Furthermore, you should always have a book with you. This can be more easily achieved by trying out different book formats (such as audiobooks or e-books). For example, you could have a book or an e-reader in your backpack and have audiobooks and e-books on your phone.
Furthermore, if you are reading via your phone you should move all of your reading apps (e.g. Kindle, Audible, etc.) to your home screen. That way you will have more reading cues and you will be more likely to begin reading on your commutes or when you are waiting in a long cue.
1.2 Eliminate distractions
Even if you have Audible or Kindle on your phone’s home screen, if you also have Youtube, TikTok, or Facebook on your home screen – it is very likely that you will click on TikTok rather than Audible – as TikTok is way more entertaining than most of the books – it just hits your brain with dopamine way harder.
The solution is simple – remove all “bad” apps from your home screen – this means removing apps like TikTok, YouTube, etc. from your home screen and making them as hard to access as possible. This will increase your chances of using “good” apps like kindle and will make it less likely that you will spend 30 minutes or more mindlessly scrolling through TikTok.
Furthermore, you might want to consider applying the same strategy to other bad habit triggers – for example, you should consider hiding your new gaming console (e.g. PS5) from view in your living room – put it in some closet or drawer. The same goes for other things like a TV remote or even your phone – hide these things.
In fact, in the case of your phone, when you are not using it or before you begin your reading session, you should consider turning it off or putting it in flight mode and putting it in some drawer or a different room. After all, our phones are by far the most dangerous distraction and bad habit trigger for most of us.
That way you not only will be less likely to be tempted (triggered by the cue) to engage in a bad habit but also by not engaging in unproductive activities you will free up more time for reading and will be more likely to be tempted by reading cues.
The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do.James Clear, “Atomic Habits”7
For example, next time you will be in your toilet, assuming that you have hidden away your phone as suggested, instead of using your phone (since it will be in another room and difficult to reach) you will pick up a book that is in front of you and begin reading.
1.3. Replace other less valuable activities with reading
The above perfectly ties into the next point, which is that you should consider replacing various activities like watching TV or playing computer games with reading or listening to audiobooks. I understand that for some this can be extremely difficult, however, there are often large benefits in doing so.
Since not only, you are potentially spending less time doing something that is not adding significant value to your life, but also you are freeing up a lot of time that can be used for reading and other beneficial activities.
Of course, not all reading is equally beneficial, in some cases, it is better to watch TV than to read some cheesy books 😅, but if those cheesy books will be your pathway towards building a better reading habit and reading better books – maybe it is worth a try (point 2.1 elaborates more on this).
1.4 Consider adding reading to your “habit stack”
Habit stacking is the idea of pairing one habit with another one (this concept was presented by BJ Fogg in his Tiny Habits program 8 ). This means that after one habit you will do another one. For example, “After I wash my teeth, I will read 10 pages”.
This is one of the ways how one habit can become an automatic trigger for another. So you can use the “habit stacking” method to incorporate reading in your habit stack as per the example above, which will make reading more seamless and easy to begin.
1.5 Consider blocking out the same time for reading day
You should consider reading at the same times of the day, for example, when you are done eating breakfast you could read a book with your morning coffee or when you are on your commute to work you could always listen to an audiobook.
Not only, this ensures that you always make time for reading in your day, but also this will create a routine and will make use of the habit-stacking technique discussed above, where one action (e.g. making coffee in the morning) will become a trigger for another action (e.g. reading a book).
1.6. Create your personal reading space
We tend to associate certain habits with certain spaces.7 Therefore, by dedicating a specific space only for reading, for example, a comfortable couch, your brain will then begin associating that place with reading and that couch will become a reading habit cue. In other words, every time you see that couch you will be reminded of reading.
Furthermore, you should consider making your reading space as comfortable and inviting as possible, maybe have a table next to your “reading couch” where you can put down a beverage of your choice while reading. Also, maybe put your “reading couch” in a cozy and quiet corner of your house.
Your imagination is your limitation here – the point is that you should make your reading space enjoyable for you. And this leads us perfectly to the next step, which is all about making reading fun.
Step 2 response – make reading enjoyable and easy
The more fun and easy the habit is the more likely it is that you will perform that habit and will stick to it.7 So below is a list of actionable tips that you can do to make reading as fun as possible even if you do not find it that enjoyable right now.
2.1 Choose books that you like
For many students, including me, reading at school was boring – the main reason was not that reading per se is a boring activity, no, the reason is that many students find the school books boring. After all, the same students who “hate” school books, eagerly read comic books.
So if you want to enjoy reading and more easily develop a reading habit – you should choose books that you like. These could be books that are fun trashy novels or books that you find useful, such as how to fish like a pro guide if you are a fishing enthusiast. These could, also, be also books that just pique your interest, such as a book on the different stars in our galaxy.
The bottom line is that you should choose something that you will like reading. And if you want some help on how to choose good books effectively you should see this article.
2.2. Drop books that you do not like
Some people have a weird belief that you should finish every book that you have started.9 However, such an approach can be destructive to your reading experience and stop you from developing a reading habit.
The reason is simple if you force yourself to read a book that you do not like you will begin thinking of reading as a chore and will be more likely to stop reading. It is better to drop 3 books, finish 1 and keep on reading than to finish 1 book and stop reading forever (or for a very long time).
In most cases, if you drop books that you do not like you will end up saving time and, then spending that extra time on reading something that you enjoy.
You should try to give each book a trial period – reading about 10% of a book is a good way to see whether it is any good for you. In fact, I wrote a whole article on how to know when you should drop a book – I highly recommend reading it.
The bottom line is that you should not force yourself to read something that you do not like – your time is more precious than that and by doing so you will be more likely to develop a reading habit.
2.3 Read multiple books
Our moods tend to change throughout the day and from day to day. During one time of the day, you might feel happy and energized and ready to tackle any difficult philosophy book, during a different time of the day you might feel tired and depressed and only be willing to read a cheesy and fun novel in order to feel better.
The key point here is that if you read only one book at a time – you will not always be in the mood to read that book. Therefore, by reading multiple books at a time, you will create options for yourself and will make reading more enjoyable, which in turn will help you to develop a reading habit.
For example, if you are a morning person, you could use your morning energy to tackle a more difficult read, during your morning commute (when you want to energize yourself for the day to come) you could consider listening to some sort of motivational self-development book.
If you want to learn more about reading multiple books – you should check out my guide on how to read multiple books.
2.4. Have many interesting books ready
If you decide to follow the points outlined above (2.1, 2.2, 2.3) you might run into a situation where in the middle of your reading session you run out of books to read in your house or on your phone. Such a situation is not desirable since to start reading a new book you will need to spend extra energy on finding a good book, which will create additional work and friction and will make it less likely for you to start reading.
A simple solution to the problem above is just to always have many good books ready to start reading. This could mean just having 5-10 good books in your house or on your e-book device that are ready for you to begin reading.
This will, not only, help you to avoid the issue mentioned above, but will also serve as motivation to finish what you are currently reading.
2.6. Start small and focus on consistency
When it comes to habit building the number of times you repeat that habit and your consistency is far more important than how much time you spend actually doing the habit.7 So your goal during a given day should be not to read for 60 minutes, instead, your goal should be just to sit down and read at least 1 page – and do that every single day.
Therefore, when you are just starting out you should try to start small and easy. For example, just read one page every morning after you finish putting on your clothes or making your morning coffee.
Furthermore, if you are not a pro reader, you should consider always having some easy or cheesy books close by, even comic books. The point is to begin developing a reading habit and your reading skills. And to do that you should make reading as easy and attractive as possible.
Of course, as you start developing your reading habit (maybe after 60 days of consistently reading at least 1 page per day) and your reading skills, you can begin adding more and more challenging reading material to your menu.
2.7. Add a motivational ritual before reading
Having an enjoyable routine that you perform before reading can make the process more enjoyable and thus more likely to stick.7 For example, if you enjoy stretching, you could consider doing a bit of light stretching before you sit down to read. Or if you like silence, you can put on your noise-canceling headphones before reading. Or you can light some candles in your reading space and make some coffee – this is what I do 🙂
I could keep going with the examples, but the main point is that you should try to find something that will uplift your mood before reading and then repeat that ritual every time.
2.8 Bundle reading with something fun
“You’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time.”James Clear, “Atomic Habits” 7
While having a motivational ritual is great, what is even better is to bundle reading with something that you enjoy. For example, you could drink coffee and eat dessert while you read (this is what I do every morning) – that way your brain will start to associate something fun with reading and thus you will begin to crave the activity more. Another example – you could try listening to low-intensity music (like lofi beats or some rain sounds), while you read – if you enjoy such music.
2.9 Change the way how you think about reading
Another important consideration when it comes to habit building is how you perceive why and what you are doing.7 If you are focusing only on a certain outcome “To read 100 books this year” – then you are thinking in terms of outcomes, and such thinking generally results in less motivation, than in thinking based on your identity.
When you are focusing on your identity, you are focusing on who you wish to become and why you want to do it. Starting with why generally is a much more powerful way of thinking about habits and change. WHY in most cases supersedes the WHAT and the HOW in importance. For example, instead of saying “I want to read 100 books this year“, you could say “I want to become a reader or a smarter person“.
By basing your motivation on why and the desired identity change you will be intrinsically rather than extrinsically (externally) motivated, which is a much more sustainable and powerful approach. A person who just wants to read 100 books is likely to stop reading afterward, while a person who wants to become a reader will keep on reading even after finishing 100 books.
“When we communicate from outside in … it does not drive behavior. When we communicate from inside out we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior… This is where gut decisions come from”Simon Sinek Ted Talk10
It is important to note that I am not saying that you should not have a goal of reading 100 books this year, I am just saying that this is just a surface-level outcome, but not the real reason why you want to read those books.
You should first understand the WHY and start with WHY, and after doing so label the reading of 100 books as an outcome or a secondary reason rather than the root of your action. In the example above you could say “I want to become a reader and a smarter person (WHY) so I will read every day (HOW) and by the end of the year will have read 100 books (WHAT)“.
Furthermore, many of us, when we have a goal, (like reading 100 books this year or reading 10 pages each day) often think “I must do this, I need to sit down and read today since otherwise, I will not reach my goal“. Such thinking makes reading feel like a chore rather than a choice.
A more powerful way of thinking here would be not “I must read”, but “I get to read, I choose to read” – that way you are framing reading not as a chore but as an opportunity and as a choice.
By framing reading as a choice and opportunity, and by grounding reading in the desired identity change and your internal WHY – you will be more likely to enjoy the process of reading and develop a reading habit.
I am not saying that you should brainwash yourself into liking books, such things cannot be forced. What I am saying is that by trying to look at things from a different perspective you might unlock new insights that will make what you do more meaningful. And if that does not happen – it is totally fine – I have a lot more tips below that might still help you out.
2.10 Try out different reading styles
Often when people read books they get bored. One of the ways of fighting this boredom is varying how you read. For example, if you are stuck in a rather boring or very complicated chapter you might consider skimming it or skipping it entirely rather than digging into each word. You might even try to gamify the process like Ali Abdaal, who when gets bored with a book, tries to see how fast he can read it without sacrificing his comprehension.11
Alternatively, you could also try an opposite approach, instead of skipping the chapter, you could double down and try to more deeply understand it:
- by reading every word deeply and re-reading the sentences that do not make sense.
- by looking up concepts and words that you do not understand online
- by deconstructing the author’s arguments on a separate sheet of paper
- annotate the books that you are reading
The goal here is to try out different ways of reading and see what will keep your engagement up.
2.11 Try audiobooks and other reading formats
Lastly, a great way to make reading more enjoyable is to try out other reading formats like e-books or audiobooks. I personally highly recommend trying out audiobooks, especially when it comes to fictional books.
For many people, including me, audiobooks are a lot more engaging than their printed counterparts. This is so because:
- while listening you can do other things like cleaning your house
- audiobooks are generally done by good voice actors and the voices of characters get acted out
- listening does require a bit less mental effort (in my opinion) than reading, which makes them more enjoyable
Of course, there is a whole debate when it comes to audiobooks vs printed books vs e-books and it is not my goal to cover this here. However, trying out different formats such as audiobooks might make reading books more enjoyable and thus help you to build a reading habit.
quick note: I understand that listening is not the same activity as reading, but when people say that they want to develop a reading habit, they generally want to do this because they want to get information from the book into their head on a consistent basis (in other words they want to consume (not necessarily read them) books on a consistent basis) and since audiobooks can help to achieve that I think using the word reading here is not misleading.
Step 3 reward – make reading desirable and rewarding
The last step is about all of the actions you can take to make reading satisfying and rewarding.
3.1 Create a list of good books that you want to read
As mentioned in point 2.1 if you want to enjoy what you are reading you need to choose books that you like. Furthermore, if you choose books that help you to grow as a person, then you will feel like reading is helping you to achieve what you want, which makes it a more rewarding process.
A good way to make sure that you are reading rewarding books is to have a reading list – this just means that you need to take some time and find a bunch of books that you will enjoy reading and put that in a list. This list will help to not only ensure that you have good books ready but also it will motivate you to keep on reading and will allow you to track your progress, which we shall discuss in the next point.
3.2 Set a reading goal and track it
Goals are great for ensuring accountability and pushing oneself forwards. Therefore setting a reading goal such as reading at least 1 page every day or reading for at least 10 minutes every morning and evening is a great way to push yourself forward.
Furthermore, by having daily reading goals, every time you finish your session you should get a bit of dopamine from knowing that you have achieved your daily goal. This reward can be further reinforced by tracking your reading progress – for example logging the number of pages you have read.
My recommendation (and what I actually do) would be to have a sheet or a calendar where for each day you can put an X if you have completed your daily reading habit. This is the so-called “Seinfeld Strategy”.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.From Brad Isaac interview with Jerry Seinfeld12
Moreover, it is valuable to not only track your daily reading sessions but also to keep a reading journal, that would contain all of the books that you have read and your notes on them. Having such a journal will make your reading experience more rewarding since you can always go back to it and see your main takeaways from the books you have read. The knowledge that you have compiled, will serve as a reminder that reading is indeed valuable and rewarding.
3.3 Make reading part of your social life
“We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers.”James Clear, “Atomic Habits” 7
While I personally am a supporter of individual thought, it is difficult to dispute that the people surrounding us have an impact on what we do and how we think. According to a book by Richardson and Boyd13, we tend to imitate 3 main groups in particular:
- the close – family & friends
- the many – the group, the tribe to which we belong
- the powerful – people whom you admire
The good news is that you can exercise a certain level of control over your social circle, which means that you can also control the impact it has on you. Therefore, you can leverage your social circle to make reading more rewarding.
Firstly, when it comes to your family and friends – you should consider getting a reading buddy or reading partner. It can be a friend or a family member who enjoys reading or who wants to begin reading more.
By having a reading buddy you can have a person who motivates and keeps you accountable for your reading commitments. Moreover, you will have someone with whom you can share and discuss the books you have read.
Even if you do not find a reading buddy, talking about books that you have read with your friends and family is a great way to make reading part of your social life, especially if your friends and family welcome such discussions (if they do not, you should consider finding friends who do 😉).
Secondly, when it comes to the social groups to which you belong – you should consider joining a book club or starting one. Book clubs are a great way of keeping oneself accountable and motivated to finish a book. Also, you get a chance to discuss it with your peers in the club, which for many is a rewarding experience.
Thirdly, when it comes to the people whom you admire – you should consider finding role models that read a lot. This is not a difficult task since many of the powerful people who have status read a lot. For example, Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, or Oprah.
Once you find a role model you should consider ways of increasing the impact this person has on you – maybe hang a poster, maybe read content by this person (e.g. you could read https://www.gatesnotes.com/ ).
The key point is that you should choose and shape your social circles so that they would support and reinforce your reading habit development. This will make building a reading habit easier and more rewarding.
3.4 Provide yourself with a reward at the end of each reading session
As discussed, at the end of every habit loop there is a reward. The more immediate the reward the better it is. This reward is the reason for which you perform the habit and what reinforces the habit every time you finish it. 7
Therefore, it is a good idea to have an immediate reward at the end of each reading session. Here are some examples of ways how you can reward yourself after:
- giving yourself a treat like a cookie or a candy
- letting yourself play some computer games or use your phone
- marking on a sheet of paper that you have completed the task for today (as discussed 3.2)
Of course, these suggestions will not work for everyone. It is up to you to find something that will work for you.
So what you should do after reading this article?
The goal of this article was to give you the theory and the tools that you need to build a reading habit. It does not mean that you should do every single thing as stated in this article. It should be rather perceived as a guide from which you should pick and choose what will work for you.
For example, I have met people who think that consuming books should be uncomfortable and such people will refuse to listen to audiobooks because they feel that it is too easy. This is fine, if audiobooks do not work for you then do not use them.
Lastly, many of the tips here might sound as if I was preaching that you should only read easy books or do what is easy to you. But I want to emphasize that this is not the case. Building any habit that sticks is not an easy process. What I am suggesting here are just ways how you can maximize your chances of success in this endeavor. Or in other words how you can make it easier for you to achieve your goal.
I hope that once you develop a consistent reading habit it will become a pathway for you to constantly challenge yourself with more and more difficult books and ultimately become a better reader and person.
Good luck in your reading journey!