“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't
help it.” – Oscar Wilde
Reading is said to be like exercise for the brain – it helps us grow, improve concentration, slow down cognitive-decline, and can even make us a better person.
More so than leisure activities such as watching a movie or a binge-watching a series on Netflix, according to research by Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word, reading gives the brain more time to stop, think, process, and imagine.
Yet despite the known benefits, reading resembles exercise on another point – while many of us know it’s good for us, and want to do more of it, we put it off.
Our best intentions to read before bed or resolutions to finish a book a week can be easily spoiled by our distracted brain. With so much competing stimulus from all corners of our lives – and phones – it’s not so much a personal failure that we do not read as much as we’d like, but rather a lapse in habit.
Even when we feel too busy, too distracted, too unfocused or tired, it is possible to build a ritual of reading into our lives and reclaim some everyday enjoyment as we do so.
How to create (or recreate) a reading ritual
Much like any new habit, a reading ritual takes time, requires patience and dedicated practice.
Starting the ritual is the most difficult step, but in doing so we begin to create momentum for the habit – reading increases our focus and concentration, so the more we read, the more focused and primed we will become, improving our inclination to read.
To help build reading into your day, here is a collection of small steps even the most distracted and unfocused can take.
1. Embrace boredom and silence
Resisting boredom can sabotage our reading habit. When we have neglected reading for some time, the very act of focusing on one page at a time can stir feelings of boredom. Rather than sitting with this feeling of boredom and allowing our brains to wander, we reach for the nearest stimuli. Have you ever nestled into bed with a book in hand, only to read one paragraph before reaching for your phone to scroll Instagram?
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World has observed that this constant switching from low to high stimuli when we get bored trains the brain to crave it – rendering a ritual of reading a difficult task. Instead of running away from boredom, we should purposely embrace it to retrain out brain and prepare it for reading.
“It’s crucial to gird yourself for the temporary boredom and simply fight through it with the company of your thoughts. To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of brain training, it’s incredible valuable,” he writes.
2. Find your prime time for reading
We often see reading before bed as the penultimate habit, but if you find yourself too tired to read, or you can’t seem to put down the phone, find an alternative prime time to kickstart the habit.
Reading in the morning can form a great foundation to a morning routine, ensuring you fit reading and reflection into your day. Author of The Miracle Morning, Hal Elrod, includes reading in the sequence of rituals – silence, affirmations, visualisations, scribing, reading and exercise – and emphasises the importance of learning from reading.
“You learn a new idea, something that you can implement into your day. You discover something new that you can use to feel better–to be better,” he writes.
If the morning is too rushed, look to your day to find a pocket of time that could be used for reading – a twenty-minute commute, a lunch break, or when you first get home from work as a way to unwind.
3. Learn the art of habit stacking
A clever way to build more reading into your daily life is to pair it with another you have already mastered. Do you find you never skip a morning coffee or gym session? Try reading on the exercise bike, or take an extra the minutes to read in the café while you’re coffee is being made instead of checking emails.
In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin calls this “habit stacking” – making a commitment to always do certain habits together. For example you can say: “After I close my laptop for the day, I will read three pages of a book.”
Conversely, reading can be used as a substitute for habits you’re struggling with. Scrolling your phone before bed? Experiment with leaving your phone in another room and only have a book by your side to force the habit of reading.
Quick tips to build reading into your everyday
1. Borrow books from your local library to create a deadline to finish them.
2. Scatter books around the house as reading reminders, or to increase spontaneous reading.
3. Keep a book under your pillow so you're prompted to read before sleep.
4. Try to keep stimuli such as phones and computers away from your reading space.
5. Remember, it's okay to abandon a book you don't enjoy - don't let a bad book block your reading habit.
Words by Madeline Dore