There's one type of social media post that gives me that insecure, FOMO feeling more than anything else. It's not the kind where people are cheers-ing their friends, nor those outfit pics in expensive clothing, or even those glowing, clear skin selfies. No, that's all fine and well with me. It's when people post about the many books they've read in a year, because I wish that was me, but it's just not. At least, it's not me anymore.
Growing up, I had a great relationship with reading. I always loved going to the library each summer and participating in the reading challenge, checking out books to check them off my list and win prizes depending on how much I read at the end of the season. I was motivated by the rewards, of course, but also by the simple gratification of reading just for fun, just for me.
At some point, though, perhaps when my school reading assignments started stacking up higher and higher, I lost that drive. And over the past few years—especially in recent months during the pandemic—I haven't been able to commit to sitting down and reading for pleasure at all, even when I really want to. When I try, I find myself quickly getting distracted, my thoughts turning to a running to-do list in my head or events happening around me.
Yet while opening up Netflix or Hulu and watching something familiar may provide me with a much easier escape, it doesn't give me the same fulfillment that I remember from my reading days of yore. And I haven't given up on my reading-for-pleasure muscles entirely. I know that I can probably get back in the groove, but it's hard to know how to start.
So, for my sake, and the sake of anyone else who can relate, I talked to Bijal Shah, a book curator and bibliotherapist who creates reading lists and uses literature to help clients with their mental health issues. Below, read her expert advice for developing better reading habits and making reading something that feels enjoyable, not intimidating.
How to Develop Better Reading Habits:
Practice mindful reading
Shah describes reading as a form of meditation, "in the sense that you're completely losing yourself in the book, because you are connecting with the book, with the readers, with the characters." With that in mind, she adds, "you're not going to get the full benefits [of reading] if you don't give yourself, your heart, mind, everything to the book."
For me, this analogy makes perfect sense. The same issue I've had trying to read for pleasure—not being able to sit still and focus—is the same issue many people have with standard meditation. However, this skill can be learned.
Shah advocates for the practice of mindful reading, and asking questions like: "What's the literature doing for you? What feelings is it bringing out? Is it something that is nudging at you?" Prompting these questions while reading can help keep you in the moment by "bringing up those experiential feelings," Shah says. But mindful reading isn't all in the mind—it's about creating intentional reading habits that make the experience more enjoyable and beneficial overall.
Find out what you like
This may seem obvious but, if you keep reading things that you don't like, it might be harder to develop consistent reading habits. So, don't get caught up in what everyone else is reading or what you think you "should" be reading, and instead find out what you actually like.
For starters, figure out your favorite genre(s), like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, sci-fi, etc. Then, Shah recommends experimenting to figure out what medium you enjoy most, whether that's paperback, hardcover, e-books, or audiobooks. Paying attention to these preferences when selecting something to read can improve the associations you have with the act of reading itself.
Find a designated reading space
Finding the time to read is one thing, but finding the space is just as important. If you're living with roommates or in a small space (or both), finding a peaceful reading spot can be tricky—but Shah says it's necessary.
"In the digital age, you're so distracted by phones and all of that," she says. "I would really suggest that when you read, you need to have a separate reading space that's free of these distractions and where you can completely devote yourself to the literature and allow yourself to escape."
Even if you don't have a picture-perfect reading nook available to you, simply putting away technology and other distractions can make a big difference.
Keep a book journal
Whether you're a journaling pro or not, Shah says keeping a book journal around is a great way to practice more mindful reading. A book journal can be a place to write down specific quotes or lines you enjoyed or concepts that you want to return to and reflect on more later. You can also use the journal to answer the questions Shah recommended earlier on and help you get more connected with how the literature is making you feel.
Find a reading partner
If you're trying to make a better commitment to reading, Shah recommends bringing in a friend to act as your "accountability partner." Shah says she does this herself, with different reading partners for different genres. "I think that's what makes me kind of get through the book and finish it, whereas otherwise, if I was just reading on my own, I'd just be like, 'Yeah I'll do that later,'" she says. With a reading partner, you can check in throughout the process of reading the book, simply asking your friend over text or phone calls what they thought of certain chapters. "Having that conversation and having that sort of reading incorporated into a relationship just keeps you going," Shah says.
Of course, for the same reasons, book clubs can also be a great way to hold yourself accountable to reading (that is, if you aren't only there for the wine and the snacks).