7 Creative Strategies for New (or Frustrated) Readers

“I’m not much of a reader” may be high up there on the list of most commonly spoken phrases in the English language. So much so, in fact, that I do a double take when someone actually tells me they enjoy reading.

Last week I blogged about some amazing benefits to becoming a reader, but I understand that for most non-readers, that just sounds a little bit like saying, “Here’s what you can’t have.” Reading can be difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming, especially the busier life gets with work, relationships, and other “adult” things.

Type “I want to read but” into Google’s search bar and it immediately drops down enough suggestions–“I get bored…I can’t focus…I don’t know what to read…I can’t”–that it’s apparent lots of people want to read but feel they can’t. If that’s you, you’re in good company. I’ve been a frustrated reader, too. Still am sometimes. So I’d like to share several ways I’ve learned to make the most of reading, without burning out.

1. Read variety. Google’s very top “I want to read but…” suggestion is “…I get bored.” If that’s you, trust me–you’re not the only one. Sometimes–for new or established readers, there’s a really educational book someone recommended that may be long and dry. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t push through it. Put it down for the day and pick something else up until you’re ready to go back. At the moment I’m reading/listening to a book about the physiological response to long-term stress, a book about mindfulness meditation, and a novel about a band of miners trying to survive the harsh winter of the Colorado Rockies. If you want to read, but need a break from the tough stuff, find a fun book. Your reading muscles will get stronger.

2. Read in small doses. Like any “perfectionist,” I dream of this big day where I get to really do justice to a project or goal–like spend an entire afternoon reading on the couch. And that means I frequently put off reading–especially starting a new book–until I feel like I have “enough time.” News flash–you don’t have enough time! There will always be other things to do. The “right time to read” is a fantasy. But if you read for 10 minutes today, 5 minutes tomorrow, another 15 the next day–before you know it, you’ll have completed a book. If you wait for “enough time,” you probably won’t. Reading is also a lot easier in small doses (especially when you’re just starting). You can stay more focused and understand more. And starting out with long reading sessions can backfire when you later feel you can’t live up to that standard anymore. Small doses is a great way to start–and a great way to get out of a rut.

3. Read (and re-read) slowly enough to really understand. This may be the most helpful thing I’ve learned about reading. I think we’ve all shared this experience: You’re reading along, and all of a sudden you realize you have no idea what you’ve been reading for the last 5 minutes. It’s so discouraging! I’ve learned that if you commit to really comprehending every single sentence, you’ll get so much more out of what you’re reading. The catch is, you will read (and re-read) VERY SLOWLY at first! And that’s okay. When you don’t understand a sentence, read it again–maybe look back at its context. When you realize your mind has wandered, back up to the last paragraph you remember comprehending and try again (even if it was three pages ago). I have literally re-read the same paragraph at least ten times in a row because of distractions. Like a muscle at the gym–when you take the time to train it the right way, it will get better and faster. Eventually, focusing will be a whole lot easier. Remember: The goal of reading is not to get to the end of the book. Take it as slow as you need. Better to fully digest one meaningful paragraph today than waste an hour mindlessly scanning page after page.

4. Look up every word or concept you don’t know. It’s can be very frustrating trying to read some academic book full of big words or concepts about business or science or politics, etc. Sometimes I’ll just read right through and hope that eventually I get what it was talking about. Problem is–the more you skip over words and concepts you don’t know, the more confused and disengaged you’ll get. The good news is, it’s never been easier to learn as you go. Keep your smartphone with you, and whenever a word (e.g. elucubrate) or a concept (e.g. liquidity ratio) sails over your head, punch it into Google or Dictionary.com, learn it, and re-read the sentence. Don’t just keep reading and end up lost, take a quick Google break and add to your vocabulary and education.

5. Write down big ideas you learn and review them later. I think that we get more out of reading than we realize. Even the most experienced reader can get to the end of a book and feel like they can’t adequately recap everything they just learned. But I think all that stuff has taken root down inside you–at least if you’ve read slowly enough to comprehend it–and helps to shape your thinking. However, it can be very encouraging once you’ve finished reading–a chapter or an entire book–to look back and see what you’ve learned. It helps to cement valuable concepts in your memory and it encourages you to keep learning. I get the most out of reading when I write down big points (or little points that really resonated with me). You don’t have to write thoroughly. Sometimes I’ll even just jot down a tag-word along with the page number so I can go back and review it later.

6. Read, then practice, then read, then practice. Remember that reading is not, in itself, the end game. In his book, The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson talks about the learning cycle: First you learn a concept or theory, then you go put it into practice and learn it even better from experience. Then you go back and read about it again with experience under your belt that gives you perspective and context for your reading. Then you try it again in the real world. And repeat. A good example to consider: You can read lots of great books about communicating at work, but if you don’t put yourself out there and implement what you’re learning, they won’t do you any good. So you read a book about communication, then you start opening up more with your boss. It goes okay, but not great. So you go back and read more about it, and now it makes more sense, and you realize what parts you got right and what parts you got wrong. So you try communicating with your boss again. This time it goes a little better, but it’s not where it should be. So you go back to learn what you need to tweak. And the cycle goes on. “Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – attr. Confucius

7. If all else fails, try audiobooks. Some people find that reading hurts their eyes or gives them a headache. Some people truly have overflowing schedules and can’t find a minute away from work and family to sit and read. Don’t give up! Try audiobooks! Most of us who find ourselves too busy to read spend lots of time commuting to and from work, family, or social activities. You can find plenty of great books on CD at your local library, or online audiobook memberships to try. My personal favorite is the Hoopla app–it’s totally free and all you need is a library card. It allows you to borrow 5 titles monthly. One of my favorite features is a little button you can hit that bookmarks the exact second you’re listening to so you can go back later to review it or write down ideas. Audiobooks not only are easier with a packed schedule, they’re also easier to not put down and walk away: Someone is just reading to you and all you have to do is let them. Try it on your commutes–you’ll be amazed how many books will fit into a year of driving to and from work.

I hope that some or all of these suggestions help you start (or keep) reading without burning out. And I hope trying these help you grow more personally from the books you read. If you have any other suggestions for making the most of the practice, please share what’s been working for you in the comments so the rest of us can benefit! Good luck!

Confucius - Knowledge without Practice
Image from quotefancy.com

Author: Peter Elbridge

I am a lifelong learner and avid reader, which translates into doing smart work for myself, my team, and my clients. I have a passion for effective leadership and an even bigger passion for helping others do and feel better. I have a lot of experience in communication, public speaking, and writing. Above all, I have a deep and genuine care for every life I touch. That's why I write. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

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