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!

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“Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – Confucius

8 Life-Changing Reasons to Start Reading

Now before you say “I’m not much of a reader” and keep scrolling down your feed, hear me out! I want to share a few reasons why I think you SHOULD* give it a shot.

*Okay, I’m stretching the word “should” a little bit–I really can’t tell you I absolutely know that becoming a reader will make you a better person, and I certainly won’t suggest I think you have any duty to read. But what if, by not reading, you really are missing out on something big–something that could transform your life, make your personal relationships much more satisfying, and help you grow professionally by leaps and bounds? What if?

Here are 8 big things reading has done for me–and maybe could do for you, too: Reading has…

1. Opened my mind. All day long we tell ourselves stories about the world around us–what’s going on, why this is happening, who they are, what we should do. And a lot of pain and suffering (from fights with your significant other to bloody world wars) comes from hearing only our own stories, and not understanding someone else’s. What better way to open your mind to other possibilities and to your own growth and real education than taking a little time out of your day to listen to someone else’s story? “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

2. Given me a more humble perspective. You can’t read very many books before it becomes pretty obvious to you that there’s a heck of a lot you never really understood, a heck of a lot you still don’t, and a heck of a lot you never will. We are not know-it-alls, and genuinely considering one different perspective after another, from hundreds of well-educated individuals who all disagree on one thing or another–that may be the best possible cure for arrogance.

3. Made me confident. There are a lot of reasons I’ve come up with to not believe in myself, to feel inferior and insecure around others. No college degree, a sheltered childhood, you name it. I bet you’ve come up with similar reasons for yourself. Not only, though, does each book increase your expertise on its subject, but the very practice of reading is real-time proof that you can be just as “smart” as the next person. Start reading seriously today, and I’ll bet you anything a year from now you’ll feel more confident.

4. Trained my brain to be smarter. Okay, the bad news–reading can actually be really hard. Especially these days, where the likelihood that you’ve made it this far into my blog post is little to none (it’s much easier to glance at the headline, think “I agree,” feel inspired by your opinion, and keep scrolling through your newsfeed). We tend to have a very hard time following deep, complicated, or drawn-out theories and arguments. 5 minutes of a typical managers-meeting is sufficient proof of our inability to think beyond the quick-and-simple. Doing the hard work of reading for comprehension exercises your “smart” muscle you may have forgotten you have, and learning to think critically and understand big ideas yields countless benefits in every area of life for years to come.

5. Made me a communicator. One fun side effect of reading a lot, especially a variety of authors and styles of writing–all the words and phrases and ideas and organization and persuasiveness–it rubs off on you and you suddenly find yourself communicating more clearly and effectively with others.

6. Taught me a million life lessons–the easy(er) way. There are a lot of lessons we’re going to learn in life, work, and relationships–a lot of things we need to pay more attention to, a lot of bad ideas we shouldn’t try, habits to break, and skills to develop. We can learn those lessons the hard way by experiencing each pitfall for ourselves, or learn the easy way by listening to others who have already learned. In reality, my experience as an avid reader has often been a mix of both: I learn from a book, kind of forget or brush it off, experience it the hard way for myself, but much more quickly and easily adjust, rebound, or grow, because what I learned in the book comes back to mind and I can make sense of what is happening and remember the author’s advice. Sometimes reading means I learn the easy way–sometimes just the easiER way. Either way, it’s better than going it alone.

7. Helped me step back and see the bigger picture. Life is intense. There are lots of feelings and conflicts and emotions and unknowns. We get so wrapped up in our immediate circumstances that we often can’t think clearly. We obssess over little pieces of our lives, and as our brains flood with adrenaline, we forget everything we knew about how to be a wise adult. I’ve found that immersing yourself in a book gives you a safe place to learn and practice the big picture skills you need later when you’re stuck in a little scenario. Reading helps me see things for what they really are. When I read, I find myself looking back and understanding things that happened in the past, and looking forward, considering how I can make healthy decisions in the future. It helps remind me that all the little adrenaline- and nerve-packed moments in life are just that: little moments.

8. Motivated and energized me. Last but definitely not least–reading inspires me. It’s one of the biggest reasons people read, in fact a whole genre of writing is based on this. “Self-help” authors tend to get a bad rap, but let’s be real: There are a lot of truly good ideas out there in print (motivational AND plenty of other topics), and while we like to think we already know all the good ideas–even the ones we do know–do we really put them into practice? Be honest: How many things are you doing (or NOT doing) when you really know better? Sometimes you just need a kick in the pants. Sometimes you have to encourage a friend: “You know better,” you say. Or, “you can do it!” See, communication isn’t just about giving people new ideas. Sometimes, we need affirming, reminding, and encouraging communication–or, again, just a good old fashioned kick in the pants. “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” – Andre Gide

What do you think? Maybe reading is worth giving a shot? If you’re ready to try, here are a few books that are ideal for starting with:

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“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson