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How to read more books using (brain) chemistry

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

I have an admission to make.

There was a time where I stopped reading. Completely.

It was a struggle: I'd pick up a book, then give up because it was just too much effort.

Looking back, I wondered why I kept failing, and I found myself thinking about this graph from high school chemistry:

I apologise for forcing this onto anyone still studying, or for any horrible flashbacks I might have triggered, but I swear there is a reason!

Now class, what does this graph show?

The line on the left represents the reactants (you and a book), and on the right side is the intended product (regular reading). The amount of energy required for this reaction to take place is known as the Activation energy (effort to read), represented by the peak in the graph. If you use a catalyst (this blog), the activation energy can be lowered.

I realised I'd subconsciously been increasing the activation energy required to read. Reasons not to read, rules about what I would read, could read, should read. Excuses why it was difficult, or not right now, or... anything except just picking up a book.

The catalyst is lowering barrier to entry by all means. And that required me removing all the preconceptions in my head.

So here are my prescribed catalysts that helped me get over my mental hump and start reading again.

1) Read whatever you want.

People sometimes make reading out to be this snobby elitist thing, when at the end of the day it’s just another form of escapism. There’s nothing wrong with liking ‘shlocky’ romances or ‘poorly-written’ action books. Don’t be afraid to start with a graphic novel or a comic as a smoother transition away from visual mediums. Think of it like this: by setting restrictions on what types of books you think you ‘should’ read, you turn the act of reading into a chore rather than a pass-time. So make it easy on yourself and start with whatever you want to read!

2) Use your interests to inspire your reading

If you don't know where to start, try reading about something you are already interested in. This doesn’t have to be fiction: it can be the autobiography of a celebrity or public figure you admire, how-to books, self-help, hobbyist, travelogues. History books; or, bridging the gap, historical fiction. Anything that piques your curiosity.

3) If you find something that excites you, don't be ashamed to stick with it!

If you are enjoying a certain series, author, or genre, don’t feel like you have to change course. When you are really into a book you will read more regularly, which over time will build the habit of reading. This means when you ARE ready to move on to something else it will be easier than before.

4) If you don’t like a book, don’t be afraid to stop

Now, I am of the school of thought you should give any book a proper go. Because books don’t give your brain the same instant stimulation that TV, Film or social media can, they can take longer to get into. But this slow burn allows you to get more immersed, and reading is proven to be good for your imagination, empathy, and concentration. Having said that, just because you have started a book, doesn't make you obligated to finish it. By setting this artificial rule you set yourself up for failure. If you are already struggling to read, suffering through something that isn’t for you increases the likelyhood you stop reading altogether, especially if when you reach the end you are still underwhelmed. I find a good rule of thumb is reading a third of the book, then deciding whether or not to continue. Having said that, your goal should be to get to a place where your love for reading sustains itself, so if after a couple chapter you really feel a story isn’t for you, there is no shame in chucking it.

5) Try exploring outside your comfort zone

However, if you stopped reading suddenly, it might have been because you were reading too much of the same thing. This happened to me when I was a teenager: I was reading exclusively Young Adult and Detective/ Crime stories. After a while I started to see the same patterns and beats play out across the stories. This made me lose the element of surprise, and suddenly I found reading much harder. If you feel like you are experiencing burnout, try reading something completely new. If you worry about wasting your time or simply don’t know where to start, get opinions from people you respect. This can be your friends, family, reviewers, bloggers, whoever.

Check out my blog post about this here:

6) Grab a book at random

Alternatively, next time you are at a bookshop, grab the first thing that catches your eye. When you pick something up autonomously you create a built-in investment (especially if the book cost a lot!) which will increase your motivation to read it. Also, the impulsive purchase will give the book an aura of mystery, and curiosity is a great motivator.

7) Read before bed

It might not be a good recommendation for your eyesight, but it is certainly better than looking at a screen. Blue light from devices can hinder sleep, while reading uses up the leftover brain power you had from the day, allowing you to achieve better rest. Cracking open a book before bed feels easier because there are less responsibilities or things to distract you. By confining it to a physical space you create a nice little ritual: flicking through a couple chapters while snug under the covers to sign off the day.

8) Read when you travel

Another way to create a routine is to read during your morning commute. Now, unless you are on a steady train this might not be feasible, less you get motion sickness, but this is where the wonderful world of audiobooks come in! Honestly, my best advice to start reading again is actually not to read at all, but to listen to an audiobook during a commute or long journeys. If you are already big into podcasts this will be an easy transition, and after a while you will likely be buying books yourself to keep up your appetite.

9) Have a no screen day

I think this is a good idea in general. When the easier forms of entertainment are taken away it’s amazing how even the most stubborn kid will suddenly want to read. And hey, even if you don’t, you will likely do something equally productive, so make it a tradition in your week!

10) Read regularly

Regardless of what catalyst helps you, just try read as often as you can. If you have long breaks, the activation energy will rise again, whereas if you have a regular schedule, eventually it will become a habit. Soon picking up a book will be as easy as finding something to watch on Netflix.

Okay, maybe that isn't that easy... Good luck!


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