Reading for Beginners and Aliens

Friends from other planets,

Welcome to our world. We call it the Earth. I, am Optimus Prime. If you see a truck robot floating around claiming it's me, don't trust it. Allow me to introduce us — we have named ourselves "humans" and we cumulatively do nothing useful for our planet. We could really use your help. Please read along for some of my insights into getting started on reading about our world and how we think.


If you're someone who have wanted to read and/or have faced a lot of trouble getting into reading, you're not alone. I know, it sucks. I've been there and I'm moving slowly. But there's hope. I was able to wiggle my way out of the struggle and form a consistent habit that has sustained for more than 7 months now. Here are some of my tips, insights and recommendations for anyone who is looking to develop, discover or rekindle a reading habit.

Figure out the Ws

Before getting into the habit, I would recommend you to answer the W questions first.

  1. Why do you want to read? — This is probably the most important and the toughest question of the lot. It's okay if you can't answer this right now, but keep trying to figure this out. Answering this question will open up a lot of possibilities and lead to more questions, which will ultimately lead you to a level of self-awareness.
  2. What are your expectations from this habit? — What are you trying to accomplish by reading? Is it for learning? For research? For pleasure? This gives you a good starting point of where to begin and helps you answer the next question.
  3. What do you like to read about? — Here's a quote from Naval that I like — "Read what you love until you love to read". The first step in building a reading habit is to read whatever you like to read. It could be comics, manga, newspaper, books, magazines, blogs, tweets, you name it. It doesn't matter what you read as long as you like it. Start with your most favorite thing and let your curiosity take its own course. Eventually, you will fall in love with the reading habit.
  4. When does your schedule allow you to read daily? — As with any habit formation, having a dedicated time helps a lot. I like to club it with an existing habit so that it's easy to remember. However, some people are ad-hoc in these things and if that's you, you know how to make that work.
  5. What level of commitment are you willing to give to this? — This builds up on the previous question. If you care enough, you'll make time for it. Nobody is ever busy, it's just their priorities are different. So if you need to build a reading habit, you need to ask yourself how to prioritize it and make time for it.

Though all of these are not necessary, I would recommend answering at least one or two of these questions. This will help you understand your intentions better.

The mindset shifts

  1. The habit itself is more important than what you read — Don't read something if it's boring. You'll eventually lose interest in reading if you read content that doesn't work for you. Switch to something else if it gets boring or overwhelming.
  2. Don't treat books sacred — Many of us have this preconceived notion that if we start a book, we need to finish it. That's simply not true. It's absolutely okay to abandon a book in the middle if you don't like it anymore. Don't fall prey to the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. It's a proven psychological tendency to stick to meaningless pursuits (books, habits, investments, relationships) just because of the fact that we have invested a lot of time/effort in it. It only proves detrimental to us in the long run. Hanging on to a book just for the sake of finishing it gets you stuck and leads to dropping the habit. Even if you don't want to abandon it, switch to a different book temporarily and come back to the original one later. Momentum is important.
  3. Set the bar really low — I had this "goal" that if I start reading a book, I have to finish a chapter in the same session or the same day. This was the biggest hindrance for me. I had the attention span of a hummingbird, so finishing a chapter was like making pigs fly (flying pigs will be awesome though). Please ask yourself this — What's the point in finishing a chapter (or a big chunk of a book or a blog) in a single sitting, especially when we are trying to build a new habit? Aren't we setting ourselves up for failure by aiming so high right from the beginning? While it's okay to aim high, it's crucial to have a sustainable process. At the beginning stages, forget finishing one or more chapters in a session. Focus on a page instead. If a page is too long, read half a page. The only thing to focus on is to read something. Believe it or not, there have been days where I struggled to find motivation to read and I literally picked up a book, read a single line and put it back. But it did help reinforce the fact that I read something that day. Eventually, I got to a point where I could read multiple chapters in a day. You don't have to take my word for it, but try it for yourself — start very low and build your way up.
  4. Prepare for failures — Failures are inevitable and it's absolutely okay to fail. We all have busy lives and it's impossible to prioritize reading every single day. Please don't be hard on yourself. If you couldn't read today, try again tomorrow. If not tomorrow, try the next day. Please be patient and keep trying. Embracing this trying mindset is the best way to prepare for failures. Be proud of yourself for trying. Another way I use is the mindset of "Never skip two days in a row". Skip one day and it's okay. Skip two days and you are starting a pattern. So I try my best not to skip two days in a row.
  5. Read for yourself, not for others — Books are sometimes read to play status games, to show off that you read. It's not going to last. And there's no reason to just burn through books just to meet a goal or to keep score that you have read so many books. If you could read just a few books, learn from them, enjoy them, it will be so worth it if you do it for your own pleasure and knowledge.

Where to begin

  1. Setup a reward system. This is a psychologically proven technique for habit building. Having a reward system makes you want to perform the habit even more. A habit tracker (an app or as simple as marking on a calendar) is a great example of such a system and I've been using one for the last 7 months. If you see the streak, you will more likely look for continuing the streak.
  2. Pick up any content that you would most likely come back to. If you already have watched a movie or a series that was adapted from a book, picking up that would help. For example, you could play a little game trying to find easter eggs or faults in the movie/series adaptation. If you don't want that, start with a simple, small, easy-to-read book. Books with pictures, comics, a short novel, short story collections would be ideal.
  3. Speak to your friends who read. Get insights from them, ask them about their struggles and how they overcame them. Watch videos and articles about reading and get to know what and how other people read. I believe that inspiration happens very slowly over time. Watch these things for inspiration only, and make up your own mind on what works for you.
  4. Setup your environment to foster the reading habit. Try to read in an environment that supports reading, something that frees you of other distractions. Try going to your local library, a bookstore, a cafe or anywhere that you find suitable to read. I also have a reading focus mode on my iPhone which silences all calls and notifications as soon as I open my reading app of choice. I'm sure Android has such an option too.
  5. Consistency is the key, but it's really difficult at the beginning. So make it very easy for you to start by assigning a very short duration for reading. I started with 15 minutes a day, but it could be as low as 5 minutes and worked upwards. In initial stages, I would suggest closing the book exactly after the duration (even if it's 2 or 5 minutes). At some point, you'll find that it's difficult to put down the book in 5 minutes. Increase the duration to 10 minutes at this point.
  6. Don't keep planning, just do something and figure out the details along the way. I know I should like Shia LaBeouf, but action is the most powerful thing in the world.

How to maintain the habit

  1. Realistically, books do get boring. Nobody can write a book that's fully fast paced and makes a reader hooked on every single page. So it helps to have minimum two books to read at a time. This gives you some freedom to switch between books to maintain momentum.
  2. Read/watch book summaries and reviews to see if you will like a particular book before starting it. But of course, if you'd like to explore, go blindly into one. Though I wouldn't recommend exploration at the beginning. Stick to the safe/most liked ones in your favorite genre.
  3. This applies to most books — Visualization. Visualize what you read. If there's a description of a busy street, try to visualize it. Try to visualize how a character looks, behaves and interacts. You will be amazed at how imaginative your brain is in constructing a world inside your head. You will be able to replicate even small facial expressions of the characters in the book inside your head. This is one of my favorite things about reading a book. Try it for yourself, it's absolutely boggling. For non fiction books, you could visualize the ideas put forth in them, relate the ideas to your life and imagine those ideas happening to you.
  4. It's okay to skim or skip chapters in a book. But mind you, this works only for non fiction books. You'll lose the plot if you skip chapters on fiction books, but you still can skim the chapters or long descriptive paragraphs if they're not up your street.
  5. It's okay to abandon a book if it's not working for you. Go read something else. There's plenty to read out there.

Some Recommendations

Here are my recommendations for an easy start to get into reading.

  1. One of my biggest problems was consistency. So I wanted to read something that will help me develop a consistent habit for reading. I couldn't have chosen a better book than Atomic Habits, by James Clear. You can find my summary of this book here. There goes my shameless plug. Self-help books can be intimidating to read but this was such an easy read. I was able to relate to a lot in this book and I got through this book pretty easily.
  2. I like the fantasy genre. My favorite movie versions are the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit movies, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Avatar, etc. I was looking for something simpler yet entertaining. Some research led me to the Six of Crows Duology (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), by Leigh Bardugo. It's about a gang of 6 thieves with different skills/abilities, who are hired to break into one of the most secure locations of their world to kidnap a high profile target. I couldn't put down these books and at one point I started reading them slower just so that they wouldn't get over. There are three more books in this series called the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is adapted into a Netflix Original Series. You don't have to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy to understand the Six of Crows duology. I'm hoping to read the trilogy sometime.
  3. I also wanted to read a finance book and I picked this practical personal finance book named I Will Teach You to be Rich, by Ramit Sethi. You can find my summary of this book here.
  4. I read another novel called Normal People, by Sally Rooney. It's more than just a romance book. Set in Ireland, we encounter a complex relationship between two very different characters, their fears, trauma and friendship. The writing is just immaculate (*chef's kiss*). This has also been adapted into a Hulu original series of the same name and I heard that they have done a good job.
  5. You could also pick up comics, blogs, manga, magazines, newspapers, etc to begin. Just pick one and read it daily.

If you've read this far, you have probably accomplished your reading goal for the day as a beginner. This is all it takes. This is something I'm actively trying myself and I still consider myself a beginner. I'd love to hear your stories, tries, triumphs and struggles with reading and we could help each other out in this journey. Let the reading begin. Peace out!

Vivek Arvind

Vivek Arvind

Santa Clara, CA