Stretching My Reading Muscle

When I was young, I absolutely loved reading. Seriously, in elementary school, I went through books like water. I would read in my room, in the car, in doctor’s offices, you name it. I had a book with me everywhere I went, just in case I had the chance to sift through its pages.

As I grew, my time became bogged down in other activities, as it often does among middle and high school students. I had more homework, joined more clubs, spent more time with friends. You know how these things go. While I still liked reading, it definitely did not hold the same grip on my life it once had.

After I graduated college, found a job and got married (all within a month’s span), I decided to go back to my roots. I wanted to start reading again. Alas, this hopeful aspiration didn’t prove as simple as I would’ve imagined. Though I had anticipated stacks of books lining my shelves and—in essence—filling my mind, this was not the case. My time was still full, and when I did find a spare moment, I occupied it with less meaningful “relaxation techniques,” i.e. Netflix and social media. Less productive, to be sure, but also less taxing than focusing my attention on a book.

Unfortunately, I’m not the only U.S. adult who has experienced this same frustration. According to Statista, “On average, Americans aged 20 to 34 spend a mere 0.11 hours reading daily, which amounts to less than seven minutes per day. Although the time spent reading increases in the older generations, the general trend is worrying – an overall average of only 0.28 hours spent reading per day.” Those are daunting statistics. Fortunately, the same study did discover that as of 2018, 74 percent of adults had read at least one book in the last year. I wanted to be one of those people.

So, I started slow. In 2018, I aimed to read one book per month. Seemed like a worthwhile goal. I asked for recommendations from those around me and compiled a list potentially interesting books—mostly fiction, with a few non-fiction sprinkled in there to stroke my intellectual ego. Then, I started reading again. Very gradually at first, picking up a book whenever it crossed my mind, which wasn’t often. Nonetheless, I was reading for pleasure more so than I had done in years.

After I accomplished my goal in 2018, I wanted to push it even further. I moved to two books per month in 2019. One book every two weeks. This time, I focused a little bit more on non-fiction books. While there were definitely seasons I struggled to hit my target (such as the month of June, when I was out of town for nearly two weeks), I eventually did reach it.

This brings us to 2020. At the beginning of the year, I discovered the app Goodreads, and my reading jumped about 100%. If you haven’t heard of this app yet, I highly recommend it to pretty much anyone within ear shot of my presence for more than five minutes. As a massive goal-setting, to-do-listing, progress-checking personality type, Goodreads is basically my love language wrapped into one tiny square on my phone.

Immediately, I input all of the books I had read in 2019, and quickly set about compiling a list to read in 2020. My new goal? Thirty-six books. In little more than 2 years, I had soared from barely reading anything to setting a goal of three books per month. And I wasn’t slowing down.

As of April 2020, (thanks in part to the stay-at-home orders concerning COVID-19), I’ve read 13 books so far, surpassing my on-track goal. If you would’ve asked me in 2017 if this was possible, I would’ve laughed in your face and promptly returned to checking Instagram stories. Oh how quickly things can change when we set our minds to it.

During this period, I’ve discovered reading (or painting, or writing, or any other artistic expression) is not so different from exercising. It takes time, practice and dedication. For the longest time, I assumed the desire to read more would somehow spontaneously make itself known in my heart and I would one day wake up and read three books within 24 hours. This fantasy is incredibly problematic, yet something I think we all tend to have in mind when building a new habit.

Instead, building healthy habits is just that: building. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up. This requires time, practice and yes, dedication. Just as if I were training for a marathon, I had to set aside intentional time every day to read. Instead of picking up my phone to scroll through social media or searching for the remote to turn on the television, I intentionally take 30 minutes (which I already had, but was using poorly) and use them for reading.

I also had to work my way up to my new goal. Rather than diving into 2018 with the intention of reading every single day, I started out slow, stretching my reading muscle and practicing the skill until it became almost second nature to toss a book into my purse before heading out for the day.

And of course, I had to stay dedicated. There are definitely times when I don’t want to read, just like the times when I don’t want to exercise. Instead of letting my emotions control me and falling victim to the random whims of my heart, I have to control my energy and focus it on tasks which I sometimes don’t want to do. This includes reading. I know reading—like exercise—is a healthy habit for my body. It stretches my mind, challenges my ideas and gives me a creative outlet. This means even when there are times I don’t feel very healthy, and all I want to do is lay in bed and veg out on Netflix, I must dedicate myself instead to actually cracking open a book.

This new habit in my life has been a breath of fresh air, and has grown me significantly in the past two years. I have absolutely loved learning new things, broadening my mind and going on adventures with some of my favorite characters. While I can’t say I’ve incorporated reading into my life perfectly (there are some people who read hundreds of books within a year), I can say I’m proud of how far I’ve come. I’ve stretched my reading muscle, and hope it never goes back to the shriveled, weak excuse it once was. Who knows? Maybe this time next year, my new goal will be 52 books. Crazier things have happened.



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