I think a lot about human nature, and how we can be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative—which has led me to think a lot about habits.
Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. If we have habits that are good for us, we’re far more likely to be happier; if we have habits that are bad for us, we’ll find it tougher to be happy.
Last year, on the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I challenged ourselves and listeners to “Walk 20 in 20,” i.e., to walk for 20 minutes every day in 2020. Research shows why this habit would add so much to our happiness and health.
Listeners have told us about the extraordinary benefits they’ve received from this daily walk. It’s exciting to hear how much good can come from this simple, consistent act.
So for 2021, we decided to propose a new habit to boost our happiness.
Drum roll for the 2021 challenge…Read for 21 minutes every day in 2021.
The year of 2020 was a tough year, so as a treat, this 2021 challenge is a delightful challenge!
Research shows that reading is good for us: it benefits mental health, sharpens the brain, makes us more empathetic, helps us learn, increases our intolerance for uncertainty (particularly useful these days).
But to be honest, while I’m gratified to know that my favorite activity is good for me, I don’t really care. I read because it’s fun. It’s more fun than practically anything else.
If you read for 21 minutes per day for 365 days, that’s 7,665 minutes, or almost 128 hours of reading. You can read a lot of books in 128 hours!
A surprising number of people, I’ve found, want to read more. But for various reasons, they struggle to get that reading done. #Read21in21 is meant to help form and strengthen the habit of reading.
As you think about this challenge, my book Better Than Before might be useful. It explores the 21 strategies we can use to build our habits. Sometimes people tell me, “Twenty-one is too many! Give me the three big ones!” But different strategies work for different people, so consider the menu of options and choose the strategies that work for you.
For instance, I describe how to use the Strategy of Pairing, the Strategy of Convenience, the Strategy of Scheduling, the Strategy of Accountability, the Strategy of Monitoring, and the Strategy of Identity.
To make habit of reading easier, I’ve created a one-page “Checklist for Habit Change” that lists all the strategies that you can use to create this habit. You very well might use many strategies in combination—which is easier than it sounds.
To download the checklist, visit this page and scroll down to “Better Than Before.”
You may also want to take a look at my one-pager “Tips for Reading Better Than Before,” which you can find on the same page.
A word of warning! The Strategy of Pairing (see above) is very powerful. Don’t launch a negative pairing by thinking, “Oh, I’ll grab a few cookies to eat while I read.” Enjoy the cookies if you want, but don’t tie them to reading. You might very well pair reading and snacking in a way that wouldn’t be helpful. If you want a little taste of something, try a cup of tea or coffee. Or my favorite, a Cinnamon Icebreaker Mint.
If you’re struggling to form a habit, and to learn which of the 21 strategies will work best for you, my book The Four Tendencies can help you figure out the approach that’s most likely to work. If you don’t yet know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, take the quick, free quiz here. (More than 3.2 million people have taken this quiz!)
For instance, if you’re an Obliger, you might benefit from joining a book group, to get that all-important accountability. Or you might tell your children that you’re going to read the books that they’re reading for school. And of course, joining this challenge is itself a way to get accountability.
If you’re discouraged because you’ve tried and failed in the past to master an important habit, don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with you. You probably just set things up in a way that doesn’t suit you. Answers and solutions exist! It turns out that it’s not that hard to change a habit, when you do it in the way that’s right for you.
You can also try the Happier™ app, which offers a variety of tools to track your aim. For example, you could use the One-Sentence journal to record what you read each day. Or log the number of pages you read using the Numbers Tracker. You might even send a text message to a friend to keep yourself accountable each day.
Speaking of which, use the hashtag #Read21in21 to post from your daily walk on social media. As the Strategy of Other People explains, we pick up habits (for better or worse) from other people, so it’s helpful to feel like we’re joining with others. And if you’re reading a book you love, say so! Word of mouth is the best.
And if, like many people, you like using the “Don’t break the chain” approach, I created a “Read 21 in ’21” one-pager that lets you cross off every day you walk. You can download it here. But with “Don’t break the chain,” remember—while we don’t want to break the chain, if we do break the chain, it’s not a big deal—we can just start back up the next day. It’s one of my habit aphorisms: What we do most days matters more than what we do once in a while.
As you think about your #Read21in21, try to find ways to make it easier or more convenient to read.
- improve your lighting with a reading lamp or a light that clips onto your book for reading in bed
- get a library card
- rearrange your space to create a more inviting area for reading
- buy a notebook where you can log the books you’ve read—a real feeling of satisfaction
- buy yourself stickers to mark each book or each month completed
- upgrade your earbuds
- upgrade your e-reading device
- borrow a bunch of books from a friend
- keep a running list of books you want to read — to do a lot of reading, it helps always to have an enticing book waiting for you
- join or start a book group
- delete a time-sucking app from your phone and replace it with an e-reader app
Pay attention to what books you enjoy! It may not be what you expect. For instance, a lot of people like mysteries and thrillers, but I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, I read a huge amount of children’s literature. Maybe you’ve never quite noticed that you love fantasy, sci-fi, memoirs, essays, science, history.
Maybe there’s a subject that you’re interested in, but you’ve never looked to see if there’s a book about it. Nothing is more fun than learning a lot about a subject or person that fascinates you.
Maybe you want to tie your daily reading to a transcendent value. Now more than ever, many people want to educate themselves on issues of racial justice, so you might choose books that explore that important subject. You might like to do daily spiritual readings, like reading the Bible, a daily meditation, or books related to a spiritual master. You might look for books to help you succeed in an important role, like being a good parent or a responsive boss.
A book can help you to enjoy something you love in a new way. If you love the Game of Thrones TV show, read the books (Amazon, Bookshop). If you love the Harry Potter books, listen to the audio-books. If you love the BBC mini-series Brideshead Revisited, read the book (Amazon, Bookshop). If you love the movies Clueless or Emma, read the novel by Jane Austen (Amazon, Bookshop).
Does it count if I listen to an audio-book? Yes.
Does it count if I re-read a book that I’ve already read? Yes.
Does it count if I’m reading aloud to my children? Yes.
What if I’m reading picture books to a one-year-old? Yup, still counts.
Can I read for more than 21 minutes? Of course! That’s even better!
Is there a “best” time of day to read? No. Figure out what works for you. Many people like to read before bed, but I have to say, this time doesn’t work well for me. I’m too sleepy. I have a friend who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to have an hour to read before he has to start getting ready for work.
Be creative! Maybe you want to read during your lunch hour, or when you get home from work, or as an afternoon break.
Can I quit a book before I’ve finished it? Well, some people do feel strongly that once they start a book, they’re committed to finishing it. I used to feel that way, but I’ve changed my mind. Life is short, and there are too many wonderful books to read. Your call.
What should I read? Whatever you want! This is supposed to be fun! Remember, the more you enjoy reading, the more you’ll read.
Can I break up the time, or do I need to read for 21 minutes straight? On the one hand, I’m a big believer in making habits manageable and attainable. On the other hand, I do think most people enjoy reading much more when they have a chance to sink into the experience. Reading a book in three-minute snatches won’t be nearly as satisfying as reading in longer bursts. Do what works for you, but I’d keep that in mind.
Should I log the books I read? Many people get a powerful feeling of satisfaction from reviewing the list of the books they’ve read, so it’s worth considering. I still remember filling out my “I’m a Bookworm” poster in grade school. These days, every week, I take a photo of the books I finished that week, as an easy way to keep a record. (If you want to see the books I’ve read, look here). The site Goodreads makes it easy to track the books you’ve read. You might use a notebook or index cards.
But if keeping a record feels like a chore, don’t worry about it.
Where do I get reading ideas? There are so many terrific lists floating around! Look online, ask your friends, go to your favorite indie and look for the “Staff Picks.” I can’t resist a staff pick. I’m lucky because readers and listeners have suggested so many books to me, and I always follow up on recommendations. Word-of-mouth is the best way to discover books.
Imagine how great it will feel to get to the end of 2021 and think back on all the reading you did, 21 minutes a day, over the course of the year.
Let’s do this! And share the books you’ve loved, to help other people get ideas for reading—more reading for all!
Remember: Whenever it is and wherever you are, there’s always a book waiting for you.