Some years ago, I set myself the rule that I would only read one book at a time. There is some logic to this. Working on one project at a time is very often more efficient than working on multiple projects simultaneously. Suppose that you have two projects, each taking ten days of solid work. and you have the choice to either work on them sequentially or to interleave them so that you alternate which project you work on each day. Either way, you will complete project B on day 20. But if you work on them sequentially you will complete project A on day 10, whereas if you interleave them then you will finish project A on day 19.
So my rule was that I could only have one book on the go at a time. This didn’t mean that I had to finish all the books that I started. I allowed myself the option of abandoning a book if I wasn’t enjoying it, and I did so quite frequently. But I wasn’t allowing myself to pick up another book unless I’d either completed or made the decision to abandon the current one.
This rule comes with a few definite advantages. There is always a risk, if you’re reading multiple books at a time, that you will put one of them down, get distracted by a new one, and then when you come back to the first you might have forgotten where you were in it. Indeed, this is something I experienced quite frequently and is genuinely annoying when it happens.
Furthermore, I’ve grown up surrounded by people who like books a lot, some of whom have book-buying habits are not far off being an addiction. But if you only read one book at a time, it quite handily solves the problem of buying books speculatively. It’s much easier to be disciplined about buying a new book when you know that you can only start it once you’ve finished the last.
Much more recently, I also started thinking that I wanted to get more out of the books that I was reading. In particular I noticed after reading Thinking, Fast and Slow that I really couldn’t point to anything anything concrete that I could remember from it. So I started doing more deliberate note-taking from the books that I was reading. This is slower, obviously, than just reading straight through, but it meant that I retained a lot more information.
So at the start of 2020 I was single-tasking my reading and taking detailed notes.
This turned out to be a terrible idea.
When the pandemic hit and we were suddenly working from home, I no longer had the commute which had been a reliable time for reading – there’s not a lot else to do when you’re crammed in like sardines on a rush hour train. And without the allotted block of time, I came close to stopping reading books entirely.
It is probably obvious that I had created a rod for my own back. When each book you read has to be read carefully, and all the knowledge diligently extracted, and when you can’t switch to a more enjoyable book if you’re getting a little bit tired of the current one, then the process becomes much more like a chore than fun.
Thinking of reading like a project that you’re trying to do efficiently smuggles in a few assumptions that aren’t usually true in this case. Most importantly, you are either working on project A or project B in the example above. That might be the case for paid work, but your book-reading time is presumably self-directed. And therefore it competes with watching TV, hanging out with your friends, gardening, cooking, reading Twitter, etc., etc. If you’re choosing how to use your time in the moment, then it matters a lot whether reading a book is appealing compared to all the other possibilities.
Some years ago, Malcolm Ocean suggested that instead of trying to finish more books, you could aim to start more books. I’ve recently adopted that approach. My goal now is to pick up and start reading a book as soon as it appeals to me.
Inspired by Ocean’s “bookantt chart” and largely as a toy project to help me learn Django, I also built myself a little app at the start of this year for recording my progress as I read, and visualising that progress. I should have done this a long time ago. It’s a powerful little hack for improving my relationship with reading. I want to see the progress go up, and if I haven’t picked up a particular book for a while, I can think about why that is and whether I should make any changes to the way I’m reading it.
I’m finding that this all applies to projects more generally. If I only had one project in progress at a time, then when I didn’t feel enthusiastic about that project I’d be likely to just sit down in front of Netflix instead. So I’ve now picked up a slightly ridiculous number of projects.
There’s a part of me that feels like I might want to start pruning back the set of projects at some point, because I really have more on my plate than I can conceivably finish in any reasonable time frame. However, there’s another part of me that is thinking about it somewhat differently: I’m treating these projects as play rather than work. I’m learning to have things that I do without a sense of obligation, without a sense that I need to get them finished.
And I’m feeling enthusiastic about these projects in a way that reminds me of how I felt as a teenager. When I was a teenager I wrote a lot of music and wrote a lot of code. And I didn’t spend my time thinking that I had to finish things, I didn’t give any thought to doing things efficiently, and I didn’t much plan ahead. I just did things purely because I enjoyed them in the moment, and that’s what I’m at least partially trying to get back to.