Why I‘m Done Setting Reading Goals

Photo courtesy of Susan Yin on Unsplash

I’m an unapologetic goal-setter. I set goals for my work, my hobbies, and even my health. For everything from my fastest 5k run to how many hours I sleep each night, I have a goal and a tracking system. I find goals motivating and fun, and I enjoy the process as much as actually achieving my ambitions.

Despite how much I enjoy working towards goals, there’s one area of my life in which I will never set a goal again: reading.

Year after year, I’ve set a goal for the number of books I’ll read. Some years I’ve achieved it, and some years I’ve fallen flat. Regardless of the end result, I’ve always felt like it motivated me to read more books.

I’m far from the only one to set a goal for how many books they’ll read. Each year, Goodreads (the popular social network for book-lovers) hosts a wildly popular “Reading Challenge.” For the 2018 challenge, a whopping 3.8 million members signed up.

Members opt-in to the challenge by setting a goal for how many books they hope to finish over the course of the year. The default is a relatively modest one book per month, but users can change this to any number they like. Some audacious members even set goals in the hundreds. The average goal is 58, a little over one book each week.

Based on data from previous years, most Goodreads members don’t actually achieve their goals (or at least don’t record their success on Goodreads), but a significant minority do. In 2017, about one in six members who signed up for the challenge managed to finish it.

At the start of this year, I signed up for the challenge as usual and began tracking my books. This year I set a more ambitious goal than ever before: 100 books, working out to about two a week and nearly twice what I had read over the previous year.

Things started off well enough. During the first couple weeks of the year, I charged ahead, beating my target pace and even building a small buffer in case I had a busy week later without as much time to read. That didn’t last long. By the end of January, I realized I had bitten off more than I could chew.

The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t read 100 books, but that in order to hit the goal, I’d have to limit myself to only short books and easy reads. Looking back at what I read over January, I saw almost nothing but young adult novels and short, easy non-fiction. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these books, but I don’t want them to be the only thing that I read.)

Instead of reducing my goal, I decided to drop the challenge completely, and stop worrying about how much I was reading altogether.

In the nine months since I stopped setting reading goals, I’ve noticed a major shift in my reading habits. I’ve realized that even in prior years, with less overly-ambitious reading goals, I was still focusing more on the quantity of my reading rather than the quality.

By setting goals to read certain numbers of books, I was incentivizing myself to read nothing but short, quick books. This year, I’ve finally gotten to books that have sat on my shelves for over a decade, never getting picked up because I knew they would take ages to read. I’ve found some real gems on my shelves, and it’s a shame to think that if I had kept setting reading goals, I probably never would have actually gotten to them.

I’ve also discovered new favorite writers whose work I had put off reading because it was too dense to easily get through in a week. I find myself choosing more and more challenging books, instead of always going with light reads. I think there can be a lot of value in easy reads, but the more difficult books can be uniquely stimulating and satisfying.

Not only have I changed what I’m reading, but I’ve also changed how I’m reading. Instead of rushing through a book, I’m happy to take my time with novels. I read more slowly and take more breaks. I’ve rediscovered how much more I can get out of a book when I take the time to really digest its meaning. I’m learning more from the books I read and remembering them better after I finish.

I’ve always enjoyed reading, but this year it’s become more fun for me than it has been in a long time. Although I don’t know of a way to measure it, I also feel like the reading I’ve done this year has been much more mentally stimulating. I’m thinking harder about what I read, and I feel that carrying over into other areas of my life. Overall, this switch has been great for me.

I don’t think though that everyone should give up their reading goals. I’ll admit that for some people, they seem to work really well. I see friends who set them and still have the discipline to read plenty of challenging books. For me though, I think having a set number of books in mind for the year will always end up encouraging me to read the shortest and easiest books I can find. That’s why I’m done for good with setting any kind of reading goals.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at ko-fi.com/benyaclark.

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