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  • how to read

How to read a (non-fiction) book a week.

The wonder of words.

I’ve always been a voracious reader and see reading as one of the great joys of life. Books can provide escapism, education, emotion, inspiration and information – all the wonders of the world are contained within their pages and expressed through their words and phrases. How frustrating then, when the pace and pressures of life seem to place restrictions on the amount of reading we can physically manage.

This frustration hit me this year when I realised how little time I was finding in my life for reading. The stacks of unread New Yorker magazines and piles of unfinished books by my bed served as a constant reminder that I was losing the reading battle. I was missing the joy of getting completely lost in a gripping novel as well as the thrill of expanding my knowledge and insight from reading interesting non-fiction. And I know many parents feel the same. The exhaustion and ‘busyness’ we feel on a daily basis seems to shift reading into the sphere of a holiday luxury – something we only have the time and energy to do on rare special occasions.

So what can we do? Well, as a balance coach, I decided to approach reading as just another facet of work life balance. Winning the battle for balance means successfully finding time for the things you love, the things that are good for you and the things that you wish you did more of. For me, reading became  an actionable part of this battle. I knew that I wanted to read more around areas that interested me, particularly ones that would broaden my expertise or increase my knowledge about subjects related to achieving balance and imposter syndrome – my core areas of specialism. I also knew that if I wanted to develop my skills to the highest possible level, I needed to keep learning – and reading.

For this reason, I decided to focus for a period of time on reading non-fiction, and as with other balance tasks, I gave myself a goal. At the beginning of the summer, I set myself a target of reading one book a week – and as a result of that focus, have read 18 books since July – more than double the amount I read in the whole of last year!

Perhaps you are wondering what’s so special about having a goal of reading a book a week? Why not just have the intention to read more often – why go to the effort of quantifying it? 


Well, here’s why:

  • Goal + strategy = results.
    I’m a firm believer in the value of commitment and discipline for achieving success. Something that seems vague and unlikely becomes doable when you have a defined goal and strategy. Achieving your goals brings satisfaction and confidence. You will not only gain the benefit of ‘reading more’, but your success will have a knock-on effect when it comes to you achieving other seemingly impossible goals (like ‘having it all’ for example!).
  • Time to read will not create itself!
    However much we wish otherwise, there are only 24 hours in the day. In order to have time to read, we need to create it ourselves. We need to allocate an amount of time to daily reading which means prioritising it over something else. If we have a quantifiable goal (i.e. one book a week), and a quantifiable amount of time every day that is necessary to achieve this goal, it is much more likely to happen. (Have a look at my blog post on making better use of time, here.)
  • Practice, makes habit, makes perfect.
    Reading a book a week is a great way to experience how a small task, consistently performed can produce impressive results over time.
  • It’s important for personal growth.
    If you’re like me, balance or ‘having it all’ isn’t about surviving, it’s about thriving – progressing in your career, rejoicing in your family, and making time in your life for the things that make you happy – i.e. your values. In my case, reading books and expanding my knowledge, escaping to different worlds and learning about others speaks to one of my core values: growth. I try to live my core values every day. Setting aside time every day to read a book a week is therefore an important part of being true to my authentic self. (Have a look at my blog post on finding your values, here.)
  • Readers are leaders!
    Some of the world’s busiest and most successful leaders have ambitious reading goals. Bill Gates reads 50 books a year and Warren Buffet reads 500 pages a day. They have reading targets and they prioritise time in their super busy lives – precisely because they know reading helps them achieve success. What more inspiration do you need?

So, if, like me earlier this year, you have been lamenting the lack of reading time in your life and you fancy giving a reading challenge a go, here’s what you can do:


1 – Set your target.

Mine was a book a week, but if you feel that is not achievable, set a different one. What matters is that you have a quantifiable, definable goal you can stick to.


2 – Make a commitment.

Come out into the open and say what you’re going to do so that you can hold yourself accountable. By making the commitment to yourself, you give your brain something concrete to focus on, something to pay more attention to than it otherwise would. With this commitment in mind, you’ll find opportunities to read all the time – on your commute to and from work, in your ‘me time’ in the mornings if (like me) you appreciate the value of getting up early (see my blog post on the subject here). This is actually when I do most of my reading. In the evenings, you might cut short your time on Instagram, or turn off Netflix that little bit earlier. On weekends you could find 10 minute pockets of free time for reading the next chapter.


3 – Start with non-fiction.

I recommend this because non-fiction books often tend to be of a similar length and have familiar  messages or themes. This means you’re not labouring over new concepts, ideas, and details in every single paragraph – it enables you to read with more fluidity.


4 –  Make a reading list.

Have a system where you list the books you want to read – if you know me well you’ll know I love a book recommendation. My friends are the best sources and the chances are, if they love a book, they know I’m likely to love it too. I use an app called Trello (which I’m currently obsessed with!) to list the books on my wish list, the books I’m going to read next, the books I’m currently reading and most importantly, the books I’ve read to date (about which, see point 10 below).  This is a screen shot of my Trello book reading board. You’ll see all the books on my ‘to read’ list, reading list, and ones I’ve read since July this year.


how to read


5 –  Read different books on the same theme.

This works because you’ll see some of the same information (quotes, data, research references etc.) come up over and over again. Also what’s great is the in-depth knowledge you accumulate around a single topic that you then internalise and apply. For example, I’ve just finished reading several books on the ‘myth of talent’, a topic which fascinates me. In different ways, the books covered how we love to attribute world class performance – whether in sport or music or any genre – to an inborn talent, something that comes naturally to those we admire – when the reality is that they have reached that level of excellence as a result of thousands of hours of hard work, bouncing back from failure and deliberate practice. From reading widely on the subject, I now have a great working knowledge.


6 – Read on an e-reader like Kindle or use the Kindle app on your ipad. 

If you already use these, you’ll know why they’re great. If you are someone who shuns electronic reading because of your love of books, however, I also hear you. But I want to encourage you to give it a try. When I first tried reading on a Kindle, I hated it and really missed the sensory feelings of having a book in my hand: turning the pages; the way the cover became worn and acquired a story of its own; the sand in the pages if I had read it on a beach; the cracked spine from when I’d put the book open-paged face down by the side of the bed when too tired to find a bookmark. But I went back to the Kindle and persevered when I discovered how brilliant it is for taking notes, highlighting passages I wanted to recall or refer to at a later date, and looking up references and meanings. It has such great functionality that for non-fiction at least, it is a compromise worth making. It is also brilliantly portable – no need ever again to burden your holiday suitcase with 6 paperbacks and you can take it absolutely anywhere. It means that when you find yourself with an unexpected ten minutes of free time in your day, you can read instead of defaulting to your phone.


7 –  Make notes and highlights as you go. 

It keeps you engaged, helps you process the information and gives you an easy reference point for when you want to refer back. The frustrating thing about reading usually is how easy it is to forget what you have read or, if you are my husband Paul, even to forget you’ve read the book at all! We have 3 copies of  “Herzog” by Saul Bellow, and 2 copies of “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman for that very reason! Using the Kindle makes note-taking and highlighting super easy to do – but an old fashioned highlighter and the margins of a print book work too.


8 – Don’t read every word. 

This may sound like cheating, but it isn’t. When you are reading prolifically, particularly books of the same genre, you get to notice a pattern in the way many books are written. Each chapter will introduce a new topic or theme, then the remainder of the chapter will be a series of stories, examples, data and research which act as supporting evidence for the main point or message. In many cases, depending, of course, on the book, it’s enough to read the first few examples in depth and skim read the rest just to confirm that they all support the same point.


9 – Follow your interest. 

There are too many books to read for you to waste time on books that don’t interest you. If you are not enjoying a book, it will take you forever to finish it. Just ditch it. It doesn’t prove anything if you manage to plough through a book you don’t enjoy. So read what appeals to you. Another great thing about using a Kindle, is that Amazon lets you download a sample of the book so you can try it before you buy. 


10 – Keep a record of your progress.

Is there anything more satisfying than ticking off a goal? The equivalent for me when it comes to reading is to move books listed in my “reading” column to my “read” column on Trello, along with the date I finished the book. Apart from giving me a massive surge of the hormone dopamine (the one that gets us excited when we achieve something), it’s also a helpful record of the books I’ve read this year. My increasingly hardworking memory no longer has to strain itself to remember names and authors of books I read 9+ months ago.


11 – Buddy up.

You can’t beat an accountability partner. Find someone who’d like to join you in this challenge, and agree to hold each other accountable. For me it’s my 13 year old son Noah, without doubt the most voracious reader on the planet. He is a book-reading beast, polishing off 600 page tomes in 24 hours, re-reading books 2 and 3 times, and costing me a fortune on Kindle. We have Kindle Unlimited and a local and school library, but while this would be more than enough for any normal reader, it is wholly inadequate for my incredible book-reading boy. Who better to hold me accountable for making time in my life for reading? Not to mention his brilliant book recommendations. ‘This is Going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay is one of his. It’s definitely in my top 5 books so far this year. A book club is also great for holding you accountable to a reading goal – though 1 book a week might be a bit too much for a book club challenge in my experience!


12 – Challenge yourself to read faster. 

This is for you if you consider yourself a slow reader. Remember, almost every aspect of what we do and the level to which we do it is more nurture than nature. This is good news and bad news. The good news is, you can get better at anything – the bad news is you have to a) want to get better and b) do the work. This means doing deliberate practice – the level of practice that lies beyond your comfort zone – over and over again. In the case of improving your reading, this means reading often, learning from the experts (the Spritz reading tool developed by MIT Professor Frank Waldman and Technology Chief Maik Maurer claims to improve reading speed by an average of 40%) and when reading, challenging yourself to read at an uncomfortable (i.e. faster) pace.


So, fire up that Kindle, pop into your nearest Waterstone’s and get reading. If you set yourself a goal and go all out to try to achieve it, that’s when the magic happens. Suddenly what seems impossible moves into the realm of the possible and then to so manageable, that before you know it, you’ll have read 6 books in a month!

Join the ‘book a week’ challenge and let me know how you get on. What’s going to be top of your reading list? I’ll be joining you by setting a new challenge for myself in the new year – reading a fiction book a week. Can’t wait! Watch this space..


fear of failureCaroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at caroline@babyproofyourlife.com