Set Reading Priorities
Our reading may not be disciplined, efficient, or fruitful until we read with purpose. Before you begin reading a book, determine why you are reading it.
We will often neglect what we don’t prioritize. And book reading is often neglected because it fails to be a priority; and it fails to be a priority because we have not defined our reading goals clearly. Once we define the purpose of our reading, it becomes much easier to see the practical value of books in our lives.
Factor everything you want to read and need to read—even factor in your fun reading. Then choose books that align with those priorities.
But for all the extra leisure time available, we each have a limited number of days in our lives (Psalm 90). The brevity of life requires that we limit our priorities. Are you still waiting for the time to read? You may need to stop doing something else. Novelist Alan Bissett understands this. He wrote,
The reader is under assault from hundreds of television channels, 3D cinema, a computer-gaming business so large it dwarfs Hollywood, iPhones, Wii, YouTube, free commuter newspapers, an engorged celebrity culture, instant access to all the music ever recorded, 24-hour sports news, and DVD box-sets of shows such as The Wire, Mad Men and Lost that replicate some of the scope and depth of literature. Unprecedented levels of consumer debt, and now a recession, have seen everyone working longer hours. A leisure time that was already precious has been chewed into by text-messaging, Facebook and emails. Almost everyone I speak to claims that they “love books but just can’t find the time to read.” Well, they probably could—they’re just choosing to spend it differently.1
What competes for your reading time? What is less important than your reading? Nothing squanders time away more than pursuing things without a purpose. And given that the average American adult (18–34) invests only 10 minutes each day reading, yet watches 116 minutes of television, I think many of us have time that we can spend differently.2
So what in your life needs to stop happening so that reading can start happening?
Read Three Books at a Time
Having trouble finding reading time? It may be that you need to read more books. Seriously. A curious thing happened in my own life. I discovered that when I began reading three books at a time, I found more time to read. Why? It’s pretty simple, actually. I found that different times in my day allowed me to read different types of books.
I enjoy reading historical novels, but I don’t read a historical novel right after I roll out of bed in the morning. I enjoy reading theology, but I rarely read theology at night before I go to bed. I enjoy reading long epics like Lord of the Rings, but I can’t get into an epic novel while traveling.
Different genres are suited for different times, and having three books from different genres gives me greater flexibility in capturing fragments of time throughout the day. On the other hand, reading only one book makes it harder to find time to read, because it restricts the number of contexts. Let me explain.
Save the Environment
When I started thinking about the situations where I seek to capture reading fragments, I began to see that certain settings favored certain types of books. Here are a few of those places:
Desk reading. I haul myself out of bed, pour some coffee, and head downstairs to my desk. Here is where I meet with God through Scripture and often where I dive into commentaries on the Bible and theology. Most of my serious devotional reading is done at that desk in the early morning hours.
Coffee-shop reading. The longest and most difficult books, the books that require the most caffeinated attention, I bring to the coffee shop on my days off. There I invest between two and four hours reading with singular focus. Once the ear buds are in place, the music begins, and the cover is opened, the world around me fades away.
Barbershop reading. My barber has twenty magazine subscriptions, because people waiting for him have free time to read. I never go to the barbershop without a book. I find that I can read just about any type of book in this setting.
Lunch-break reading. At work I can often read a brief devotional in small fragments of time. I keep an array of books within arm’s reach at work, including a copy of The Valley of Vision at my desk. I often take fifteen minutes during my lunch break for a brief devotional. It’s a great time to recalibrate my heart in the middle of the day.
Evening “my-brain-is-fried” reading. At night when the sun is down, the kids are asleep, and my brain is shot from the day, I like to read historical novels and biographies. For me this is the best time to read the lives of others.
Bedside reading. In defiance of feng shui experts, I keep a stack of books next to my bed. These are books that I read in the thirty minutes before I fall asleep, and each of the books can be read in short chunks. These are not books I intend to read from cover-to-cover. These are my cheese platter samplers, the books with selected chapters I want to read, or books of short poems, or thrilling books that I dip into occasionally. This stack of books never gets read completely, because it’s a stack of books that I have no intention to read completely in the first place. I replace the stack of books every couple of months. We will often neglect what we don’t prioritize.
Travel reading. I travel a bit. But it took me a while to figure out how to make the most of my travel reading. For a while I traveled with light fiction, thinking that a novel would be perfect. But my reading never got any lift. While trying to read novels in the vibrating hum of a jet fuselage, I found myself nodding off and losing interest. Later I discovered that at thirty thousand feet, my life seems to come into perfect focus. Once I made this discovery, I began to limit my carryon to business books, Christian living books, and books that gave me just enough instruction to stimulate reflection and planning about my family, my job, and my life priorities. I step off the jet with pages of thoughtful personal reflection, a renewed energy for life, and a clear focus on my primary goals.
By reading multiple books at the same time, I have the flexibility to read certain books in certain settings. I’m sure your reading priorities and your reading environments will differ from mine. But think carefully about these environments, because each environment will favor certain types of reading.
We can find the time necessary to read books. But this requires thought on a number of related topics.
- Expect resistance from your heart.
- Make time to read, not excuses for why you don’t read. We all have good excuses.
- Cultivate a hunger for books by reading (and rereading) great books.
- Set your reading priorities, and let them drive your book selections.
- Stop doing something else in order to make time to read.
- Try reading three (or more) books at a time and take advantage of your environments.
You don’t need to be a professional book reviewer to read a lot of books. And you don’t need to be brilliant either. But you do need to be purposeful and consistent. And if you can discipline yourself, you will find the time you need to read.
- Alan Bissett, “Who Stole Our Reading Time?” Books Blog, The Guardian, February, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/02 /who-stole-reading-time.
- National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, no. 47, November 2007, http://www.nea.gov/news /news07/TRNR.html.