There's no doubt that reading is a remarkable tool for personal growth and success, and with reading on a steady decline year on year, is there anything we can do to make ourselves want pick up that old dusty book? Yes, as a matter of fact there is.
Reading is like exercise. We all know we'd be better off doing more of it, but something more important always comes along at the perfect moment. Like a new episode of that series you like, or a juicy Facebook status. It's fine, you can just read twice as much tomorrow, right?
It only takes a gust of wind to blow us off course when we commit ourselves to a large task like reading a book. Psychologists tend to think that this happens because we set our expectations so high and the fear of failure gets too much to handle.
On the other side of the equation is the attention economy. The attention economy has commodified your attention and competes for access to it. What would most people rather do: bask in the warm glow of a screen, or stare at a cold boring book? I'm not being facetious saying that. Tech products are being made more addicting by the day. In the attention economy the tech is winning.
Habits that foster momentum
It's obvious that your brain likes a degree of consistency. Everyone is different in this way – some people are more spontaneous than others and dislike routine, while others hone routine like a tool. I was the former for a long time, but lately I've seen the benefit of the latter.
Whether or not you respond to routine doesn't matter much, your brain can still be coerced into forming new habits. However, the time it takes for a new habit to stick can vary from person to person. This is why it helps to stack the deck in your favour by hacking your neural circuitry.
The Low Expectation Hack
*The low expectation hack is a name I've thought of for this because I can't find the actual name of this technique. *
This technique works, roughly speaking, because you're happiest when you're achieving things, and you can trick your brain into thinking almost anything is an achievement. You just have to manage your own expectations.
The first step is to decide on when and how often you'd like to read. The ideal time is every day or few days to make the behaviour more likely to stick.
Two, set your expectations so low that it would be almost impossible to fail. For example: "I'm going to read a page per day". By setting expectations laughably low you're increasing the chance that you'll show up every time. Showing up is the most important part. I repeat: showing up is the most important part!
Three, Write down how often you plan to read and your expectation for each session. Better still, set your calendar to remind you.
Fourth and finally, queue a reward. Think of something that you enjoy to do like watching a TV show you like. This will be your reward that you'll act out after you've finished reading. The reward completes what is known as the "habit loop" – the algorithm your brain uses to form lasting habits.
Why does this technique work?
We are our own biggest hurdle when it comes to not doing what we know we should do. Our behaviour patterns are replete with an assortment of fears and anxieties that make it hard to do the things we know we should do, and make it easy to procrastinate.
When you keep your expectations very low, you won't get anxious about the act of reading because you'll know you can live up to your own expectations. Now it's highly likely you'll actually pick up a book. Once the book is open in your hands, the hardest part is behind you.
This method can seem inefficient at first because reading a book at one page a day could take a year or more. This would be true if it weren't for those days when you read 10x or 20x your goal. There's a hidden lottery in this method; some days you'll show up with zeal and surpass your expectations. Other days you won't feel like reading at all, so you'll just meet your expectations.
Use this method throughout your life
This essay is about reading but it could easily be about almost any conceivable habit. The technique I laid out above is something that I've learned from numerous books and podcasts. There's some links below: