Now Is a Good Time to Read for Joy, Not Productivity
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Type the hashtag “bookstagram” into Instagram and you’ll find over 40.5 million posts dedicated to reading. These photos evoke a dreamy world of steaming teacups, stacked paperbacks and cozy blankets. It beckons you to slow down and lose yourself between the pages — and it feels especially comforting now, when we’re facing deep anxiety and uncertainty.
Then there’s the startup world. Founders repeatedly hear that success requires a superhuman reading habit. Bill Gates reads about 50 books each year. Investor Mark Cuban logs more than three hours a day reading. Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett are also dedicated readers. Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss will even teach you how to triple your reading speed, just so you can plow through more books.
As if doing business now isn’t challenging enough, we’re still counting books along with our steps, macros, sleep hours and toilet paper rolls. At the same time, 27 percent of U.S. adults say they didn’t read a book — in any format or genre — in 2018. There’s a huge disconnect here.
I realize that socioeconomic barriers can prevent some people from reading in their leisure or work time — and the virus has turned everything upside down. For those of us who can still enjoy this privilege, I want to propose that we take books off our collective to-do lists. Reading isn’t a numbers game. It’s about following your curiosity and losing yourself in stories and ideas. When businesses are at risk, counting books as a productivity measure already feels outdated. It’s time to rediscover the power of reading.
Forget the numbers
When I started my company, JotForm, in 2006, I approached reading like any other task. I diligently worked my way through the business bestsellers and every title my friends and colleagues recommended. “Buy a new printer” held the same weight on my to-do list as “read The Tipping Point.” Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t retaining anything I read. I thought that consuming all this printed wisdom would accelerate my success, but it didn’t work that way.
I had turned reading — one of my favorite pursuits — into drudgery. My life was already full of deadlines and KPIs; I didn’t need to add more. And while many successful entrepreneurs do read a lot, it’s also a natural extension of their curiosity.
Valuable reading is deep — and you’re not failing if you don’t hit a numerical target. “In the case of good books,” wrote philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, “the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
Read for the joy of it
There’s nothing quite like falling into a book. You know you’re in deep when you breathlessly devour every word. You read in the bath and while chopping onions. You race through pages on the subway, in the grocery store line and while the kids finish soccer practice. Every scrap of time is a chance to sneak in a few more paragraphs.
Focused reading lengthens our attention spans and expands our vocabulary. It can make us feel more inspired and more connected to the world. Most importantly, it’s fun. And it’s difficult to fret about your business or the state of the world when you’re fully absorbed in a plot line.
When you read for sheer enjoyment, the content naturally stays with you. When we read like it’s our job, the ideas often evaporate after the final page. Retention doesn’t matter if you’re reading to unwind after a long day. But if you’re tackling something that you hope will improve your life or business, the books are only as valuable as the action you take afterward. In other words, you have to implement what you learn.
Related: Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing
The upside of opening a book
Not all books are created equal. Some stay with us and change our lives. Others fade into the background. But even when a book isn’t exactly transformational, the simple act of reading is good for our bodies and minds — and we could all use some good health news right now. For example, studies suggest that people who read books live longer, on average, than those who don't.
People who regularly challenge their brains by reading, playing chess and doing puzzles are reportedly 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who do less engaging activities in their downtime. Another study from 2013 found that people who read and participated in mentally stimulating activities throughout their lives experienced less cognitive decline than people who didn’t actively challenge their brains.
People who read a lot of fiction also score higher on both empathy and social ability tests, Dr. Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, told NBC News. These are skills that all entrepreneurs need to hone. So, even if business-focused nonfiction feels like the “right” thing for founders to read, a novel or a short-story collection can improve your leadership abilities in less straightforward ways.
“Fiction can show you a different world,” writes author Neil Gaiman in his essay collection, The View from the Cheap Seats. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: People can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.”
Protect your reading time
The more we understand how books enhance our lives, the more likely we’ll find time and space to read. Aiming for a relaxed atmosphere will also give your brain time to make new and insightful connections, which is the very definition of creativity.
You could also emulate author Neil Pasricha, and create one “untouchable day” each week — if your circumstances allow. Use some of this quiet time for reading and reflection. Dedicating at least some of your day to strategic thinking is an important practice for entrepreneurs at all stages of their businesses, and especially right now.
Finally, read to make yourself happy. Follow tangents that spark your imagination. Reading allows us to communicate with the world’s most interesting people, both living and long gone. And now more than ever, we need safe ways to connect with each other — even through the pages of a book. With so much bad news, turbulence and fear in the air, stressing about your book count or whether you’ve read the latest bestseller feels increasingly pointless. Let’s take this challenging moment to pause and reflect — and rediscover the joy of reading.