Finding the time to read

Has reading for pleasure become an occasional luxury in
your life? You’re not alone – so here’s my 5-point plan for making more time for books

Photo of book, bag and sunglasses to illustrate a post on finding time to readPhotograph by Anna Hamilton

Reading is my favourite thing to do, yet I am endlessly frustrated by how little time I actually spend doing it. Recently I’ve become determined to carve out at least an hour a day – ideally more – to devote to books and I’m trying to work out how to make that happen.

At the moment I see reading time as a treat – something I’ve earned at the end of a long day. And in order for it to feel genuinely indulgent and relaxing I need to feel that everything else is DONE – children in bed, house tidy, to-do list ticked off, etc etc. I want to be able to lose myself in my book without having half an eye on laundry that still needs hanging out or some hideous mountain of unread paperwork. Inevitably, this means that I only read at night when I go to bed – usually far later than I should do because who finishes their list before 10.30pm, WHO? (What, you don’t have a list? Oh.)

While that’s not ideal in itself, I’ve also begun to notice a worrying phenomenon. My mind seems to have started to associate reading books with… sleep time. Even if I don’t feel that tired when I get into bed and I’m anticipating a glorious hour of reading, within two pages my eyes are starting to close and I physically cannot read another line. This is disastrous, obviously, like patiently saving a custard slice for the weekend, only to drop it on the floor as you take it out of the fridge. The disappointment is brutal.

There are two options here – (1) go to bed even earlier and (2) read during the day as well. I plan to attempt both, and a few other things besides. Here are my goals…

1. Ditch the TV. Before you sigh and roll your eyes, know that I am not one of those self-satisfied people who says, “Oh, I never watch TV”, as if they are above such lowbrow pursuits. I love TV as much as the next person, but since having children my desire/ability to watch gritty drama has been more or less extinguished. And when you think about it, pretty much every acclaimed TV programme of the past few years has been gritty, violent and dark – “Breaking Bad”, “Game of Thrones”, “The Killing”, “Homeland”, “Happy Valley”… OK, I can manage “Sherlock”, “Modern Family”, “Bake Off” and anything presented by Kirstie Allsopp – but the fact is that TV stopped being enjoyable for me when Jack’s eye finally closed on “Lost”.

Not only that, but I don’t think it’s possible to watch TV, read books and surf (do people still say that?) the internet – there is surely not enough time in the day. As with many things in life, two out of three seems as much as we can hope for and, while the internet drives me mad, it is inevitably how I keep up with the outside world, which is kind of crucial for someone who works from home. I follow the news and find content for my Facebook and Twitter feeds online so, yeah, there’s no getting away from it.

And therefore… TV must go! And I have to say it’s actually a relief. TV programmes are such a massive part of our cultural landscape that one feels almost duty bound to watch them. But in these days of streaming – in addition to a frankly overwhelming volume of output – no one is watching the same things anyway. And certainly not at the same time on the same day, like in olden times. Plus, the hours and hours of unwatched TV episodes mounting up on the planner feel like just another thing to do, rather than something to look forward to. I feel at liberty, then, to shuffle away into a quiet corner and read a book – and I don’t think I’m going to regret it.

2. Get to bed by 10pm
Why is this the hardest thing IN THE WORLD? When the children were very small and I worked in an office on the other side of town it made sense that I wasn’t going to bed until midnight – but now? I work from home, my children are at school for most of the day and are perfectly capable of brushing their own teeth. So what’s keeping me up?

Beyond the TV, I’ve identified three culprits: bedtime stories, tidying up and effing social media. The kids are young enough to want me to read to them, but old enough to want exciting books with looooong chapters. Yes I’m looking at you JK Rowling. Fobbing them off with a few pages does not cut the mustard and it’s not uncommon for me to spend an hour reading to them both. To be honest, I’m happy to do this – I love sharing my favourite hobby with them and the stories/words often elicit discussions on everything from vocabulary and etymology to geography, history and politics (on a very basic level, obviously) – which in turn can lead to conversations about things going on in their own lives or topics they’re studying at school. It’s valuable time, I don’t want to rush it – so bedtime stories stay as they are.

Tidying up? That’s a tricky one for me. I’m a very, very tidy person. Even a relatively small amount of mess is the thin end of the wedge as far as I’m concerned – the start of a downward spiral that will surely lead to utter carnage and unmitigated chaos. If I go to bed without tidying up every last thing, I’m merely putting myself at a disadvantage the following day. I’ll spend more time tidying in the morning, start work later, get behind with everything and spend the rest of the day – week possibly! – chasing my tail to try to get back on top of things. I don’t want to do that to myself now, do I? Tidying STAYS.

Oh night-time social media, your days are numbered. I need you for work, I love to know what my friends are up to, but I do not want your clickbait links, celebrity gossip and daft quizzes. What I do need is a proper social media strategy/schedule for promoting this blog and my work in general – what I don’t need is to be panicking about my online presence (or lack thereof) at 10pm, which sends me to my computer when I am tired, weak, and likely to read articles on the Osbournes’ split. It won’t be easy, but finding time to deal with social media during the day has got to be a priority. Er, any suggestions?

3. Add reading to The List
Because I enjoy reading I do that classic thing of labelling it as an indulgence. In my slightly control freaky world (see “tidying”, above), such activities may only be carried out when all the boring stuff has been completed, ie, the Stuff on The List (chores, admin – you know the deal). I’m pretty fastidious about The List so… what if I were to put reading on there, too? On the one hand it would be a surefire way to get more of it done. On the other it might end up feeling like a chore to be ticked off as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that’s not how I’m want my reading time to feel. And yet basic mathematical logic suggests that reading in the daytime must be part of the solution, and that I need to work a half hour slot into my day somehow.

If I didn’t sit in front of a computer for a living I would read during my “lunchbreak”, but in truth my eyes – and brain – need a rest at that time. So I’m wondering about the half hour before I pick the children up from school – it tends to be somewhat unproductive as I’m anxious about getting too absorbed in work in case I forget to actually go and get them (entirely possible). I’m going to trial it and see how it goes, so watch this space.

4. Read, er, faster
Maybe it’s a hangover from university, where we did a lot of close reading (analysing texts in minute detail to interpret every nuance and connotation). Or maybe it’s my work as a sub-editor and proofreader (checking for errors, untangling convoluted sentences, identifying gaps in the information provided and ensuring that the whole thing hangs together and makes sense ). But I can’t help feeling that I’m not reading properly if I don’t read slowly and carefully. I tend to subvocalise when I read (ie, repeat the words in my head), worried that I’ll miss some subtle but crucial remark or suggestion upon which the entire meaning of the book could hinge. And when a book is really beautifully written you want to soak up every word and phrase, anyway – Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” comes to mind. But I’m beginning to suspect that that’s not how, erm, normal people read. I think it’s more common to see and absorb the words a lot faster than you could say them, speed reading through pages here and there to keep the momentum going, perhaps. I need to let go of the fear that I haven’t read a book properly if I haven’t taken in every word – after all, no one’s going to be testing me… are they?

5. Have a new book lined up
Choosing a new book is one of life’s greatest pleasures, I believe. And it’s a worthy reward for getting to the end of the previous one. However, it has occurred to me that if I had a book lined up before I finished  – or perhaps a shortlist of books at least – the anticipation might spur me on to greater reading efforts. My bookcase is packed with books I’m desperate to read and it’s a source of endless frustration that the proportion of “read” to “unread” books keeps moving in the wrong direction (not helped by my addiction to second-hand bookshops and my ever growing reading list). Could the satisfaction of inverting that ratio be the goal that motivates me to reading success? Could the mere thought of exploring and absorbing yet another story, another world, another set of characters and emotions be enough to drag me away from life’s distractions? I think it might.

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