Most people recognize the value of reading books; many of us set a new year’s resolution to read more. We’re pumped up with energy. Yet, it rarely lasts.
Why is it so hard to make a reading habit stick? Surely, we all know the benefits of reading. Reading books is a great way to self-educate. Reading books improve our writing. Books broaden our perspectives with new ideas. Books provide us entertainment. Books allow us to travel to the greatest minds of our time, or to the most engrossing worlds ever imagined.
Here is my simple solution: hack your phone.
Hacks, Hacks, Hacks
While I may have used the word “hack” to grab your attention, I do not plan to provide just another “hack” in the barrage of lifehacks that is the internet. There is this notion that incrementally optimizing our daily functions will inevitably lead to a great life. As a result, we often fail to see the wood as a whole. We fail to make the big, important changes.
The method I am about to outline requires you to use your phone with a drastically different mindset. It is a keystone lifestyle habit that has rippling effects, only one of which is reading more books.
“Let me Check My Book Real Quick”
When I first tried to read more, I took the advice to bring a book around everywhere. I had Daniel C. Dennett’s - I’m sure is brilliantly written - “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” in my backpack. Guess how much I have read so far, nearly a year after buying it? I finished the introduction.
The problem with the advice to “bring a book wherever you go” is that we never end up taking the book out of our bag. Why would we, when the phone in our pocket is more easily accessible?
If we really want to read more books, we should incorporate it into a reading medium that we already use - our smartphones. We “read” on our phones every day. Whether that be social media, forums, online news, or emails, it is probably a part of your habit already.
We need to leverage our existing habit of checking our phones when we feel the trigger of boredom. We only need to change the reward of social media dopamine rush1 with the joy of reading books.
When I first had this insight, I download some ebooks and resolved to read them instead of my Reddit feed. In reality, whenever I checked my phone, I was welcomed with a barrage of notifications. I forget about the existence of the ebooks that I should be reading and fell back to my old habits.
I tried various solutions. I removed social media apps from the notification center. I removed their badge icons. I hid social media apps inside folders. None worked. I’d instinctively check Reddit and Instagram anyway.
The Radical(?) Solution
The simple “hack” to replace social media with ebooks do not work on its own. We must fundamentally shift the way we view our phones.2 We must delete all source of entertainment from our phones except ebooks.
On my iPhone’s home screen, Social media apps, Games, Discord, Shopping apps, Task manager, Email, and News are all gone. The only third-party apps that still remain are:
- Security apps like 1Password and Authy.
- Functions that can’t be replicated on a computer.
- Apps that help me focus, such as Calm for meditation and Freedom for blocking distractions.
- Messaging apps to communicate with people that are important to me.
- Evernote, my digital brain.
I turned my iPhone from a distraction into a carefully curated toolkit. Now, it only performs a few specific tasks that I deem more effectively done on a phone than a computer.
If I want to relieve some boredom by checking my phone, there is nothing to do except reading something on iBooks.
In my personal observation, I have the strongest urges to check my phone in these situations:
- Waiting on a line
- Eating a meal by myself
- Sitting in the bathroom
- When I come back to my dorm and feel tired
I instinctively pick up my phone to waste some time, and having nothing else to do, resort to reading a book. Once I start reading, I soon get engrossed in it and will be able to read for longer. Despite reading a grand total of zero books last year voluntarily, I finished seven books this year and counting.
What’s even better? Completely minimizing my phone had benefits far beyond reading more books.
- I am able to devote more attention to the people in front of me.
- I am able to sleep better.
- I feel less low-key anxiety in daily life.
- I have so much more time.
Why This Works
I truly believe that this method can work for anyone that uses their smartphones often. We’re not inventing an entirely new habit. We’re merely taking an existing trigger (boredom) and altering its reward (social media notifications) to a better alternative (entertainment value from reading). So as long as you choose books on subjects that you’re enthusiastic about, I think it will work.
Not only that, you may know that changing the environment is one of the best ways to build a new habit. 3 This method is an extreme version of that. We are designing our digital environment like an architect with the clear intention of reading more books.
If you live in a developed country, chances are, you spend way too much time on your phone anyway.4 Why not use that time to enrich our minds?
- Completely minimize your smartphone by uninstalling all apps that provide entertainment and/or real-time information.
- Only leave apps that must be on a phone instead of your computer.
- Remove notifications from any apps that are still on your phone that could be distractive.
- Download some ebooks onto your ebook reader app of choice.
- Whenever you instinctively check your phone, you have no choice but to read.
1 “Has dopamine got us hooked on tech?” by Simon Parkin on The Guardian, Mar 4 2018.
2 For more information on how to conduct a thorough digital decluttering, read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.
3 “Want to Change Your Habits? Change Your Environment” by Gregory Ciotti on Psychology Today, August 7 2014.
4 “Tech Addiction By the Numbers: How Much Time We Spend Online” by Rob Marvin on PCMag, June 11 2018.