Sam Radford

January 19, 2022

No time to read

I wrote last week about the reading frenzy I’ve started 2022 with. Inevitably, when I share about my reading habits, I’m always asked how I find the time to read.

Before sharing a few thoughts, I will say that there are some exceptions to what I say. When I had young kids, I hardly did any reading. Also, I know plenty of friends who when reading lots for their studies, found the thought of reading anything else impossible. So yes, there are seasons of life when reading is genuinely hard to fit into life. These are times to be gracious with ourselves, not to beat ourselves up over.

That said, for most people, asking, ‘how do you find the time to read?’, is the wrong question. 

We all have time and make choices about how we spend it. I make intentional choices every day to read rather than watch television. The same with my phone: I could pick it up and doom scroll through Twitter (or Instagram, or whatever), but I am choosing to read more and scroll less.

As Oliver Burkeman points out in ‘Four Thousand Weeks’, it’s not about time:

People complain that they no longer have ‘time to read’, but the reality, as the novelist Tim Parks has pointed out, is rarely that they literally can’t locate an empty half-hour in the course of the day. 

So if time isn’t the issue, what is it? Here’s what Burkeman goes on to write:

What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task. ‘It is not simply that one is interrupted,’ writes Parks. ‘It is that one is actually inclined to interruption.’ It’s not so much that we’re too busy, or too distractible, but that we're unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule. (Emphasis mine.)

The ‘beauty’ of Instagram and Twitter and WhatsApp is that you can easily dip into them. A thirty second scroll here, a two minute scroll there. The experience isn’t diminished by its brevity.

Not so with reading, as Burkeman continues:

You can't hurry [reading] very much before the experience begins to lose its meaning; it refuses to consent, you might say, to our desire to exert control over how our time unfolds. In other words, and in common with far more aspects of reality than we’re comfortable acknowledging, reading something properly just takes the time it takes.

Reading cannot be rushed. You can’t read while also watching television (like many of us now do with social media). It only works with total focus and attention. Done half-heartedly, or briefly, or rushed, and it’s no wonder we find it boring or not engaging. Reading only works when we give ourselves completely to it. 

Looking at our screen time stats (check the settings on your iPhone if you have one), it’s easy to be shocked: ‘I never spent 50 minutes on Instagram.’ ‘Was I really on WhatsApp for 90 minutes?’ But we’re not spending 50 or 90 minutes consecutively. We’re spending 2 minutes 45 times, or variations of that. 

Reading demands more of us. 

I think it’s worth turning the television off for and putting my phone away. 

And though a minute here and two minutes there will not work, ten minutes can be enough for a reading moment. I regularly start my day with a bowl of cereal and a ten-minute dip into my book. I also tend to take at least a 30 minute lunch break and spend 20 minutes reading then. Moments can be grabbed once we make the choice and then form a habit.

There’s one other question to address though. My friend, Richard, pointed out to me that there can be a perception that reading is a luxury rather than a genuine pursuit. If we share a house with family, we can feel guilty sat around reading. Aren’t there jobs to be done? Chores to be seen to? It’s hard to read if you feel you’re being silently judged by those you live with! 

Solution? Communication. And clear boundaries. If you genuinely want reading to be a meaningful part of your life, this can be navigated around. 

I’ll leave it there. Genuine exceptions aside, reading can be a meaningful part of your life if you want it to be. They’ll need to be some intentional choices though, and behaviour changes too. Just don’t blame your lack of reading on time—it’s rarely ever true!

—Sam

Got some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you—do hit reply or drop me a note.

@samradford | samradford.com