How to read a totally reasonable number of books in 2017

I read twenty eight books in 2016, the most I’ve ever read in a year. I’d aimed for thirty, but given in 2015 I only managed twelve, I’m pleased with the results.

As the new year has come around I’ve seen my social feeds fill up with “I’m going to read more in 2017” and “how to read more in 2017” and, to be perfectly frank, a lot of these articles are total bullshit.

Two headlines showed up recently that illustrate my point:

  • Tim Ferriss’s Guide to Reading 3 Books Every Week, No Matter How Busy You Are
  • Why I read a book a day (and why you should too): the law of 33%

I’ll link these at the bottom for the curious. These are obviously preposterous: if you are busy and don’t read anything you’re not going to read one book in a week, let alone three, and the literally awful TED talk on “a book a day” advocates only reading the first and last pages of a book and calling it quits.

Reading books a lot is seen as an authoritative thing to do, and and a lot of “hey it’s a new year” articles quote Warren Buffet saying “I just sit in my office and read all day” (obviously a gross exaggeration), set unreasonable expectations and offer ridiculous “tactics” and “secrets”.

What should you do if you’d like to read some more books this year, but you also have other things to do and would just like to settle for a reasonable number? Twenty or thirty books this year, perhaps?

Well, I read a totally reasonable number of books in 2016 and I’ll do the same in 2017. I’d like to share the totally reasonable things I did in order to read more.

A good reading list is essential to making this work

A quality reading list is a very good place to start. It’s much easier to read when what you’re reading is interesting.

What should be on your reading list depends on what you want to get out of this; most of my reading is motivated by the lofty aims of wanting to be a better informed citizen and seeking knowledge that will help me in work and life. To this end, I tend to read non-fiction, with a particular interest in political economy, thoughtful business books and psychology.

You may, however, prefer fiction or other genres and that’s totally cool! Read whatever interests you: there’s no right or wrong way of doing this.

Filling your reading lists with quality books is an interesting challenge. I have a number of useful rules:

  • Recommendations from people you respect are the best starting point. Collecting recommendations is a great place to start!
  • Best seller lists aren’t very useful. They’re easily and frequently manipulated, especially on Amazon, and a lot of best selling books just aren’t very good.
  • Don’t spend too long looking at reviews, but if a book has fewer than four stars on Amazon or Goodreads, it’s probably not very good.
  • Don’t purchase right away: come back in a couple of days and decide then if you really want to sink several hours you’ll never get back into reading a title.
  • Spend a bit of time doing some research to see if you’ll like a title: who’s the author; what’s the book about; what are other people saying about this.

I like to keep a big Amazon wishlist that makes up my reading list. I might not buy the book on Amazon, but it’s just a case of deleting the item once you’ve read it. I also like to use Goodreads to keep track of what I’ve actually read: the app makes it easy to add books to your “currently reading” and “completed” list, and you’ll even get a convenient year-total tally of books read.

One final note on choosing what to read: don’t get too stuck on the total book count for the year. If you’re focussed on this too much you’ll find yourself reading lots of short, easy books with massive fonts. Very long books can be very rewarding; last year I read a 1,000 page book on Keynes with Bible-style paper and tiny margins. It counted as one book, but could have been five regular sized books. Delving very deep into one topic was, however, immensely rewarding, and I’m looking forward to doing it again. Don’t avoid these gems.

To read books you need to make time for reading books

This is the secret sauce, the secret life hacks! In order to read books in 2017, you just need to spend time reading books. Indeed, this is something many “life hack” style articles try and compromise on. It’s not possible: you’ve just got to put the time in.

You have plenty of time to read. You simply choose to spend it on other things… You can never find time. You can only allocate time. – Nat Eliason

Most of my reading gets done at the weekend with a nice cup of coffee, or after I’ve finished work. I don’t tend to read just before going to sleep, cause that keeps my brain whirring when I want it to calm down and sleep.

I’d recommend having two distinctly different books on the go at any one time: one that’s easy to read and one that’s hard. The former can be your page turner when you’re tired after work and the latter can be for when you can focus more intensely. I don’t like reading any more than two at the same time, but if it works for you then great.

Initially I struggled to concentrate for prolonged periods on “hard” books. I still do, but I’ve gotten better at it. Various scientific research shows simply practicing concentrating and immersing yourself in a task will allow you to concentrate for longer periods, so this makes sense, but I’ve also learned not to try and read the difficult stuff when fatigued. There are also other benefits to be had: I’ve no idea if it’s related, but I’ve generally got better at deep work and long periods of concentration since starting to read more.

Remembering things from books

This is an interesting one: how do you remember what you’ve learned? This obviously applies primarily to non-fiction, so if fiction is your jam you can safely skip this part.

I tend to just keep a highlighter to hand and mark next to anything I find especially interesting. I’ll also mark the top of the page so my note can be easily found later. From there the intention is to copy notes into Evernote and organise into categories and topics, but in practice this doesn’t happen a lot. I tend to read physical books; if you primarily read on a Kindle this becomes a whole lot easier.

Still, we can all aspire! I like Nat Eliason’s take on this: even just copying out your notes and never looking at them again is going to help you remember your notes in the long term.

Ryan Holiday's notecard system looks really cool but must be a real pain to actually do. http://ryanholiday.net/the-notecard-system-the-key-for-remembering-organizing-and-using-everything-you-read/

Ryan Holiday’s notecard system looks really cool but must be a real pain to actually do. 

I also like the idea of writing notes out on hundreds of notecards (mainly cause it looks cool), but given I struggle with the basic Evernote version of this, I think we can write this off as impractical. Maybe one for the future.

Some sort of system for remembering is important. It does add on to your reading time, but the marginal value of that time is huge. You might spend three hours reading a three hundred page book, but add on an extra half hour to make your notes and you’ll remember what you’ve read much more clearly.

Being moderately good at this is fine

I hope you’ll find these thoughts on reading more actually useful, and if you’re trying to read more you’ll put some of these into practice and see the benefits.

By no means am I an expert in this, but that’s precisely the point. For most people being an “expert reader” is not the goal: being moderately good at reading and trying to read a reasonable number of books a year is a much more useful approach.

If you’re interested, here’s the list of what I read in 2016. Particular highlights were:

You can take those as my recommendations but, as we know, do your own research and don’t just take my word for it.

I am, after all, only moderately good at this – but I’m also very happy with that.

 

P.S. Here’s the a book a day video if you really really want to waste some time. The Tim Ferriss article mentioned is slightly less bad: it’s a serialised write-up of a Quora answer he gave which makes some interesting points, but the title is still ridiculous.

What I’ve done/what have I done 2016: freelancing full time

It’s always a pleasure to present the annual year in review “what I’ve done/what have I done” blog post, now in its fourth year (read 2013, 2014 and 2015). I think we can all agree the moderately amusing title has stood the test of time well.

This has been a big year. A lot has happened and I’m in a very different place compared to twelve months ago (you can also read this literally). At the end of 2015 I was a full time student in my final year at the University of Warwick and I’m now a full time self-employed freelancer, living in my own legit flat and not falling down student housing.

Self employment and the freedoms associated with it are something I’ve been coveting for a long time, so feels good to be starting on that journey.

We’re going to tackle this in terms of “things that went well”, “things that didn’t go well” and “things that went fine”. We’ll jump around a lot and miss other things out to keep it interesting — and make sure there’s a nice mix between learning points for you and self-indulgent nostalgia for me.

Things that went well: I work for myself now

I’ve been freelancing for a number of years now but 2016 was when I took this full time. I’ve had an idea this is what I wanted to do more or less since I found out it was a possible job I could have. I like being able to choose what I work on, when I work, the entrepreneurial freedom and getting to keep 100% of the fruits of my labours.

I started full time in September and it’s been pretty good. Revenue is good. Having an existing network and some clients already was a huge help and I was able to leverage that network to get me started and get to a point where I now have nearly all of me work time allocated.

I am, however, running into some of the challenges of growing a freelance business: when you sell your time for money, what do you do when you run out of time? How do you grow the business in a way that doesn’t just involve working more?

Furthermore, on serious reflection I think it’s generous to say this “went well”. Freelancing is hard. The most difficult thing to deal with has been the need to do the best possible work all the time. If I had a graduate job and I was working at the same level as an average employee I’d be a great success, but when doing client work my work needs to be the best the whole time. That’s tough, and it’s still something I’m working on.

On balance, I think we’ll call it fine.

Things that went well: travel! Japan!

Between graduating and my first day at the home office I spent a month exploring Japan with my girlfriend. This is the third year in a row I’ve taken a month in the Summer to go travelling and I’ve got huge gratitude for the privileged position I’m in that lets me do that.

As always, this was an ultralight backpacking affair. One month, one small backpack (23l), no other luggage.

Japan was beautiful. It took me a week or so to get settled, but once I started understanding the culture better we had a wonderful time. Highlights included climbing Mount Fuji (we climbed overnight to get the sunrise, which was horrible but the view was literally incredible), being the only foreigners in a small town at a rural festival and Myajima, a beautiful tiny island we went to cause I saw a photo on Reddit and liked it.

Here are a couple of photos from the trip:

The downside of travelling light is I only took the camera’s kit lens, which is versatile and very light but not a great piece of gear. The next big trip we have planned in #newzealand2018 where I’ll be taking more camera gear.

Things that didn’t go well: personal projects

A year ago I was taking writing BlogBettr seriously and writing a decent article every week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really gaining any traction and I was running out of things to say when blogging about blogging.

In March I put the blog on hiatus and eventually called time on my third attempt at launching the site. I do still think blogs about blogging don’t tend to be very good and there’s space for someone to come in and do it a lot better, but the content needs to be really really good and, to be perfectly honest, there’s only so much you can say about it.

The good thing to come out of this was I pivoted BlogBettr onto this blog, bringing the email list and most of the same WordPress theme over. Since I started writing every week and publishing Digital Essentials in September, growth here has been very good. Still lots to work on, but all the metrics are headed in the right direction.

Another personal project I worked on this year was MasterWP. I’ve co-authored this with Ben Gillbanks and it’s gone okay but not great. We launched a free WordPress user → WordPress power user course in September and got a great amount of interest, but failed to follow that up with a decent sales pitch for a fully-featured premium version. We’ve now pivoted towards a monthly subscription model, which has been going okay but needs a lot of work. This is a work in progress that needs improvement next year.

Things that went well: productivity

My thinking on productivity has also changed markedly in the last year, and as it’s been a recurring theme in previous years, I’d like to touch on it again. I don’t like “habits” or “hacks” for productivity any more: instead I’ve become a convert to Deep Work and time blocking. I’ll now schedule on my calendar x hours of work on a single task and get to work. I also schedule ample breaks to try and ensure all the time scheduled can be used productively.

The shift away from something like the Pomodoro Technique, which I previously swore by, I think is indicative of the nature of the work I’m now doing: when there were dozens of book chapters and journal articles to read and analyse for weekly seminars the Pomodoro Technique works a charm.

I’ve enjoyed Nat Eliason’s writing on this recently.

Things that didn’t go well: what is work/life balance?

My work/life balance is a work in progress and was something I wanted to fix but haven’t.

One of the great freedoms of working for yourself is you get to choose when you work and what you work on. At least, allegedly. This was something I was warned about: the freedom to work whenever you like often leads to pressure to work the whole time.

The struggle here is there’s great precarity about work. You are not guaranteed any given paycheque (and indeed, don’t really have a paycheque). Here’s the key bit: the precarity around freelance work incentivises taking on more work. After all, when you don’t know how much you’re going to make next month, it makes a lot of sense to try and make as much as possible this month just in case.

I think (and hope) this is a problem exacerbated by having only just started out: I’m working with new clients and don’t know which projects will become repeat work. As I establish better client relationships the precarity should fade and I’ll be able to have a much better idea of what work I’ll have for months at a time.

As a student I worked incredibly long hours, in my first month of freelancing I rediscovered The Joy of Weekends, but two months later I’m working evenings and weekends again. This is something to fix for 2017.

Assorted and miscellaneous things that went well

There are a couple of things that happened this year that are worth a mention but not worth dwelling on:

  • Graduated 🎓
  • Moved out of student accommodation (boo) and into my first Proper Flat (hooray!).
  • Got one of my friends elected to Warwick SU.
  • Spoke at WordCamp London 2016.
  • Met some incredible new people.
  • Run more than ever.
  • Read the most books I’ve ever read in a year (more on this soon).
  • Grown up a lot.

I also want to briefly say hi to 2016 as the year in which literally all my political predictions were wrong and the unspeakably unfathomable happened.

Out getting out the vote in Leamington Spa on polling day.

I’m pleased I at least tried to do my bit for the EU referendum, but like many young people (including a lot of my friends), I’m concerned about what the future holds both in terms of Brexit and the rightward shift in political feeling across the Western world. The situation in Syria currently is also deeply distressing The only prediction I’m prepared to make these days is 2016 was bad but things could plausibly get a lot worse in 2017.

What’s in store for next year?

Alright, so what’s in store for next year? There are couple of things I want to specifically target:

  • Grow my freelance business, including product revenue. Not wholly sure what this looks like, but keen to work it out.
  • Switch off from work more and reinstate the weekend.
  • Attend more conferences.
  • Spend more time with family and friends.
  • Learn more! Get back in the reading habit.
  • Generally improve quality of life and happiness.

I always love reading other people’s year-in-review posts, so if this inspires you to do the same let me know on Twitter

2016 was fine if not good. Here’s to a better 2017.

Next

A couple of months ago I published a post called “Now“, highlighting the things I was doing now, when now was then. I was in the midst of the final year of my degree when I wrote the post so wanted to update with what’s happening next.

The big news is I’m now a graduand and will be setting out on my own to be a self-employed freelancer who does WordPress-based writing, marketing and teaching.

My degree in Politics and International Studies will be put to excellent use making snarky comments on Twitter, but for the moment at least, that’s it.

I’ve got a couple of clients and projects lined up but have space for a couple more so get in touch if you think we should be working together. I’m excited to look at new options and projects.

In the immediate future I’ll be undertaking another backpacking trip, this time visiting Japan. After that I’m moving into a non-student flat (which is momentous indeed – no more living in squalour!) and will be getting stuck in to my new working reality.

Being self-employed brings about a degree of uncertainty but right now I’m 22 and I have comparatively little to lose right now, so now’s the time to do it.

I’m very much looking forward to having some time off in Japan and bringing some focus to where the next year or two are going. After that – can’t wait to get stuck in and get moving on what’s next.

2015 in review: what I’ve done/what have I done

I like doing these year-end review posts (see 2013 in review and 2014 in review). The year-end is an excellent opportunity to sit down and reflect on what’s happened, as well as strategise for the year to come.

2015 can be summarised as a year of focus, productivity and learning.

I learned to identify what’s important, to say “no” much more and to really focus on the stuff that’s going to make a difference. I learned how to focus on happiness and how to get a hell of a lot of work done.

Let’s get to it.

Productivity

I can also honestly say adopting the Pomodoro Technique has completely revolutionsed the way I work and I’m a very significant amount more productive as a result. I genuinely can’t imagine working without it or something similar.

I’ve done some really good work this year, including stuff for my degree, freelance work for clients that I’m really proud of and a post every week since September on BlogBettr.

Learning

The long essays I had due at the end of my second year were the first where I looked beyond the reading list and really went out to find research which excited me. From there, spurred by my dissertation, I’ve seriously narrowed in on what it is I’m actually interested in. I’ve now started independently pursuing those things and trying to understand them better.

I’ve also started just appreciating learning much better – which is amusing, because I have about five months left in full-time education, something I’ve been doing for the last eighteen or nineteen years. Classic timing.

Books on the right hand side are my rapidly expanding “to read” titles. I actually cleared last year’s list for the first time in a long time.

One of my goals for last year was read more books and – probably for the first time – I can honestly say I’ve done that. I’d like to better document what I’m reading, but highlights include:

  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Really helped me get clarity on what I needed to focus on.
  • A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. A slightly odd tale of travel and pilgrimage. I just really liked this.
  • Cameron’s Coup by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. A fantastic, no-punches-held analysis of the last five years of government in Britain.
  • Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. The book which got me interested in my dissertation topic. It’s the book on tax avoidance and extremely well written.
  • The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. A sustained thesis on why equality is better for everyone which is extremely thoroughly argued. Everyone should read this.

I have a huge list of books to finish currently, and another list of books I’d like to read after that. Hat tip Nat Eliason for his excellent advice here.

If you actually want to read more… you first have to stop lying to yourself. You have plenty of time to read. You simply choose to spend it on other things.

Habits and goals

At the start of the year I appreciated that habits were the key to getting traction in doing things consistently, but something I didn’t appreciate was habits need to be paired with purpose.

Just saying (as I did at the start of the yearI want to do Headspace every day because I’ve read that over time it’s healthy is insufficient. Saying I appreciate my physical and mental wellbeing so I’m going to replace half an hour of work with half an hour of meditation and working out is much better.

Initially I only stuck sporadically with the habits I wanted to adopt, but since I’ve started pairing them with purpose I’ve made much more significant and consistent progress.

Pairing mental with physical wellbeing has been a big bonus for me this year, and the New York Times’ 7 minute workout is now something I do every day right before meditating. It’s only seven minutes (so short enough that you don’t have an excuse not to do it) but that’s enough time for it to still be decent workout. Once a week I’ll run 10km, as last year.

Travel

I’ll be honest, having done two big travelling trips now I’m increasingly over the whole fetishisation of travel for travel’s sake. I’m much more appreciative of what’s here rather than what’s to be found elsewhere. That said, travel remains a big goal for me and in 2016 I’m planning on taking a month-long trip for the third year in a row.

I had the privilege of taking a month to visit the Balkans and Turkey this Summer with my friend Joe and we had a really excellent time. Met some interesting people, saw some incredible places and had some wonderful experiences. We also spent a good chunk of time reading and writing and just appreciating the time we were having.

We went slightly further off the established track than last time and were appropriately rewarded with adventure. I also went to Austria and Strasbourg.

The future

I’ll be graduating in 2016 and from there I’ll be able to do anything I want. Within reason, of course. I’m looking to freelance as my full-time gig and I’m excited about that but also aware it represents a significant challenge.

In 2016 I’d like to get better and working out when not to work (and focus on relaxing + friends + family) and also try and reduce my food waste to more or less zero. The two aren’t related at all, but are both changes I’d like to make.

I’d generally like to continue with a lot of progress with what I started this year, including regularly exercising and meditating, writing (mostly) every day and generally increasing my productivity. Also reading more, mini-breaks and generally having a good time.

I think that’s everything for this post, for this year. Here’s to an awesome 2016.

2014 In Review: What I’ve Done/What Have I Done

2014, I think, has been an excellent year. If in 2013 I learnt a lot, in 2014 I developed a lot. I’m a lot more confident, I feel better, I’m a lot more adventurous. I don’t know I’ve been more creative, but I’ve certainly continued to pursue my creative endeavours and developed new ones.

I said a year ago I wanted to travel more and that’s been a major success this year. I’ve visited a ton of places, with my major excursion being a month-long trip around Europe this summer. I went with my friend James and he was great at making sure I pushed boundaries of what I’d normally do and I’ve certainly kept some of that spontaneity and yes attitude with me.

Having done one backpacking trip I’m absolutely going to be doing more and I’m a lot more confident about going to more adventurous places. Next Summer I’m hoping to spend a much longer time travelling in one go, hitting Morocco, Istanbul and the bits of the Mediterranean I missed this year. Travel remains very high up on my agenda.

I’ve always vaguely prescribed to a kinda minimalist attitude, but living out of a backpack for a month really demonstrated how much stuff one needs. I’ve not been very good at really applying any of this thinking/philosophy/whatever you want to call it either at home or at my house in Coventry. I’d like to get better at that in 2015.

Along similar lines I started using Headspace at the same time as I started my European travels. I’d always been curious about meditation and it was definitely a very positive move to start doing it and applying mindfulness to everyday life. So that’s been a plus. Negative has been I’ve not been very good at regularly practicing, going in fits and spurts and never managing more than two or three days in succession.

I’m toying with the idea of being unnecessarily aggressive in goals for doing Headspace in 2015. Literally every day? It’d be an interesting way of doing it.

I announced that I launched my new blog a couple of months ago, but since then I’ve not actually published anything. I say this ever year but I’d like to majorly fix that in 2015.

We’ve also reached the two-year anniversary of sevenironcows. I started this site up at the start of 2013 cause I wanted my own little space of internet and I whilst I initially planned on blogging once a week (and did so for the majority of last year), this year I’ve become less fussed about frequency of writing; I write a lot more when I’m at home and that’s fine. I would have liked to have published a couple more posts this year, but I’m pretty happy with my content output, especially the adventure posts.

University obviously dominates my entire existence during term time and the first term of my second year (ie the most recent one) was extremely busy. Being on the executive committees of both Warwik Labour and BrassSoc meant my evenings were always busy and whilst I like being busy and will always fill whatever quantity of time I have available with stuff, one can be too busy and I think I reached this point a couple of times last term.

I’ve been really enjoying my degree, though, and I’ve definitely allayed the fears I had before I joined that it would be a bit of a waste of time. Whilst arguably my learning about the abstract workings of capitalism doesn’t really help anybody, I at least find it interesting to better understand the world and whatnot.

All in all, good work in 2014 Alex. It’s been a very exciting year and I’m very much looking forward to what 2015 has in store. Onwards!

What I’ve Done/What Have I Done: 2013 In Review

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a convenient time to sit down and evaluate how the last year has gone; what’s been good; what got done; what kinda sucked and what can be done better in the next year.

For me 2013 was a year of changes and rapidly growing up. I spent the first half of the year interning and then working at Miniclip where I learned a ton about pretty much everything. That whole experience was great fun and a wonderful opportunity; my decision to have a gap year was definitely the right one.

After finishing up at Miniclip I had two months off to enjoy my summer and then started university at Warwick at the end of September. Uni has pretty much dominated my life since, and as I wrote about a couple of weeks after arriving it’s been pretty fun and — once again — another big learning experience.

That’s the uber-simplistic view of the last twelve months. There have been other changes, too, though: in September I parted ways with the site that pretty much taught me everything about blogging and the web, WPShout, the site I’d set up when I was fifteen. That was a big decision, but Fred and David doing an awesome job with the site has really vindicated the move to sell. I was essentially neglecting the site, and it’s brilliant to see the kind of content I should have been writing showing up on the site.

I’ve also been blogging “once a week” here on sevenironcows. The end of 2013 brings about the first anniversary of this site, and I’m pretty pleased with how things are going here. I don’t really give a crap about readership numbers, which is fortunate as they’re pretty abysmal, but it’s nice just having a corner of the interwebs to just write without having to think too much about it. This post is number 101, which slightly misleadingly implies I’ve published something twice a week. The majority of those posts are either haikus (I failed at writing 100 haikus in 2013, in case you were wondering) or pics, but it’s still a decidedly Not Bad content-count for the year.

The redesign the site underwent back in the summer was definitely a good move, too; pulling in my Instagram feed to the sidebar works really nicely, and I’ve even considered switching back to a one-column setup where photos are incorporated (and would dominate) the site’s main feed.

sevenironcows has basically been an entirely personal project, so with no real goals to validate and nobody to justify to, I’ve been pretty pleased with how it’s gone so far.

Looking forward to 2014 I’ve been quietly working away on a new blog which I’ll probably launch early in the new year. I’ve tried and failed to launch it before, but I’m much better prepared to make it work this time round, and I’m determined to at least give it a pretty good shot. I will nodoubt drop a post here if/when the site launches.

I’ve also decided 2014 is going to be the year I get out and see more of the world. I’ve got the first bits of a plan to travel Istanbul -> London over the summer sorted, and I’d love to get outside of Europe too. Travelling is definitely more-or-less top of my personal agenda for the next year. I’ve even kitted myself out with a new camera in anticipation.

It seems naive to try and round up everything of significance that’s happened in the last year into a single blog post, let alone a 600-odd-word one. Indeed, it is; there is a metric ton of stuff I’ve missed out here. In brief, though, 2013 has been good. 2014, however, will be better. Honest.