The read-only files

Sorting through your reading list wisely

Fred Mael

Summer is over and odds are that you haven’t winnowed down that pile of books, magazines, and articles in your office or night table very much, if at all. Whatever you did read was more likely what caught your eye at the moment in print or online. Yet that mound of “should read” material still stares at you accusingly – what will you do? You need a game plan or a mental sorting system to cope with your must-read list that keeps getting further and further from reality.

The first step is to accept that you will never read everything you would like to, a point made nicely in a poignant blog by Linda Holmes entitled “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything”. Once you acknowledge this, you can begin by understanding the reasons why anything is in your should-read pile, which may include:

  1. It interests you
  2. You think the information will improve you physically, mentally or spiritually
  3. You fear that without reading it, you will fall behind professionally (even if it doesn’t interest you)
  4. You paid for it (either you subscribed or received free literature for joining a professional association)
  5. It was recommended or given to you by someone you respect, love, or fear

Once you’ve sorted this out in your mind, you can leave the material you really expect to read nearby and put all the other “shoulds” in a box in the closet. After 6-12 months, you can be assured that you will not get to those materials, and you can safely throw them away. Then, emboldened, you can repeat the process again.

Next, it is worthwhile to think about why you read anything. Most reading material can be divided into these categories:

  1. It will make you a better person (wiser, kinder, or more spiritual) – these can be relatively timeless materials you may tend to reread or wish to never forget. However, you may not care to read anything in this category.
  2. It will help you professionally – such as core and technical knowledge needed to do your work.
  3. It will help you professionally, but the knowledge is only needed for the short-term – this could include industry and client-specific materials, conference papers, and information about market trends.
  4. It will make you more culturally adept, but no one book or body of knowledge is necessary – this could include areas such as literature, history, economics, or sociology unrelated to your profession. Here again, you may not care much about this category.
  5. It gives you short-term pleasure and serves primarily as entertainment – this includes “beach fiction” and almost everything you read about sports, entertainment, and celebrities. If you’re honest, you would realize that much of the news that you read, such as which candidate is ahead in an upcoming election, fits in the same category. This is not “bad” reading and being up on news, sports, and arts can help you fit in socially and make small talk with others; just recognize that it’s not for the accumulation of wisdom, knowledge or income in comparison to the other categories.

The point is that just as you try to be mindful about what you eat, it pays to be mindful about how much of your valuable reading time is spent on information that really just “passes (or kills) time”. You do have the choice of spending all your discretionary time reading for pleasure (or texting or watching TV) – but if you do, spare yourself the guilt of staring at that pile of “should read” material.

Some other relevant points:

There are prime times when you can read without interruption, such as on flights or at the doctor’s office. If you pull something off the “should pile” instead of taking along a novel or the newspaper, you will either make better use of the time or clearly see from your bored disinterest that you will never willingly read that book or article.

The book that an acquaintance loves might be 90% rehash for you – you can skim and get the gist of it in order to satisfy any sense of oligation you may feel. Reading a good review online can be even quicker and more worthwhile.

If you are saving nonfiction material for retirement, remember that the speed of information generated now assures that you will never lack access to newer, comparable information.

Picture a custodial crew mistaking your pile of readings or trash and removing it (it happened to me once when switching jobs) – would you mainly feel remorse or relief? That should help you set priorities.

So little time and so much to read – choose wisely!

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.