One of my most cherished summer traditions is taking off from my company, JotForm, and spending a week outdoors picking olives on my family’s farm in Turkey. I consider this time away from screens and spreadsheets critically important to my wellbeing, and clearing my mind of the day-to-day often creates space for inspiration I would never have while juggling the regular demands of office life.
Last year was a little different. The Covid pandemic meant that I wasn’t able to visit the farm with my family like I normally would. That’s okay — we’ve all had to put our lives on hold while we cope with an unprecedented global crisis. But even though I couldn’t take a week’s vacation in person, I knew I still had to try to replicate the peace I feel there; the tired satisfaction that comes only after a hard day in the sun spent plucking olives from branches.
So instead of traveling, I read. And not about anything practical, either. This last year, my reading wasn’t about choking down the latest tome on game theory or even studying up on developing my business. Don’t get me wrong, there’s great pleasure in reading for knowledge. But this year, the goal of my reading was pure escapism; following characters in far-off lands who do things and live lives that I never will, pandemic or not. As the late, great Carl Sagan once said, “Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
I mention all of this because reading and olive picking have something in common: While neither of them are directly tied to my business, they’re both activities that I prioritize. Life for me isn’t about squeezing work from every waking minute; it’s also about enjoyment. Startup culture is steeped in a “constant hustle” mentality, and it can be a tough habit to break. Here’s how to approach it.
Cut the TV
If you think you don’t have time to read, take a quick inventory of your daily Netflix diet. How many episodes of Bridgerton did you inhale this week? No judgment here; the pull of mindless bingeing after a hard day is undeniable. But by watching, say, one episode instead of three, you’re giving yourself a whole window of time to crack open a book. And as a bonus, it makes the TV you do watch feel extra indulgent and well-earned.
Quit books you don’t like
Not every book, no matter how many rave reviews it gets on Goodreads, is going to grip you. But the truth is that life is too short to read books you don’t like. The “rule of 50” dictates that if you still aren’t enjoying a book after 50 pages, drop it and try something else. Writing for the Guardian, James Colley likens the feeling of quitting a dull book to ending a stale relationship: It wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, it just wasn’t working. “There’s a joy that comes from putting down a book that isn’t working for you,” he writes. “It’s a little expression of freedom and control.”
Be careful, however, not to confuse a bad book with a difficult book. Some of the greatest literature out there has to be worked for. That said, if reading is feeling more like an obligation than a pleasure, it’s highly likely that you’re simply reading the wrong book at the wrong time.
Part and parcel of dropping books that don’t grab you is fighting the temptation to pick up a book just because you “should.” As I said above, there are plenty of well-regarded novels out there that simply might not interest you at all. If you love sci-fi, don’t force yourself to read a period drama because you think you’re supposed to. You’ll know you’re reading a “should” book when the idea of picking it up fills you with the same heavy feeling you get when you know you’ve got a sink full of dishes to wash. Remember that the idea here is to read for leisure, and to give you the same feeling of lightness and freedom you’d usually get from a vacation. The last thing you want on vacation is a chore.
At the same time, the more books you read, the more comfortable you will probably become branching out of your comfort zone. Not only will this expose you to more genres you might find that you love, but you’ll also keep from burning out on one particular style. Start expanding your interests gradually: If you live and breathe startups, how about a novel on the subject? Obsessed with tech? Even better. Figure out what you like and don’t like about the books you read, and explore from there.
Make a schedule — or not
Just as everyone has their own strategy for organizing to-do lists, everyone also has a way they prefer to approach reading. Personally, I’m an opportunistic reader: If I find a free window of time in my day, I take it. This can mean reading on my phone while waiting for a call to start, listening to audiobooks in the car, or before I fall asleep at night.
But reading for pleasure also calls for uninterrupted stretches of time, long enough where you can shed the world around you and slip into the one found between the pages. If you’re a goal-oriented person, you can approach reading as a personal challenge: Make it your mission to log 20 or 30 pages in one sitting, or finish a chapter. Borrowing library books can also be a powerful motivator, because you’ve only got a finite period of time before they’re due back. Better yet, borrow a few at a time: Maybe you’ll be more in the mood for one on certain days than the other. Maybe one is better suited for a quick 20-minute break, and another is ideal for the uninterrupted hour (or two!) before bed.
Living a life in which you have time to read is not essential for survival, but it will make you a sharper thinker and more empathetic person. You owe it to yourself — and your mind — to make it a part of your life.