Stuart McLean

Jan 1

5 min read

I Finished Reading 50 Books in 2021

Here’s how I did it, even with a family and a full-time job.

Photo by Ishaq Robin on Unsplash

Set a Specific but Attainable Goal
Make Every Word of Your Goal Count
Break Down the Goal
Make Use of Different Media
The Numbers Aren’t Really Important
You Don’t Need to Complete Every Book You Start
Include Page-a-Day Books to Easily Boost Your Numbers
Track Your Progress
Give Yourself a Reward

In 2018 I set my first reading goal. I’d received a lot of book recommendations and bought many of those books over the previous few years, but had actually finished very few of them. I had a full-time job, two young kids at home and a hobby of playing music one or two evenings a week. It felt like I had very little time to read and I wanted to make a priority of it.

I’d also noticed that I was spending too much time scrolling through social media and other news feeds. I wanted to encourage myself to spend my time on books instead.

I decided to start with an attainable goal that would still be a bit of a challenge. With that in mind, I wrote this is my list of New Year's resolutions: “Finish 20 books in 2018.”

Note that I didn’t require myself to read the entirety of a book in the year for it to count, only that I finished reading it. I could have cheated by having a single chapter (or a single page) left in a book at the end of 2017, and just flipped the last leaf in 2018, but I didn’t actually do that. Still, there were a few books that I’d read half of but needed a bit of extra incentive to make completing them a priority.

To finish reading 20 books in a year, I’d need to complete a little over 1.5 books per month, or a bit more than half a book per week. But how long is half a book?

According to a few articles I’ve looked at including this one from the “Manuscript Appraisal Agency,” most novels are between 60,000 and 100,000 words. So we could say that the average would be around 80,000 words. Google, and this article, say that a novel of 80,000 words would be about 320 pages. This seemed right to me as an average length, which would mean that I should read an average of 160 pages per week, or 23 pages a day.

I decided that if I needed to broaden my strategy if I was going to achieve this goal.

To maximise my available reading time I decided to allow audiobooks to count towards my goal. I realise this might not work for everyone.

For me, when reading non-fiction books that don’t feature charts and diagrams, as well as classic novels from the 19th century, I find I can make a lot more progress when listening to them than when sitting down to read them. I find it’s often good to get a print copy of the book as well. That way I can revisit particular passages that might be a bit more complex.

I also read a lot of e-books on my phone and on an e-ink reader. I find this custom reader particularly useful late at night when my partner is already asleep. At these times, I just want to crawl into bed and read a few more pages without any bright light shining in my eyes.

I keep the e-reader’s backlight at the lowest possible setting and often fall asleep while reading. Sometimes this means I need to backtrack a few pages when I start reading again, but it’s definitely not a waste of time.

Having a range of books on my phone means I always have something to read wherever I am.

Many people will tell you that it’s better to focus on the quality of the books rather than the number of books you read. More importantly, focus on absorbing their message and taking action based on the knowledge and insights you gained.

I wholeheartedly agree with this, but a reading goal still helped me to prioritise completing books that interested me.

On completing a book, I try to take a few minutes to review it online, look back over my favourite quotes, re-read the introduction and make mention of it in my daily journal. Doing this helps me to remember the most important things I’ve learned from the work.

I’ve started a lot more books than I’ve finished. I think it’s fine to stop when a book isn’t clicking with you, no matter how famous or well-regarded the work is. If you’re not enjoying a book you’re not going to be able to properly absorb its content. Sometimes I’ve put a book down for a month or a year or longer and then come back to find I was finally in the right place in my life to appreciate it.

Often, switching format helps me. There are quite a few books that I’ve alternately listened to and read passages from, depending on what felt best at the time.

But I’ve also had to accept that some books are, for me, never going to be worth the time it will take to read them.

I’ve particularly enjoyed reading and re-reading Ryan Holiday’s “Daily Stoic” and Tolstoy’s “A Calendar of Wisdom.” Having these available in a reader app on my phone has given me something interesting to read and allowed me to make progress towards my goal when waiting for a train or when the kids are playing well together on the playground.

These moments when I used to turn to news websites or read click-bait articles can now contribute towards my yearly goal.

It’s easy to forget how many books you’ve started or completed in a year. I started out tracking my progress with a simple spreadsheet but soon switched to goodreads.com to set and track progress towards my goals.

I didn’t share my progress with others (other than my partner) but that’s also easy to do on Goodreads and might help give some people incentive to keep on track towards their goal.

This is now the fourth year where I’ve given myself a reading challenge. In 2018 I actually surpassed my goal, finishing 27 books.

In 2019 I set the bar at 30 books and finished 37.

In 2020 I decided to try for 40 books and finished 41. Interestingly the average length, according to Goodreads was 404 pages, which means I was managing about 44 pages per day on average. And that feels good.

Each year, after completing my goal, I bought and read two or three graphic novels that I’d had recommended to me by friends or articles. This has given me more incentive to finish my goal early and has allowed me to dive into some beautifully illustrated works while feeling like I’ve earned them.

Here’s a list of the most worldview-changing books I read in 2021.