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The Trick to Setting a Book Challenge You’ll Actually Finish

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When the reality of the pandemic set in earlier this year, and we realized that life was going to look a lot different, many of us had the same thought. This was it, the moment we’d finally read all the books.

Yeah, how did that work out?

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If you’re feeling disappointed or discouraged by falling short of your quarantine reading challenge, you aren’t alone. Lots of would-be bookworms set ambitions reading goals, believing that all this lovely unexpected free time was ideal for curling up with a good book. Or fifty.

As many of us found out the hard way, having the time to read doesn’t necessarily mean we also have the energy, focus, or even desire to read.

Bummer, huh?

Does that mean reading challenges are all doomed to fail? Absolutely not. You just have to be more strategic. Start with achievable goals, build in a reward system or a competitive element, and choose a focus Let me break it down for you.

1. Set Goals You Can Actually Meet

I’m going to read a hundred books this year!

That’s… an ambitious goal. You’d need to average one book every three and a half days, without stopping, for an entire year to read 100 books. Scale that back to 50 books a year and you might have a better shot. That’s just one book a week–with two weeks off. Maybe that’s still a little much? One book a month, or just 12 books, might be more realistic for you. Pick a number and a deadline that makes sense.

There’s no such thing as a bad goal for a reading challenge. The trick, however, is to find the sweet spot between “wildly ambitious and overwhelming” and “so low that I don’t feel motivated to get started.” You can always reassess later, but it’s more encouraging to start with a more modest goal and increase the number of books later instead of scaling back.

2. What Motivates You?

Public libraries gear up for summer reading challenges every year to encourage kids to keep reading while school is out for the season by offering t-shirts, stickers, awards, and other prizes. And when I was growing up, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program was the most amazing thing ever.

I’m not saying to start a sticker chart to track your reading challenge… but that’s not the worst idea, either. Small rewards can motivate you, even if Pizza Hut thinks you’re too old for a free personal pan pizza. In theory, reading should be its own reward.

But realistically, that isn’t as motivating as treating yourself to a favorite coffee every time you finish a book. Marking off progress, either in an app or in a journal, can also help keep you on track to meet your goals.

Another powerful motivator is competition. If you know that someone is watching your progress–and maybe even racing you to the finish line–you’ll try harder to hit your reading milestones. Try joining a virtual book club or starting a challenge group with coworkers.

3. Be Specific

Okay, you’ve got a reading goal and a reward in mind. That’s it, right? Time to start cracking the books? Not so fast!

Most reading challenges skip this step–and in my opinion, it’s one of the biggest reasons why people fail. There are, to put it mildly, a lot of books to choose from. Approaching this project without any kind of focus almost ensures that you’re going to get bored, overwhelmed, or both.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Read all 35 books from this group of 2021 debut authors
  • Finally tackle a series you’ve always meant to read
  • Complete an author’s entire catalog
  • Check off all the books on a recommended reading list
  • Read a book from a different genre every month
  • Tackle every winner from the National Book Awards, the Booker Prize, etc.
  • Follow celebrity book club recommendations
  • Decide for yourself if the book is better than the movie or TV show

It can also help to get hyped by creating a wish list for next year’s new releases. Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) is going to be huge in 2021. Andy Weir (The Martian) has a new one out next year called Project Hail Mary. The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin is already getting a lot of buzz, too. Those are just a couple of examples from my wish list, which I manage on Goodreads.

If you’re not sure what to read, there are plenty of book bloggers, YouTubers, and–yes–celebrities who can point you in the right direction. I’m also a big fan of public libraries, both because they’re free and because librarians are wizards at recommended great books. Many libraries offer free eBook and audiobook checkouts, too!

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