How Reading Goals Can Hurt Your Learning & Reading Life (+ a Better Metric)


Most readers are ambitious people, so it makes sense they set reading goals. 

But these number-based goals — like how many books you’ll read this year — can cause serious harm to your reading life and self-education in two major ways:

  1. The chorification of reading (making it feel like a homework assignment). 
  2. Discouraging good reading practices like note-taking, re-reading, close analysis, reflection, and picking long and challenging books (e.g., Dickens, philosophy, history). 

I’ve experienced both of these problems first hand.

I Used to Obsess With Books-Per-Year Goals

At 24, when I started out on my journey towards becoming a serious reader, I was obsessed with reading goals. 

I saw people posting online about how many books they read.

Who were these people? How could someone read 150 books in a year? 

As a slow reader, I was worried. 

I felt I needed to match their pace. 

So every January I’d set my book count target on Goodreads.

Then around September I’d begin to feel depressed that I wasn’t going to hit my goal.

I’d end up doing things to speed my reading up, such as substituting out my 800-page history book for Of Mice and Men and a few personal development books. 

Of course, by December I’d still be nowhere close to the target.

And, on the final day, I’d feel like a total failure when I was only 60 or 70 percent there. 

Then, on New Years, I’d look back on the year and think, “Still the undisciplined sack of shit you were in college!” 

A little confession…

Since 2024, I’ve never hit my reading goal on Goodreads. 

And I don’t think I ever will. 

Because I’m pretty darn sure this will be the last year I set one. 

As for this year, I’m already 15 books behind my 60 book target! 

And, with classics like Great Expectations, a history on the American Reconstruction era, and several works of philosophy on my reading plan, I doubt I’ll catch up.

Why I’m Moving Away From Number-Based Reading Goals

I’m dropping the reading target for a few reasons. 

I’m sick of my reading goals making my hobby of self-education feel like something I’m forced to do and suck at. 

I’m sick of worrying about how long Don Quixote is taking me to get through, and how it’s delaying my forward march towards the almighty number reigning over me. 

And I’m sick of not getting as much as I can out of a book because I’m rushing through it and not reviewing my notes.

It’s an endless cycle. 

If your end goal of reading is learning, then your go-to metric shouldn’t be number of books read. 

It’s not a great indicator. 

Abraham Lincoln was notorious for getting as much as he could out of a book. He read slowly and deeply. I doubt he ever cared much about hitting his annual target. 

He’d re-read books and spend time committing entire passages to memory. 

Do I do that? 

Barely, because it creeps into time I could spend flipping new pages. 

I want to clarify that I’m not a fast reader by any means. 

I take my time. I don’t get through more than 15 pages of Jane Austen per hour. I do a lot of marginalia. 

But I could still profit from slowing down my reading. We all could. 

A Reading Goal That Works Better  

A couple months back, I started switching my daily reading goal to hours per day, rather than pages per day. 

And not just hours spent reading, but hours spent learning from books. 

That includes activities that I like to call “reading overhead” — the work you do to really study the books and retain them.

Here are some examples of these reading-related activities:

  • Taking and reviewing detailed notes. 
  • Reflecting on what you’ve read. 
  • Putting your favorite quotes in a commonplace book. 
  • Re-reading a book. 
  • Reviewing the book
  • Explaining a tricky concept to an empty chair to make sure you understand it. 
  • Stopping to just savor a beautiful sentence and relate it to your life. 
  • Writing about what you’ve read.
  • Watching video analyses (I needed a lot of these for Nietzsche).

So far, this change has had great effects on my reading life.

I feel less pressure, and I’m doing more of these activities, and not frustrated at long and challenging books for slowing me down. 

Not to mention, I’m more likely now to drop books that aren’t satisfying. I’m not pushing through them merely because it’s an easy way to add to the tally. 

The cool thing about this time-based goal is that you’ll still end up reading a lot of books. 

But you won’t be what Mortimer Adler, author of How to Read a Book, calls a “bookful blockhead,” someone who read a lot of books but gained little wisdom, insight, or knowledge from them.

And, perhaps best of all, at the end of the year you won’t consider yourself a lazy philistine. 

Slowing Down in Life

One book I just finished that ties this article up nicely is Slow Productivity by Cal Newport.

It’s a critique of the frenetic way we work. Cal exposes many of the wrong metrics we use to gauge our productivity — for example, more emails => more work done. 

Cal thinks we need to reevaluate how we work and change our priorities to focus more on what matters to create great results (deep, focused work, in the case of knowledge workers and creatives.)

I feel that reading culture needs to shift its attitude as well, and reward a slower approach, one that values depth over book count, because that’s where true meaning and learning happens, when you really work at the book, when you chew and savor rather than swallow whole. 

Plus, life is stressful enough. 

Reading should be one place where, even if you are doing it for self improvement, you can relax.

Where you can sip your tea and linger on that perfect insight.

Where you can go on a ten minute walk under the stars and summarize the chapter to yourself. 

It’s moments like these that make reading so enjoyable. 

So, if number-based reading goals are preventing these moments from existing, maybe it’s time to drop them.

After all, as the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. 

Additional Reading: In the spirit of my failures in self-directed study, here’s an article on my 7 biggest self-education mistakes. Give it a read to see what not to do when trying to learn on your own. 

Samuel

After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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