| September 16, 2018

Last updated: October 22, 2018

Books, Travel & Leisure

Why You Need a Reading Plan

You may have a plan for your week, a plan for your workouts, a plan for your finances, and even a plan for your leisure time. These plans help you get the most out of your time and resources — the most out of your life.

But have you ever thought about having a reading plan?

You should: just like any other plan, it can help you maximize the value, enjoyment, and satisfaction you get from your reading.

Today we’ll talk about why, and offer suggestions for formulating a reading plan of your own.

What Is a Reading Plan?

A reading plan is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than flitting about from random book to random book, you have a system — usually a list — for determining what you’ll read next. Whether that’s specific titles (all of Dickens’ works), or simply broader topics/genres (Civil War history), a reading plan guides your reading efforts and keeps you from stagnating or always choosing the path of least resistance (whatever is right in front of you, easiest, or most entertaining).

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re only reading those books, of course. At any given time, I’m probably reading 2-4 books, one of which is part of a larger plan I’m following (right now it’s biographies of US Presidents, in chronological order; before that, it was a deep dive in the Western genre). If you’re a one-book-at-a-time person, maybe every other book is just for fun, and every other is part of your plan.

The Benefits of a Reading Plan

Keeps you in a lifelong learner mindset. Everyone should strive to be a lifelong learner. Your education doesn’t end once you have a diploma in hand. Reading can be used not only for entertainment, but to further your own education, and giving it a plan can help you make this “curriculum” more substantive and meaningful.   

Keeps you disciplined in your reading. I don’t mean this to say that your reading shouldn’t be fun or enjoyable. It absolutely should be. I mean this more in the sense that having a plan keeps you reading consistently. When you see a list of books you’re trying to tackle, you’ll be motivated to actually put in the time to get your 50 pages or 30 minutes per day. Just as a to-do list keeps you focused on completing work tasks and chores, a to-read list keeps you focused on knocking out books. It can help you make reading a priority.

While I know I’m in a unique position since I work from home, and since reading is often part of that work, I try to read about 100 pages at the start of each day before tackling just about anything else (100 pages of anything; perhaps it’s all of a single book, but many times it’s split between a couple books).

My list keeps me motivated to wake up early and stay on track before the kids are taking up my time and mental space. Since I know this is my goal, I also know that I have about 3,000 pages a month to work with, and I occasionally even schedule out the reading I’d like to accomplish each week. When you take your reading seriously, you get serious amounts of reading done. It’s that simple.

Helps push you to get through books you may otherwise not have the gumption to finish. While your reading should indeed be an enjoyable endeavor (I can’t repeat that enough; hating what you’re reading will make you not want to read anymore), sometimes it’s worth finishing a book that you aren’t super in love with.

Every once in a while I come across a book that I want to have read (past tense). To get there, I obviously have to read it (present tense). And sometimes those books — even if the writing is good and I’m enjoying the story — can be a slog. It’s sort of an odd phenomenon, but I’m sure you can relate. For me most recently, that has been Anna Karenina. I can objectively state that the writing is just magnificent. Tolstoy crafts a sentence as well as any writer I’ve encountered. But, I got stuck about halfway through, and haven’t been able to finish. It just sometimes takes a lot of mental energy to keep going with hard books that you aren’t naturally drawn to. I want to be someone who has read Anna Karenina, but it’s not currently part of any plan of mine, so it sits on my shelf, but halfway finished.

Now, let’s look at a book that was also somewhat tough, but that I managed to finish: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I originally bought it back in college and made it about ⅓ of the way through before giving up. Then about 6 months ago I tried again, and got stalled about 50 pages in. I couldn’t figure it out. Chernow is an amazing writer, and the story was superb. It was just hard to get through; the typeface was small (which meant a lot of words per page), and it was all such new information (I hadn’t read much about the Revolution before) that my brain was drained after seemingly each page. It wasn’t until I committed to reading a book about each of the presidents that I was finally able to sit with it each morning and get it finished in just a couple weeks.

There’s just something that happens in the brain when you have a list and curriculum to work though that adds an extra dose of motivation.

Greases the reading wheels a bit. This is perhaps a minor point, but one worth noting. Have you ever noticed that even simply choosing your next book saps some of your reading willpower? You’re at the library, or the bookstore, or even just staring at your own shelves, and you’re overwhelmed with the choices. You want to read all. the. books. But you just can’t decide on which one to pick up, and by the time you finally settle on something, you’re drained from simply making the selection. It’s indeed proven that this “paradox of choice” can be paralyzing, and stymie our ability to make a decision or accomplish anything at all. Conversely, when you work from a plan, you don’t have to choose at all; you simply go to the next book on your list, full of willpower and fresh energy. Having a reading plan greases the wheels and lets you get into a groove much easier.

Creates room for mastery of a subject. This is perhaps my favorite part of having a reading plan. We’ve made the case multiple times here on Art of Manliness that everyone should strive to be “T-shaped”; that is, you should have a breadth of general knowledge, but also mastery in a single topic or subject or skill. Such mastery provides satisfaction and self-confidence in spades.

So how do you achieve mastery? One way is certainly by reading deeply into a single subject. Whether driven by your career or your personal passions, having a reading plan is a surefire way to deepen your knowledge base.

As mentioned above, last year I set out to find the very best Western novels as research for an article. I read nearly 50 for the project, and now feel like I can talk Western literature as well as just about any other expert on the topic. Before working for the Art of Manliness, I was employed by a “green” IT services company. I didn’t know much about this sector, so one of the first things I did was make a list of every book I could find on data centers, green IT initiatives, the “cloud,” etc.

You can not only read deeply into your professional field, but into your hobbies and interests as well. If you’re a hunter, read about the history of this pursuit; read biographies of famous hunters; read practical field guides on the sport; read everything about hunting you can get your hands on.

Make a list, and plumb the depth of the vertical axis of your knowledge. Truly master a subject.

Provides a sense of accomplishment. Just as your body feels accomplished after pushing through a lifting plan and hitting your goal on your deadlift, so your brain feels accomplished when you push through a list of books that you’ve been working through for a long time. You’ll feel as though your reading has really meant something. If nothing else, I can all but guarantee that having a plan will assist you in reading more, which alone will increase your sense of accomplishment.

Some Ideas of Reading Plans to Follow  

Make it a challenge. Push yourself a little bit. Don’t simply choose from the New York Times Best Sellers list, which is not only manipulatable, but also almost always consists of some combo of mystery fiction and celebrity memoir. Again, sometimes there’s a place for those books, but not in a reading plan in which you hope to challenge yourself.

That said, you do you. If you want to read the canon of James Patterson, go for it. Again, if nothing else, you’ll likely read more, which is always a good thing. (You might also come to realize that all his books are actually the same, and you’ll want something a little more challenging. Zing!)

A few ideas for reading plans to follow:

Art of Manliness lists. We have a number of lists of books here on AoM. Our list of 100 books every man should read is the most popular, but any of them will do the trick:

The Great Books. There are a number of avenues to pursue reading the Great Books. Online Great Books is a paid program, but has the benefit of allowing you to read and discuss them with people on the same track. Mortimer Adler has a long list in the back of his classic How to Read a Book. Susan Wise Bauer has a slightly more accessible list in the back of her book, The Well-Educated Mind.

Award winners. Go through some sort of list of award winners. The list of Pulitzer winners, for any category, is popular to do. The National Book Award is another. Read a book by each author who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The options here are many.

The entire canon of a single author. Love Hemingway or Steinbeck or Dickens? Read everything they ever wrote, in chronological order if you’re feeling especially bold.

Read through some historical category. Men tend to really enjoy biographies and histories, so dig into that in a more specific way. Read a biography of every president (or leader of the nation you live in). The creator of bestpresidentialbios.com has spent 5 years doing that. Make a list of Civil War books. Read every book you can find about the state or region you live in (including novels set in that state/region). You get the idea.

The number of book lists out there on the web is innumerable. Find one, commit, and stick to it. Plans take you more directly to what you want — and that’s as true in reading as in anything else.

You can follow along with my journey through the presidential biographies, as well as my other non-plan reading, by signing up for my weekly newsletter: “What I’m Reading.”