Busting Your Book Backlog

How to get through your backlog of reading.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #68

Today's topic is getting through stacks of reading material. It must be that time of year. Gretchen and Charlene both wrote in asking how to get through their stacks of backed up reading material.

My office is full of stacks of books, magazines, and stuff to read. I like reading. I like it so much that I’ve given myself 20/900 vision by never focusing further than a foot away from my eyes. It saves time, since I can just move my eyes from book to book, without wasting all that focusing time. Like you, I have way too much stuff I haven’t read.

Often and Little

First, make sure all the books you haven’t read are in a separate place on your bookshelf or in your office. Name the pile something clever, like, “The Well of Book Knowledge Not Yet Known,” or, “Books to Read,” or “Fred.” Keep them spine out so you can scan the pile and read through all the titles at once.

Now whenever you have a few free moments, wander over to your pile, scan the titles, and grab a title you feel like reading. Read a bit, then put it back. It’s that simple. Over time, if you read 3 pages a day, you’ll finish a 200 page book in two months. If you do 3 of these at once (9 pages a day), you’ll finish 18 books a year.

If you like reading one book at a time, do nine pages a day and you’ll be done in a couple of weeks.

What Goes in, Must Go out

Even when you’re making steady progress, it’s possible to buy books way faster than you read them. So don’t. Take a piece of paper and label it, “Books to buy.” Put it next to your stack of “Books to read.” Whenever you are tempted to buy a new book, write it on the “to buy” list instead. You only buy a new book from that list when you finish one from the “Books to read” pile.

Sometimes you need to buy and read a book sooner, for example, for a work project. When that’s the case, buy it and make it your sole reading material until it’s done. If you bought it for work, you’ll presumably be motivated enough to make some progress.

Audiobooks Galore!

If there’s a big book you want to read, an audiobook may be the way to go. When you have a title on audiobook, you can get to it in your snippets of free time. If you take a bus or ride a train you can listen to your audiobook at the same time.

You can also use an audiobook for company while doing other things. If you like to talk on your cell phone while driving, don’t. There are numerous studies showing that cell phone use while driving—even handsfree—is as bad as driving drunk. They don’t know why, it just is. So instead, pop in an audiobook and listen to your collection as you drive.

The same goes for grocery shopping. The bit about how you can listen to your audiobook at the same time, that is. Not the part about how cell phones make you grocery shop like you’re drunk.

File Your Magazine Articles

If you read lots of magazine articles, don’t lug around the magazines. Tear out the articles you plan to read, put them in a file folder labeled, “The Well of Magazine Knowledge, Not Known,” or maybe, “Fred.” Put the folder next to your pile of unread books. Next time you scan the pile to decide which nine pages to read, also consider grabbing a quick magazine article.

When All Else Fails, Punt

Once a book or article has been in your “to read” list for more than a year, it’s time to bid it adieu. If you haven’t felt like reading it yet, you’re never gonna. And all it's doing is taking up space. I once figured out, based on my life expectancy and reading speed, how many books I could read in the rest of my life. I looked at my to-read stack, counted it, and figured out it contained ten percent of all the books I will read in the rest of my life. “That pile is ten percent of my lifetime supply of books? No way!” It makes tossing the books much easier.

Your keys to success: little and often, audiobooks, keeping a book-to-buy list, filing your magazine articles, and throwing away what you’re not reading. One of these habits can change your life, do them all together, and you’ll quickly reach nirvana. (Please note that all this advice applies to books other than my book, which will be here toward the end of this year. Read it cover to cover and buy ten copies for all your friends. Ten copies per friend, that is.)

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.