science of us

Should I Stop Counting How Many Books I Read?

Photo: Ursula Klawitter/Getty Images

A few years ago, having disappointed myself in the category of Not Reading Enough, I decided to start tracking how many books I read in a year. In 2015, I read 25. For 2016, I set a goal to read 30; I read 51. Bolstered by this resounding success, I set the next year’s goal at 55; I read 64. 2017 was a really good book year, for me, so I knew to be moderate with my 2018 goal — I set it at 60, which was, I assured myself, child’s play.

But in 2018, I did not read 60 books. I read 49. Which is about 82 percent, a B-. I knew I had legitimate reasons for not meeting my goal: I started a full-time job in 2018, I got engaged in 2018, I allowed myself to abandon nine full books in 2018. But I still felt bad. I hate not meeting my goals so much that I usually do not set them unless I am certain I can achieve them. The worst part was that, when I looked back on the books I read last year, I saw only a fraction I’d really enjoyed. And even while reading those, I’d been rushing, trying to finish number 11 so I could get to number 12, and so on. I was reading to meet an arbitrarily set number, rather than reading because it was one of my favorite things to do.

And yet, when I didn’t have a specific, numbered book goal, I didn’t read as much as I wanted to; early on, I found that counting the books I read reminded me to create time for something I loved. (This also reminds me of my feelings about tennis, which was so much fun for me when I was just starting, and still fun when I got better, and then much less fun when I got good enough to realize I would never be great.) Is it better to have a fixed goal you only approach, or to have a vague, unquantifiable one you achieve by default? For 2019, rather than aim for a specific number of books, I wrote down that I wanted to “read for fun,” and I felt very evolved and chill about it at the time, but now I wonder if I’ve just permitted myself to stagnate.

For how commonly people like to suggest writing down your goals, there’s startlingly little evidence that doing so makes you any likelier to achieve them, at least that I can find. There is a semi-famous experiment often referred to as the “Harvard Written Goals Study,” which either took place in the 1950s or 1970s, depending on the account. In it, researchers were said to have found that only 3 percent of Harvard MBAs wrote down their goals, and when researchers tracked down that 3 percent some number of years later (this part varies in the telling), they were making ten times as much money, on average, than their goalless peers. Sounds promising, but the study never happened. A small study by Gail Matthews, a professor of psychology at Dominican University of California, did find that writing down one’s goals results in a higher reported rate of goal achievement, but that study relied on self-reports, and so do New Year’s resolutions. What if it’s just that the pressure imposed by having formalized your goals makes you feel like you have to say you met them, particularly when those goals are conceptual? If I write down “Be nicer in 2019,” I can guarantee you I will determine myself a success on January 1, 2020. But shouldn’t some higher authority be the judge of that? AHHHH.

This is why you need specificity, maybe; I cannot really fail to “read for fun” so long as I enjoy one book this year, and that seems like a low bar. I once read about the concept of SMART goals, wherein SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. That sounded really smart (ha) to me, until I read some other guy argue SMART goals are actually stupid, and the thing to do is HARD goals (Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult). Okay. I personally don’t really think “required” makes a lot of sense in the goal-making world, at least the New Year’s kind, but I do buy that good goals are at least moderately difficult. Otherwise, what’s the point?

By aiming only to read for fun, I worry I risk treating reading as only a hobby, and not a vital part of my work as a writer, which I happen to think it is. I was planning to just write down the titles I read, sans number, just for memory’s sake, but it’s not like that prevents me from counting them up anyway. (I didn’t watch Bird Box, but if I knew how to make a meme I’d do a Bird Box one here that says something like, “Me trying not to compete with my own arbitrary goals.” I know, it’s only okay.) Perhaps what I should do is set a specific book-count goal, and then a separate goal that limits the amount of time I spend feeling disappointed in myself should I fail to meet that count. I think 50/10 sounds both doable and forgiving.

Should I Stop Counting How Many Books I Read?