Close that Book: Knowing When to Stop Reading a Book

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forces of habit reading

Close that Book: Knowing When to Stop Reading a Book

Almost 1/4 of the participants in a Goodreads poll believe that it is our duty to read bad books.

“You don’t stop. You never stop. Once you start you must finish.”

We need to stop reading bad books. When it comes to reading mindsets, ‘finish what you started’ is a common one. Every book we start seems to earn a 200+ page contract no questions asked. And I admit, I was the guy who would sluggishly cringe my way through a book I agreed to read, never considering that I could stop.

We all would like to believe we can coldly calculate the expected value from each book and then methodically assess how many pages per book will yield the greatest amount of utility. But in reality, putting a book to bed is a viscerally gut clenching experience.

You and I are not rational decision-making machines, we are human. And as humans, irrationality is inevitable. While I am not sure we can completely escape our predispositions, learning about them offer us a plan of attack for at least addressing specific issues—like reading bad books.

So let’s discuss the science behind our commitments to reading and some advice for how you can stop reading a book.

Commitments to Loss

Much of our intuition about finishing every book we agree to read stems from mental heuristics—rules of thumb for the brain.

Speaking from the perspective of the brain, metal heuristics are shortcuts the brain uses to quickly make decisions. Rather than deliberate and collude what is the best course of action for every decision, the brain strengthens synaptic connections that represent mental rules that tend to work out most of the time. But such rules aren’t effective in every domain of life—yet the brain won’t go out of its way to fix what doesn’t seem broken.

Behavioral science research has concluded that losses loom larger than gains—this effect is known as loss aversion. When we are making decisions that consist of risky or uncertain options, the difference between losses and gains is swayed towards a seemingly larger cost.

Which makes sense. I can’t tell you how many times I have found myself ruffled in thought because of some tiny negative, yet seemingly unphased from a big win.

The bearing mental heuristics have on our abilities to make decisions couldn’t be greater. In our case, the tendency to heavily overestimate the marginal cost of past decisions—otherwise known as loss aversion—impacts our dedication to finishing those awful books.

Knowing When to Stop

The loss aversion can cripple our abilities to get the most bang for our buck when making decisions—improving our reading habits is no exceptions.

When we spend our resources—time, attention, money—on reading a book, we feel obligated to continue reading because of the loss we feel from weighing those prior resource investments as relevant to our current options. Yet classic economic theory tells us that an investment should only consider the incremental costs and benefits of the current options and not the past— the phenomenon is better known as the sunk cost fallacy.

We don‘t realize our past expenses cannot be changed by our future decisions, and as a result, we should not consider the resources spent as though we can somehow make up for lost value—the resources are already gone.

This aversion to loss combined with our assumptions about making up for wasted resources creates this web of regret that some interpret as the rationale for sticking with a book. So instead of letting our metal quirks get the best of us, here are three tips to prepare you for when reading that book isn’t the most valuable investment you can make in yourself.

1. Knowing What You Like

Reading books we aren’t interested in is an easy way to get trapped in sunk cost reading. Developing an understanding of the type of books you find the most value from can prevent picking up a relatively bad book in the first place.  This isn’t to say you should not read broadly. Yet by finding a niche of interests, you can more quickly discern the quality of a book through prior knowledge on the subject as well as incentivize yourself to read because the book is of interest.

But not all books are written equally, and a book may be in your niche and be utterly dreadful. So try to do as much prep work as possible. Read reviews, summaries, podcasts, or anything you can get your hands on to better your understanding of the book you are about to commit to.

If you’re finding a sparse amount of resources online, go head and intentionally commit to only reading a specific amount of pages before starting. That way you can never trap ‘yourself in a finished’ what you started mindset—it’s as though you have negotiated with yourself the contract for your resources

2. It’s Not You, It’s Me.

You pick up a book that matches your interests and cannot be any more excited to get started.

But after 10 hours you find you do not understand a word of what the author is saying and you’re still on page 14 of 500–put down that book.

A book can sometimes just be too complex for our current understanding of the subject matter. And that’s okay. What is important is that we do not trudge through the remaining 486 pages because we ‘finish what you started’—sunk cost once again at work.

If you are excited about the book now, imagine how you will fell once you develop a basic understanding of the domain of study. I recommend you find a book that covers similar concepts in a more parsimonious way. That way when you tackle the book again you have a reference point to think about some of the tougher concepts discussed.

For example, I wanted to read the greats. Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, but I did not have the vocabulary nor background understanding to do so. So rather than read books by the authors directly, I read books that covered all major points—summaries. Now when I pick up a more challenging title I have a tool to guide my reading.

Another way is to use audiobooks. We can prime ourselves for the vocab, general points, and flow of writing by listening to a book in a supplement to our reading. So maybe it’s not the time to quite the book, but it time to change the format.

For more information on how to take advantage of audiobooks, check out my post on audiobooks here.

3. Leveraging Your Library

A common reason people feel obligated to read a book is that $20 per book isn’t cheap. They feel the purchase is a waste if they don’t make it through the entire book—sunk cost is tricky like that. Thus it’s in our best interest to try to minimize the cost of reading by reducing resources spent. But we cannot simply pay less attention or dedicate less time to reading, without sacrificing our abilities to understand what we read. But we can leverage the price.

Instead of purchasing books, I recommend you rent them at the library. This is the easiest way to commit less to a book. By renting you are have not monetarily invested anything. So when you reach a point where you feel the books just not for you, there is less cognitive weight against considering stopping.

Stop Reading Today

Use the three recommendations to stop reading junk, and start living intentionally.

Intentionally living starts with the type of work you choose to engage with and extends to what you avoid. To get the most out of reading you need to treat every book like a sweet pleasure avoiding those that cause you to ache at the idea of reading another page. By doing so reading never becomes a chore and is always the best investment you make for yourself.

If you are looking for ways to start reading more often check out my post on the various ways I use to read more.

Read More: How I Read 50+ Books Per Year

Why do you read? And are you reading enough?

If you’re looking for some great books to start reading more, go check out the titles I have reviewed in my 2017 journal. There are tons of books about psychology, philosophy, meditation, and so much more. Go check out the special page I created to share what I’ve learned about living intentionally with you.

Find the Book Summaries page here.