How to Read 35 Books a Year Using ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear [Action Summary]

I used to hate reading.

I literally read 0 books per year.

In 2018 I read 44 books. In 2019 I read 40.

This year (2020), I’m on track to read ~35 books.

So, how did I go from 0 books/year to 35 books/year?

I changed my habits!

It all started with me picking up Atomic Habits in 2018.

I can honestly say, that Atomic Habits has impacted my entire life.

The tactics in the book haven’t only helped me read a ton of books.

They have also made me meditate regularly, journal daily, as well as taking cold showers every morning.

I’ve also used the book to break habits (like drinking excessive amounts of coffee).

This is my summary of Atomic Habits by James Clear…

… but it’s not your regular summary!

Instead, it’s what I call an “Action Summary”.

That means I’ll show you how to apply the lessons within Atomic Habits to build a habit of reading 35 books a year (or any other habit).

Let’s go!

A quick disclaimer

I’m not speed reading.

Everything I read is in English. That’s not my primary language, making my reading speed a bit reduced.

I run 2 businesses.

I became a father in April 2020.

I work out 3 times a week, watch YouTube, hang out with friends, etc.

Why am I saying this?

To show that you can have a life, and still read a ton of books.

It all comes down to having the right tactics and habits.

Do you want to read?

To start reading, you must have a genuine desire to do so.

Forcing yourself to read, is not going to work.

Forget the how to do it for a moment (that comes later), and honestly ask yourself:

“Do I actually want to read?”

As James writes:

“You don’t have to build the habits everyone tells you to build. Chose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular.” (p. 222)

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Scratch your own itch. Develop a habit that interests you and something you have a desire for.

You might think you should read books because that’s what all top performers do?

But if you have zero desire to do so, skip it!

So, if you have a genuine desire to start reading books, keep reading!

(If not, you can still follow the same principles for building a habit you genuinely desire.)

Ask “why do I want to read?” 3 times

Great, you have a genuine desire to read.

Before you learn how to read a lot of books, you need to know why you want to read.

Why?

Because…

“With a big enough why you can overcome any how” (p. 260)

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

So, ask yourself, “why?” 3 times.

Here’s how it goes for me:

  1. Why do I want to read? Because I want to improve my decision making.
  2. Why do I want to improve my decision making? So, I can grow my business.
  3. Why do I want to grow my business? Because I want to be free and provide financial security to my family.

Alright, with your “why” established, let’s look at what rewards you’re in for…

The rewards for reading

James Clear perfectly explains the positive compounding of reading:

Knowledge compounds. Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. Furthermore, each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. As Warren Buffett says, ‘That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.'” (p. 19)

Reading is one of the most high-value habits you can acquire. Let’s see what it takes!

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Systems > goals: It’s not about reading 35 books/year

You’ve established why you read, and you know what rewards you’re in for.

Now we’re starting to get into the meat of things.

So, the first surprising thing about reading 35 books a year, is that it’s not about reading 35 books a year.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Huh?

I know it sounds odd, but to read 35 books a year, you shouldn’t focus on reading 35 books (the result).

Instead, you need to focus on building the systems that make reading “inevitable”.

Only when these are in check, will you succeed in reading a lot.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (p. 27).

Goals are about winning the fight.

Building systems to create processes is about keep playing the game.

“Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.” (p. 25).

You don’t want to read 35 books in 1 year and then never read again.

It’s about becoming someone who reads – and then keep doing that.

“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years” (p. 7).

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Before we can set up the perfect system for reading, we need to understand how behavior works.

How to change your behavior

In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes that we can change our behavior at 3 different layers.

Layer Focus Example
1 Outcome Read 35 books in a year
2 Process Read for 20 minutes a day
3 Identity Becoming someone who reads

The outcome is about what you get, the process is what you do, identity is what you believe.

James advises starting with the identity…

… then move to the process…

… and finally, move to the outcome.

So, start looking at yourself as a reader. Or better yet, a learner.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Every time you flip open that book, you vote for your identity of being a reader. Every action is a vote for the person you want to be.

Then start looking at the process and outcome – which we’re going to do right now!

The science of building a habit

To create a new habit, you need to know how habits work.

A habit goes through 4 stages:

Stage Name Example
1 Cue You see the coffee machine
2 Craving You want a coffee
3 Response You pour yourself a cup of coffee
4 Reward You drink the coffee and feel fantastic

The reward gets associated with the cue, ultimately forming a “habit loop”.

Now we know how you form a habit.

Based on this insight, James Clear formulates 4 laws we must follow when building habits.

Law Description
1 Make it obvious
2 Make it attractive
3 Make it easy
4 Make it satisfying

*If you want to break a habit, simply invert those questions, and ask, “can I make it invisible/not attractive/hard/repulsive?”. Here’s how I did that to break my coffee habit.

Finally, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned! Let’s use the 4 laws to create a bulletproof system for building the habit of reading.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Law 1: Make it obvious

Creating your “Implementation Intention”

The first thing you need to do is to make a plan for reading.

Why? Because having a plan for performing your new habit makes it much more likely you will follow through.

So, grab a pen and piece of paper and fill out the following sentence:

 “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION” (p. 71)

For me, this looks like “I will read 10 pages at 8 AM in my chair in the living room”.

Habit stacking

Try to perform this new habit of reading immediately after a habit you already have.

It could look like this:

  • Current habit: As sure as the sun is to rise, I’m pouring myself an espresso in the morning.
  • New habit: Immediately after I’ve poured the espresso, I sit down to read (new habit).

Tying a new habit to a current habit makes it more likely to stick.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Optimizing your environment

Alright, now you know exactly what to do (read), where to do it (location) and when to do it (time).

You’ve also combined it with a habit you already have (like making yourself a cup of coffee).

The final step in making your habit or reading “obvious”, is to make the environment assist you in reaching your goal.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

To me, this is the most important step in law 1.

We focus on what’s available.

As Charlie Munger likes to put it “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near”.

With this in mind, we can start shaping our environment and make it easier for us to reach our goal of reading more.

How?

By always having the book close!

Make sure to carry it around in your home (from the living room to the restroom, to bed, etc.).

“If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment” (p. 86)

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Keep your book around, out in the open, visible, and within reach.

I try to keep the book within arm’s length most of the day, especially in the morning and evening.

This also means that you should NOT read books digitally.

Reading a book on your phone creates the worst possible environment for you to start reading.

If you ONLY want to read digitally, get a Kindle, and read on that.

Please don’t read on your phone.

Law 2: Make it attractive

At the beginning, imagining yourself reading is more pleasant than actually reading.

Motivation ritual

To make a habit (reading in our case) itself pleasant, James Clear recommends to:

“Associate your habits with something you enjoy.” (p. 132)

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

I love coffee.

So, before I start reading, I make myself a double espresso and then I sit down with the book.

Picking the right book

Another thing you MUST make attractive is the book you’re reading.

Don’t read what you feel you’re supposed to read.

Instead, read what YOU want to read.

Like the legendary investor, Naval Ravikant, says:

Read what you love until you love to read (*)

Law 3: Make it easy

To me, this is the most important law!

So, pay special attention now 🙂

Get a physical copy to reduce friction

James Clear advises us to reduce friction in performing our habits.

This goes back to law 1 of making obvious.

Make it as easy as possible to grab your book and start reading.

I HIGHLY recommend reading a physical copy of the book instead of on your phone.

Why? Because it’s so hard to stay focused on reading when Twitter is only a flick away.

So, place your phone far away – and keep your book close.

Priming your environment

Now, look at your environment.

Then ask yourself, how you can prime the environment to make it easy to read.

I usually sit in my chair during the evening.

By having a stool beside my chair with my book on it, I’ve made my environment help me reach my goal of reading more.

Later in the evening, when my wife and son are asleep, I lay on the couch and watch YouTube.

Once again, to make it easy, I keep the book I’m reading on a table next to me. Sometimes I grab it and read a few pages.

Poop-hack💩

Another “hack” I use is to bring the book to the restroom instead of my phone.

That way I get in an easy 4 pages per day.

“4 pages? That’s NOTHING!”

No, 4 pages aren’t much…

… but 4 pages X 365 = 1460 pages/year.

That’s ~6 books/year for going to the restroom.

Small actions, big results (eventually)

“Habits form based on frequency, not time.” (p. 145)

To read 35 books/year, you need to read 28 pages a day (more details about this later).

So, let’s make your goal to read 28 pages a day.

You can read 28 pages in 1 session (which is hard in the beginning).

Or you can read 6 pages in the morning, 4 pages on the toilet, 6 pages while eating lunch, and 12 pages before bed.

That’s also 28 pages – but A LOT easier.

I highly recommend breaking your reading into smaller sessions and do it more frequently.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

The lesson is every small action matters.

James Clear explains this eloquently with his “Two-Minute Rule”.

It states:

“When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” (p. 167)

“Reading 28 pages” becomes “read 2 pages per day”

*I find it’s easier to aim for 2 pages than 2 minutes.

This eventually turns into reading 4 pages, 10 pages, 20 pages, and one day it’s 28 pages!

It’s all about getting in the habit of reading regularly.

Reading Progress

The only way to get there is to:

“Always stay below the point where it feels like work.” (p. 165).

Law 4: Make it satisfying

This is the final law.

Law 1-3 focused on increasing the odds of you performing a habit.

The fourth law increases the chances of you repeating the behavior – ultimately forming a habit for life.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

This one is super important, so make sure you pay attention.

You’ve read 2 pages, now what?

In the beginning, your goal should be to read 2 pages (spoiler alert: often you’ll find yourself reading much more).

Now is the time to make it satisfying!

You need to feel satisfied with completing your goal of reading.

Why?

Because we tend to repeat what feels great.

Besides the intrinsic please I’m sure you’ll feel, there are a few ways to turn up the pleasure derived.

Tracking your progress

I recommend tracking your progress in 2 ways.

1: Coach.me (for beginners)

One of my favorite ways to track a habit is using the Coach.me app.

Join a group and when you’ve performed the habit you want, click that big checkmark *aaaaah*. It feels so good to see that streak run for yet another day!

Tracking your habit is ESPECIALLY important in the beginning.

However, when a habit has become your identity, the need for tracking it ceases (at least for me).

Yes, I perform the habit more infrequently when I was tracking it religiously.

BUT the habit has now become automatic and effortless.

And that’s what I prefer 🙂

I no longer track how often/much I read every day.

I only do that when I’m watching too much Netflix and reading too little to get back on track. 1 week of tracking, and I’m back.

2. “Books-Read” journal

I also, highly, recommend writing down the books you’ve read in a simple document.

While I no longer track my everyday reading progress, I still keep a journal of books read throughout the year.

In the reading journal, I write:

  • Name of the book
  • Author
  • Date I started reading
  • Date I finished reading the book
  • A grade (1-10)
  • An optional resume

This journal serves 2 purposes.

First, it feels great to finish a book and write it in your journal (essential for forming the habit).

Second, it also reminds you of your progress as you scroll down the list. It shows, visually, how much progress you’re making.

Try it!

Protip: NEVER miss twice.

You’re going to screw up your new habit at one point, I guarantee it.

Knowing this, we can prepare for it.

In Atomic Habits, James recommends having the mindset of “never missing twice”.

This means you might go an entire day without reading…

… but the next day is a fresh start, go get it!

A day in the life of a “binge reader”

Alright, let’s see how I read 30-40 books a year by zooming in on a regular day.

7 am – 1 pm

I wake up at 7 am. Immediately I grab my book from the nightstand and read 2-10 pages.

Then I shower and put on clothes.

I head downstairs (and make sure to bring the book with me).

I make myself an espresso and sit down and play with my son. 5% of the time, I manage to read 2-4 pages.

Then the workday starts around 9 am.

Between 9-12 am, I usually go to the restroom. Here I read 4-6 pages.

At 1 pm it’s time for lunch. After finishing the meal, I read 2-4 pages. And it’s back to work!

1 pm – 6 pm

I stop working around 5 pm.

We eat at 6 pm. So, in that hour, I manage to read 2-4 pages 25% of the time.

6 pm – 11 pm

At 10 pm my wife and son are asleep. From 10 pm – 11 pm, I’m in the living room watching tv. Here, I read anywhere from 10-30 pages.

Finally, I go to bed. Here I read anywhere from 2-10 pages.

And that’s it!

Here’s how that effort turns into 35 books a year.

What I’ve just described, means I read anywhere from 26 to 68 pages.

Keep in mind that this is my average day.

The variation is quite large.

That means, sometimes I don’t read in the morning, sometimes I do.

Sometimes I read 10 pages after lunch, sometimes 0.

Often, I read 10-20 pages in the evening, but if the book is great, I read 60 pages.

There are even, rare, days where I don’t read at all.

So, there’s a lot of variation! But the recurring theme is I pick books that I genuinely want to read, and I read several times throughout the day.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Another thing I do, is I read a lot at the weekend.

Here I try to read as much as possible. Since we have a baby, he naps several times during the day. That’s a perfect time to get in some reading!

My 7-Step Recipe for Reading 35 Books a Year

Here’s how to use Atomic Habits to read 35 books a year.

1: Ask yourself, “do I actually want to read?”.

If that’s a yes, ask yourself “Why?” 3 times.

2: Get the physical copy of a book you have a genuine desire to read.

Always keep a physical copy of the book near you and bring it with you (around the house, when commuting, to the restroom, etc.).

3: Your first goal is to read 2 pages every day.

Decide when you will read 2 pages – and where you will do it. Feel free to read more than 2 pages but stop when it starts to feel hard.

4: When you’ve read 2 pages every day for a week, make it +2 (so 4 pages per day).

When you’ve read 4 pages every day for a week, +2 it again (making it 6 pages per day). The end goal is to read 28 pages per day.

300 pages for 1 book * 35 books = 10,500 pages.

That’s ~28 pages per day (28,8 to be exact).

5: Create a simple “Books I’ve read” document.

Write down the title and author of the book. Then write down when you started reading the book. Finally, when you’ve completed the book, open the document, and write down the date you finished the book – and give it a rating of 1-10.

6: Make sure you know what to read next.

While you’re reading, make sure to think about what book to read next. I’ve found myself wasting lots of days between books. So, always know what you’re going to read next and have the book handy!

7: Don’t miss twice.

Throughout building the habit of reading, you’re going to experience periods where you hate reading. You’re going to miss a day here and there. But never miss two days.

And that’s all you need to start reading 9 times more than the typical reader 🙂

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Some quick math

A book is roughly 300 pages.

300 pages X 35 books = 10,000 pages.

10,000 pages / 365 days = ~28 pages per day.

That’s the goal!

What to do now

So, that’s your blueprint for reading 35 books a year.

Atomic Habits by James Clear has been instrumental in creating and maintaining this habit.

Getting to this point where reading feels natural and enjoyable is, without a doubt, the most important habit I’ve ever created for myself.

So, if you’re looking to creating a reading habit, I recommend starting it by reading “Atomic Habits”!

It’s a FANTASTIC book (I scored it 10/10, and I very rarely do that).

It’s easy to read and very practical.

If you got value from this guide, please share it with your friends and let me know on Twitter.

That’d mean a lot to me!