Reader problems are real. We boast “to-read” lists approximately 3,053 books long and counting — far exceeding what a person could ever hope to read in a lifetime. We believe wintry evenings are best passed with a steaming mug of tea and a cozy murder mystery and summer days should be spent poolside with a book and ice-cold lemonade. We become so absorbed in the latest bestseller that we stay up until 2 a.m., utterly enthralled that night and thoroughly exhausted the next day (but in “the best sort of way”).
For a long time, my reader problem centered around the books I never seemed to get to. Whether it’s spiritual memoirs, contemporary fiction, middle-grade novels, or nonfiction books, I couldn’t seem to put a dent in any genre. In the midst of work assignments and endless emails, soccer practice drop-offs, and the general busyness of life, I found it difficult to carve out long stretches of time for reading. I’m sure most readers can relate.
The 20-minute trick
So when Laura Tremaine, author of Share Your Stuff, I’ll Go First, suggested I set a timer for 20 minutes, everything changed. Before my work day began, I sat at my desk, laptop shut, and phone to the side with a timer app set to 20 minutes. If you don’t want your phone nearby, you can use an actual timer or stopwatch. It’s as simple as that: Focus a manageable chunk of time solely on reading books.
Soon, I made my way through Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and Caste, two books that couldn’t have been more different if they tried, but paired together rather nicely when a timer was set. I read The Education of an Idealist and White Rage which had been on my list for far too long. Mostly, though, I just marveled at the fact that so much reading could happen in small, succinct periods of time.
It wasn’t all that different for Tremaine, who started using the timer method when she breastfed her first baby in 2009. Breastfeeding was a struggle, so she distracted herself with a book. Since she was already using a timer for the feedings, she naturally ended up timing her reading as well. Before long, she realized she was actually getting a lot of reading done in several short sessions throughout the day.
Fast-forward 12 years; Tremaine remains faithful to what many call the timer method, even going so far as to host 20-minute reading parties on Instagram Live. She thinks it’s the perfect amount of time for a reading session: “Long enough that you can get through a chapter or two of the book, but not so long that your mind wanders.”
The science behind the tool
Tremaine, of course, is not alone in her time-management tools. In the late 1980’s, a university student named Francesco Cirillo invented the Pomodoro Technique as a way to help him concentrate and avoid distractions when he studied. As the story goes, he made a bet with himself, daring himself to dig in and study for 10 minutes straight. He found the objective validation he was looking for in a kitchen timer shaped like a pomodoro (“tomato” in Italian), and the rest, as they say, is history.
When tackling any task for a long period of time — even for something as enjoyable as reading a book — focus wanes over time and distractions set in. Setting a timer seems to help. Incorporating discipline around time helps to prioritize reading, and this reasoning can be applied to other activities and tasks, as well.
For Tremaine, the daily habit of making time for 20-minute reading blocks throughout the day (she prefers nonfiction in the morning and novels or memoirs in the afternoons or evenings), she finds that she’s often reading at least an hour a day and therefore finishing several books each week. With the countless books that await us, and exciting new releases always on the horizon, may we fellow readers share Tremaine’s success using this delightful 20-minute trick.