How I learned to read (with regularity, as an adult)

· 8 minute read

Yours truly, in January 2013:

Last year I only read two books. I’m disappointed by that, and my goal this year is to read somewhere closer to ten, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. To hold myself accountable, I will try to write a little about each, starting with this one.

I only ended up reading five books in 2013, but read seven in 2017 and seventeen in 20181. At risk of jinxing it, I think it’s safe to say that – many years later – I’ve finally adopted a real reading habit for the first time as an adult.

Habits are obviously quite personal, and there’s no shortage of advice out there on how to make one out of reading in particular2. Here are the few keys to my own personal success on this front that I hope may prove helpful to you as well.

Committing to a platform

I spent far too long being really indecisive as to whether I should invest in Apple or Amazon:

I eventually committed to Amazon due to Goodreads, local library rentals, and e-ink Kindle devices (more on all of these later). Most important was to simply make a decision, however; I think I’d be doing just fine had I chose Apple instead.

I still prefer Apple for programming books because I find the Apple Books software for macOS to be far superior to Kindle’s desktop web experience, but these are a small percentage of the books that I read overall. I’ve been very happy with Kindle as my default for everything else.

Keeping a streak

If you’re the type of person who finds streaks to be motivational, keeping track of a streak is an easy way to make sure that you’re spending at least a few minutes reading each day. Just five or ten minutes each day is a great place to start; those minutes really do add up, but perhaps more importantly, a streak helps ingrain the habit of dipping into your book during your commute or while waiting in line at the grocery store. Or really, anytime when you might otherwise default to scrolling through Twitter or Instagram.

My 2018 reading streak
I highly recommend Streaks for iOS. It even has built-in timers for letting you know when you’ve finished reading for the desired increment.

Allowing myself to take breaks from books

There are some days where I simply don’t want to read a book, but that doesn’t mean I can’t read something else of value. The goal here was to instill a reading habit, not necessarily a book habit.

Maybe I just finished my last book and haven’t decided which my next one will be, or maybe there’s a lot going on in the news that I’d like to catch up on. I use Instapaper to save articles of all different kinds to read at a later date, and on days where I choose to spend at least ten minutes reading these instead of a book, I’m happy to count that against the streak as well.

Using an e-ink Kindle

I resisted getting a dedicated Kindle device until December 2016, primarily because I really don’t mind reading on iOS. I’ve read entire books on iPhones without issue.

I eventually moved to a Kindle as my primary reading device not because I prefer e-ink screens to LCD or OLED, but because I am very bad at avoiding distractions. My Kindle doesn’t have notifications, a web browser, or a Twitter client. I can do nothing but read on it, so read without interruption I do.

Modern Kindles also have the benefit of being quite light and small. I expected to only bring mine along when carrying a bag, but it fits pretty easily in many of my jacket pockets. As such, I’ve carried it far more often than I would’ve originally guessed.

Reading wherever, whenever

Despite having really grown to like my Kindle, it’s only with me a fraction of the time compared to my iPhone. Like with cameras, the best book is the one that’s with you. Kindle sync means that your book is always with you as long as your phone is, even if your primary reading device is not. And as mentioned, I’m definitely not above reading books on my phone.

There are plenty of times where I most certainly do not want to carry anything more than my phone – specifically in the summer – but this doesn’t mean that there can’t still be any number of planned or unplanned reading opportunities along the way.

Drowning out the noise

In the spirit of reading wherever and whenever, it’s often helpful to have something to help you drown out the background noise of your neighborhood coffee shop, or the New York City subway. I’ve been using Brain.fm almost exclusively for the past year but have also used Noizio a lot in the past. They’re both really good at what they do.

Putting a book cover on my lock screen

Whenever I start a new book, I put the book’s cover on my iPhone lock screen3. It’s not exactly subtle, but I benefit from the constant reminder that I could be reading my book whenever I’m tempted to use my phone for something less beneficial.

“Breakfast of Champions” adorning my lockscreen
“Bonnie made a joke now as she served him his martini. She made the same joke every time she served anybody a martini. “Breakfast of Champions,” she said.”

If you’d like to make your own lock screen wallpaper, here’s the Sketch template that I use.

Using Goodreads

Goodreads is a social network for keeping track of what you and your friends are reading and want to read in the future. It’s owned by Amazon, and as such is able to automatically track any books that you’ve read using Kindle apps or devices.

The Goodreads app, showing a feed of updates from friends
Having Goodreads friends like Katie is one of the best ways to keep inspired and motivated.

While the website and iOS app could both use a bit of user interface love, I’ve found it to be a huge help in keeping a reading habit by providing:

  1. A steady influx of new book suggestions, specifically from those who share your tastes
  2. Encouragement in the form of annual challenges
  3. Guilt, if you’ve lapsed a bit yet see all of the books that your friends keep finishing

Renting from the library

Did you know that not only can you borrow physical books for free from your local library, but ebooks as well? More surprising, perhaps: Libby, the iOS app used to do so, is actually quite nice.

The Libby app, used to rent e-books from local libraries
Libby even supports multiple accounts, if you’re lucky enough to have more than one in your area.

The selection isn’t perfect, but I’ve been able to find a lot of books on my reading lists at either the New York or Brooklyn Public Libraries4. You may need to wait a few weeks for popular books to become available, but you can put them on hold such that they’re automatically rented once they are. Once rented, you can keep the book for up to 21 days (which I’ve found can serve as a helpful forcing function to make sure you’re moving through it with haste).


These are just a few tactics, but they’ve worked well for me over the past year and I expect will continue in years to come. I still think there’s room for improvement5, but the first step to improving a habit is to have said habit in the first place. As of 2018, I can finally say that I do.

  1. I didn’t really keep track from 2014 through 2016. Day One and Goodreads indicate that I read at least three in 2014, at least three in 2015, and at least two in 2016. Nothing to brag about. 

  2. A couple of favorites: this one from Rick Webb (my former Tumblr colleague and a far more prolific reader than I am ever likely to be), and this one from Paul Stamatiou. 

  3. I wish I could take credit for this, but I saw got it from Twitter at some point and can’t find the source for the life of me. 

  4. Your mileage may vary depending on your local library, of course. 

  5. Specifically, retaining and utilizing information gleaned from non-fiction books

The Series Zero still ticks

· 2 minute read

On Friday, September 14 at 2:58 AM, my alarm woke me up so that I could pre-order an Apple Watch Series 4 the moment that it went on sale. If you’re reading this blog and/or follow me elsewhere on the Internet, this might not surprise you very much. But it might surprise you to learn that prior to this month, I was still wearing an original Apple Watch – henceforth referred to as the Series Zero – almost every day since its release in 2015.

It feels safe to say that most meditations on consumer technology in 2018 have a tinge of negativity to them, and as such a soliloquy in praise of the Series Zero feels in order. Are there times over the past three-plus years that I wished mine were faster and smaller, or that it had GPS? Absolutely. But in an age when shortened attention spans and heightened expectations always have us ready for what’s newer and shinier, the duration over which my Series Zero served me well feels commendable to say the very least.

Apple’s AirPods were released in December 2016 – over a year and seven months after the Series Zero. With both the Series 1 and Series 2 watches already being available for sale at this point, it wouldn’t have been too surprising or indefensible if the AirPods weren’t compatible with the Series Zero. But they were, and this combination was instrumental in my training for and eventually completing my first half-marathon in Brooklyn in May of 2018.

Running the 2018 Brooklyn Half-Marathon

Despite my surname, this was the first race that I had run since high school.

As M.G. Siegler notes, the Series Zero’s longetivity can in part be explained by the fact that watch apps still aren’t particularly useful even on the newer, faster models:

While Apple did eventually fix my not-even-year-old third-generation Apple Watch which spontaneously broke, I had to send it in twice, which means I was left wearing my older Apple Watch as a backup quite a bit. This worried me since it is far slower than the third-gen. But in reality, I realized that barely mattered. Again, because I don’t use any apps. So really, the Apple Watch just pushes notifications to me, which work just as well on previous models. And the (first-party) apps I do use, like timers, and the workout app, all run basically the same.

Perhaps a better watch app narrative would’ve been strong enough incentive for me to have upgraded sooner, and maybe I’m unintentionally highlighting the flaws of the the Apple Watch as an app platform moreso than the Series Zero’s durability and Apple’s commitment to keeping it in good working order.

Regardless, Apple produced a wearable device in 2015 that I still personally deemed worthy of putting on each morning in 2018. If that’s not worth taking a break from our keyboard or USB-C grievances to accredit, I’m not sure what is.

Polyecosystamory

· 4 minute read

Around the time of Apple and Google’s maps-induced falling out, there seemed to be a common consumer-tech refrain around how the best theoretical experience would be comprised of Apple hardware tightly integrated with both Google’s software and Amazon’s content, and how much of a shame it was that this would almost certainly never come to fruition. Instead, it felt wasteful that all three companies were directly competing with one another on so many different fronts instead of each just doing what they do best.

This was a simplistic and misguied viewpoint, however – it’s precisely because such fervent competition exists that these companies and so many others have been pushed to build their best-in-breed products: Kindle is better because of iBooks, Spotify is better because of Apple Music, and iOS is better because of Android. This list goes on and on and on.

Today, such competition exists across far more vectors than in 2012. In 2018, we not only choose a type of smartphone to purchase, but which voice assistant we’ll talk to, which services we’ll stream our music and videos from, and which smart devices we’ll outfit our homes with. Such choices can be paralysis-inducing, and as such it’s hard to blame one for choosing to:

  1. Commit solely to either Google, Apple, or Amazon
  2. Commit to nothing, abstaining from adopting too many new devices and services until an indeterminate time in the future when it’s more obvious what the “best” setup will be

I’m here to tell you that these aren’t the only options, and that ecosystem polyamory can actually work quite well in practice. Just as the lack of deep Google and Amazon integrations on iOS hasn’t stopped most of us from using the Google Maps and Kindle apps on our iPhones, mixing and matching devices and services from different vendors can be a completely viable strategy depending on your particular home and familial needs. Of course, there are downsides – heterogeneous setups are more complicated, redundant, and inconsistent – but what you lose in simplicity, you gain in flexibility and optionality. And I hate to break it to you, but there’s likely never going to be a “best” setup much like how Google’s services are likely never going to integrate with iOS as deeply as Apple’s.

My wife and I have an Apple TV, which we can AirPlay to from our devices or use the Apple TV iOS app as a remote control. We have Sonos speakers for both TV audio and music, because Sonos provides far more hardware options than Apple does. We have Lutron Caseta lightswitches which are both HomeKit and Alexa-compatible, meaning they can be controlled from iOS, Siri, our Sonos Ones, or our Echo Dots. We use Apple Music primarily, but could switch to Spotify at some point. Spotify has better Sonos integration1 and Alexa support2, but doesn’t work as well with the Apple Watch. When we occasionally ask Alexa to play music, it uses the free tier of Amazon’s Prime music service. Occasionally this won’t include something that Apple Music does, but it’s somewhat rare and just one of the tradeoffs.

We subscribe to YouTube TV, which can be played either through an Apple TV app, or by casting directly from the YouTube TV iOS app. The latter requires your TV to have Cast support, but it’s easy to buy a cheap Chromecast device to add to a TV that doesn’t already come with it built-in. We could at some point replace our Echo Dots with Google Home Minis, which would allow us control YouTube TV via voice as well (Google Home already integrates with Lutron switches, and Sonos support is on the way).

If this setup sounds like it‘s continually evolving, it is, because consumer technology as a whole always is.

All of these companies – Apple, Amazon, Google, Sonos, Spotify, etc. – will continue to push forward on these fronts. As such, despite the landscape perhaps feeling devoid of clear answers today, I can’t personally foresee a “winning ecosystem“ coming into focus anytime soon. Waiting for this to happen will likely mean indefinitely depriving yourself of products that may otherwise meet a need today.

If there’s a single ecosystem that suits you, all the better. But if not, I wouldn’t be afraid to mix and match, especially if doing so will allow you to solve a problem that may never be solved by waiting.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

  1. You can use the Spotify app instead of either using the Sonos app or AirPlaying. 

  2. You can’t play Apple Music through Alexa.