Finish More Books: How to Unlock the Power of Patient Reading

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Until recently, reading anything felt straight-up strainful.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read. I kept buying more books, my TBR had grown like bamboo on fertilizer, and, as a writer and philosophy student, reading is part of my job. And yet, reading patiently — let alone finishing books— had become as tough as opening a pickle jar with greasy hands.

The frustration was fierce.

But then, something changed. I went from abandoning books after a single sentence to devouring hundreds of pages in one go. I fell back in love with reading. I finished the books I started long ago. And it all came down to cultivating one small skill: patient reading.

Let me explain.

What It Means to Read Patiently

Patient reading (or reading patiently) is the skill of consistently making progress on any text without the constant craving to distract yourself.

What this means becomes clear when we look at the opposite: impatient reading. Which is how I used to read (and sadly, still do sometimes). It goes like this:

I flip open a book, read a sentence, get an itchy feeling, open a new tab in my browser, go to YouTube, see what’s trending — oh look! 7 Surprising Facts About Octopi You Never — ok, stop! Focus. Back to my book. Here goes another sentence. And another. But dammit… I already forgot the first one.

This pattern usually repeats several times until my brain is so scrambled that I can’t even absorb a single word. My initial thrill to read vanishes like ink on wet paper.

But the most frustrating part is that I used to be a patient reader. In my childhood, I picked up any book and read it until someone snapped me out of my letter trance. And yet, terrifyingly, I lost that skill like a TV remote between couch cushions — mysteriously and unintentionally.

Obviously, I’m not an exception. Impatience is on the rise. Everything is speeding up — entertainment, travel, delivery— and we want to go even faster. What does this make of reading? Hugh McGuire, the founder of the audiobook service LibriVox, hits the nail on its head:

“I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening. And once you’ve finished one chapter, you have to get through another one.”

So I did some digging: Why did we lose the patience to read? And, more importantly, what can we do to read more patiently?

Here are a few ideas I found incredibly helpful. 

Why Reading Patiently Is So Difficult

Let’s start by understanding where impatient reading originated and how it stops us from finishing books. Generally, four steps lead to impatience, as philosopher Jim Stone points out.

Here are these four steps of impatience applied to reading:

  1. Setting a goal: you want to read a book, say, for entertainment or education.
  2. Estimating costs: you accept it takes time and effort to read that book.
  3. Learning the true costs: you realize that reading the book takes more time and effort than you thought.
  4. Optimization: you assume there must be shortcuts or better ways to spend your time.

Based on this, it’s easy to identify the hurdles that stop us from reading patiently. Here are the ones I observed in my reading behavior:

  1. Setting wrong goals: I focus too strongly on what I can get out of a book once I finish it rather than enjoying the process of reading itself.
  2. Underestimating time and effort: I overestimate my ability to consistently focus on a single task when all I’m used to is constant task-switching and doing everything quick, quick, quick.
  3. Craving immediate results: I find it hard to accept how much time it actually takes to finish a book and only think about how tedious it’ll feel to turn so many pages.
  4. Looking for shortcuts and distractions: I get a sense of wasting my time and turn to quicker payoffs: book summaries, podcasts, Netflix. But of course, none of these things are as fulfilling as reading a book cover to cover.

These four causes have made it much easier to find solutions for my nagging impatience with reading. Let’s take a closer look.

3 Ways to Read More Patiently

1. Quit more books

This may seem counterproductive. But since impatience is a natural mechanism, we shouldn’t fight it — we should embrace it. The logical consequence of living with impatience is this: intentionally abandon books you don’t enjoy.

Impatience is information, after all. It tells you if something sparks your interest and if something is useful to you right now.

Quitting books purposefully is hard because our education system has taught us to keep reading something even if we don’t enjoy it. And sure, there are instances in life when we must read something to get certain information. But this should never transfer to your private reading habits.

Your reading, your rules.

Whenever I tried to read a thick novel or philosophical pamphlet after a reading slump, it sent me right back to the desert of letters. So instead, I turned to books for short attention spans (easy-to-read, short chapters, lots of white space). I also started asking myself a few questions. What am I genuinely curious about? What problems am I facing? What books have I enjoyed in the past? Then, as my reading patience gradually improved, I could tackle bigger, more challenging books.

There’s just one caveat.

Don’t try to find the perfect book. If you keep frantically asking, “Is this the right book?!” you’ll never settle. My recommendation: pick a genre, find five to seven books, and read the first few pages (Amazon and Google Books often offer a free preview). Then, pick up to three books you found appealing and commit yourself to them.

The impatient reader keeps seeking the perfect book; the patient reader finds a good enough book and gets started.

2. Make this small mindset shift

I’m currently reading Resonance by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa. With 800 pages, the book resembles a brick and reading it feels just as tough.

But then, I discovered a little trick. It mostly works for non-fiction books, but luckily, that’s where patient reading is needed most.

The trick is to read as if the author was reading the book out loud. As if you’re having a conversation with the author. The better I know an author’s voice and mannerisms, I noticed, the easier it gets to stay interested. For instance, the more interviews I watched with Rosa, the more I could hear his voice pierce through the pages. I started to understand how he uses the tools of language to construct ideas. How he materializes thoughts.

It changed the way I read.

Suddenly, dull non-fiction books turned into conversations with friends. One day I’m listening to Seneca, whose ideas are still relevant today, despite being 2,000+ years old. The next day I’m talking to Matt Haig, who still lives, but is probably too busy to answer any of my emails. 

Of course, many great authors died long before they ever recorded their voices. Others speak a different language. Blimey. But I found that even getting to know the author by reading a short biography or learning about their daily routine can work wonders. If you can’t find anything, sketch the author’s image inside your head like a literary figure.

Ultimately, it’s about building a relationship.

This idea shows just how awe-inspiring reading can be: you get to talk to people who changed the world and expressed ideas like no one else could. It’s a privilege. A self-effective activity.

We don’t rush or abandon insightful conversations with friends. Why do we keep doing it with books?

3. Surrender

If all of the things above don’t help — which, let’s be honest, will happen in our distracted world — the only thing left to do is give up. Sometimes, this means putting down the book and trying again when your focus is fresh. Other times it means surrendering to the book’s temporality:

Not falling for strange reading hacks like speed reading.
Not trying to remember everything you read.
Not listening to audiobooks at double speed.
Not using book summaries as a shortcut.

But instead: letting the book enfold you. Reading deeply. Realizing that the time you spend with a book is more precious than what you “get out of it.”

Sure, reading tricks and shortcuts can help in specific circumstances. But at some point, you need to sit down and do the work. Trust me, I hate that expression. Doing the work. But I learned that reading patiently only gets easier if — well, you read more patiently. And sometimes, this takes an assertive push through the threshold of discomfort.

In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman puts it nicely:

“It’s not so much that we’re too busy, or too distractible, but that we’re unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule … [R]eading something properly just takes the time it takes.”

Yes, reading a book will take several hours. No, it won’t always be easy. These pills are hard to swallow. But Burkeman also points out that once you accept their undeniable truths, you accomplish what psychotherapists call a second-order change. That is, you don’t change anything about the situation itself. But by adopting a new mental framework, you change how you view the situation.

Thus, you don’t just read more patiently; you read differently.

Once I took off the pressure that I need to get through books as quickly as possible, reading became enjoyable. It went from chore to leisure.

The Superpower of Reading Patiently 

Reading patiently is a meta-skill.

Which means the more books you read, the more patient you become. And the more patient you become, the more books you read. I found it shocking how quickly the mind can be retrained to read for hours — and how that transferred to other areas of life, say, supermarket lines.

This in itself is nice.

But it’s not just that; patience is a hidden superpower in our world of instant gratification. Several studies — chiefly the famous Marshmallow Test — have shown that patience (aka delayed gratification) leads to greater mental stability, work performance, and social competence.

Maybe you had to patience to read this entire article — and maybe you didn’t. Either way, impatience is not a reason to beat yourself down. Instead, it can be an incentive to grab a book, immerse yourself, and watch in awe as the superpower of patience returns.