Annie Duke for Read It Forward: How to Decide What to Read Next

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Deciding what to read is one of those common choices that can induce indecision and anxiety. When it comes to what to read next, a lot of us can get paralyzed by the sheer number of great choices out there. Any time you have limited time to spend and a lot of options to choose from, analysis paralysis is easily induced. That’s true whether you are picking a book to read, or a movie to watch, or what to order off of a menu. For example, the average person spends nearly an hour a week picking what to watch on Netflix, and nearly two-and-a-half hours a week deciding what to eat!

If that sounds like you, here’s a secret that will make your decisions easier about what to read next: If you don’t like the book you’re reading, you can quit. You don’t have to finish every book that you start.

Quitting generally has a negative connotation and, for some people, it’s a source of pride to “stick with” a book to the end. But all great decision-makers know when to cut their losses. Knowing when to quit is a decision skill well worth developing.

The value of stick-to-itiveness has been popularized in so many books, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to Angela Duckworth’s Grit. Stick-to-itiveness is a key factor in success. After all, in order to succeed at anything, you must stick to it. But quit-to-itiveness also deserves its day in the sun.

It’s unreasonable for you to put pressure on yourself to finish a book once you realize it’s not to your taste. But we all do it because not finishing a book can feel like a failure. If you don’t stick to it, it feels like you wasted the time you spent on it already. So you finish the book you’re not enjoying making you, paradoxically, spend a bunch more time reading the rest of it, time you could be spending reading a book that is much more to your taste.

Here’s the thing: whenever you choose a book you haven’t read yet, by definition, you don’t know how much you’ll like it. You’re only making an educated guess, based on the available information like reviews, or recommendation from friends, or maybe a recommendation from an algorithm that predicts what you will like.

Regardless of how methodical you are about your process, you can’t know for certain you will like any book because you are always choosing to start reading a book without having read it. Actually reading part of the book provides you with the most reliable information about whether you’ll like the book. You owe it to yourself to use that new information to determine if you should continue reading it. Otherwise, you’re ignoring the accumulating data about whether you’re not enjoying the book.

If you can make it a more explicit part of your process when deciding what to read that you’re under no obligation to finish the book you pick, that will de-escalate the stakes, reducing your anxiety and speeding up your decision. An added bonus of a willingness to quit? You will spend more time reading the books you love and less time slogging through books that you feel obligated to finish but don’t much enjoy.

Here are some other tips for making faster, less stressful, and more informed reading decisions.

Tip #1: Quickly sort options using the “Only-Option Test”

If you have several titles that all catch your eye and you are having a lot of trouble deciding among them, ask yourself for each, “If this were the only book available to me, would I be happy with it?” Once you figure out which books you would answer “yes” to, you can pretty much flip a coin among them to decide which to read next. After all, each one is a book you’d be happy with if you didn’t have so many choices so whichever you choose can’t really be wrong. And, if the flip of the coin leads you to a book you don’t much like,” stop reading and make a different choice.

Tip #2: Consider reading more than one book at a time

There’s no rule that says you can only read one book at a time. If you’re having trouble deciding between two books, consider getting both of them and reading them at the same time.

Tip #3: Make some experimental choices

Once you realize that you don’t need to finish every book, you can get a little more experimental with your choices. Knowing you’re experimenting also reminds you that you’re only committing yourself to start the book. Instead of treating time on books you don’t finish as wasted, you should treat it as research. You’re continuing to gather information, not just from the books themselves, but about your evolving tastes and interests. That will help you make a better and more informed choice for what to read next.

So, start lots of books but only finish the ones you love. You will be a happier reader for it.