My Approach to Reading Challenges

As the year draws to a close, more and more new reading challenges are being released for the upcoming year. For me, part of the fun of the challenge is the planning process. Some of the prompts become almost like a scavenger hunt to find a book that fits, while others are pretty easy to fulfill. This year, since I took on multiple challenges, I really learned a lot about how to strategize my challenges to make sure I can finish them, and especially that I’m enjoying what I’m reading! Here are some tips for taking on a challenge. These are what worked for me, but everyone’s approach is a little different.

Tip #1 – Choose your challenge style!

Every year, there are so many challenges available and in a wide variety of styles. Depending on what your reading goals are, there are different kinds of challenges to choose from. Some challenges only call for a specific target number of books to be read. In these challenges, the goal is to read as many books as possible and you can read anything. The advantage of this kind of challenge is that it is very open to reading anything you want, so you don’t feel limited by having to read specific things. The goal is just to motivate you to read more.

Other challenges give a list of more specific prompts which give a bit more direction about what to choose. Prompts can address a variety of aspects of the book, including publishing year, author characteristics (ie. age, country of origin), genre, topic, etc. Even the colour of the cover or the number of words in the title can be part of a prompt. The goal of these challenges is usually to broaden your reading outside of your comfort zone, and encourage choosing books that you might not otherwise try. I personally prefer these kinds of challenges because of the scavenger hunt element of finding books to fit the prompts, and because it really pushes me to try new kinds of books and authors.

Tip #2 – Be realistic!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my first year doing a reading challenge I only took on one. This year (my second year), I took on a total of four challenges, all of which were lists of prompts. In total, they called for 142 books over the course of the year, which is about 2 and 1/2 books per week on average. I have a full-time job where it is not possible to read at all during the work day, so I’m limited to evenings and weekends.

I have a very annoying tendency to overestimate the amount of time I will have to read, or the amount of reading I’ll be able to do in the time I have. I think it’s really important to set yourself up for success with the challenges by not taking on too much. There is nothing more discouraging than struggling to keep up a pace that you can’t reasonably manage. For me, trying to read too much too quickly is a problem  because I end up rushing through the books without really taking the time to enjoy them. I’d much rather read a little slower and (hopefully) enjoy the story.

I’ve seen several others on my GoodReads groups become discouraged because they’ve bitten off more than they can chew with too many challenges and too many books. Set yourself up for success by taking on challenges that encourage you to read at a pace that is suitable for you. It’s also important to be realistic about the type of challenge you choose. If you know that you will feel too restricted by specific prompts, it is probably not the kind of challenge you want.

Tip #3 – Plan ahead, but leave room for flexibility!

If you are participating in a challenge that has specific prompts, look ahead at the list and look at how interesting the overall list seems to you. If the majority is prompts that you are dreading, it is probably not the challenge for you. In any challenge, I expect there to be at least a few prompts that don’t interest me much, but for me it’s part of the goal of reaching a bit outside my comfort zone. When you finish making your plan, take a look at the overall list and see how excited you are to actually start reading. If the majority doesn’t interest you, you’re going to have a big problem finishing your challenge!

I tend to be fairly strict about how I interpret the prompts. I want the book I pick to be a clear example of the prompt, if that makes sense, not something that you’d have to really twist the interpretation to make it fit. For example, if the challenge calls for “a book about a road trip,” I would look for something where the road trip is a major focus of the story, not just a small subplot. Other people of course tackle their challenges differently, but my philosophy toward it is if I’m going to take on the challenge, I may as well take it on as it was intended.

I also depend on the library for the majority of my books. I don’t buy many books anymore unless I’ve already read and enjoyed them, or unless they are a book by a favourite author. Because of the library’s system, I need to order the books well in advance and suspend the request until I am ready for them. Over the past two years, I’ve learned that there is a fine line sometimes between having a plan and leaving yourself room for flexibility.  There is nothing stopping you from changing up your plan as needed. Once you start to lose interest in a book coming up on your list, it is best to switch it out for something else. There is nothing worse than going into a book expecting to hate it or when you’re already bored by the idea of it, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Switch books out when you need to to keep your list fresh and exciting.

Tip #4 – Mix it up!

When you actually start to read books for your challenge, build variety directly into your reading. Try to alternate between books of different lengths, genres, styles, etc. Over the course of the year, it’s pretty likely that you’ll have a few books that are similar in some way. To keep your interest in them, avoid reading very similar books back-to-back. For example, this year I had at least 3 books that were set during WWII. Even though they were from different perspectives, I didn’t want to read all of them close together since it would get boring, and also lead to too many comparisons of those books.

Another thing that really worked for me is to have a good mix of longer and shorter books. Reading multiple long books in a row can feel discouraging because of how long they each take to get through. Reading all your shorter books in a row means that you’ll probably progress pretty quickly at first, but then you’ll be stuck with all the longer books afterwards. I’ve also found it very useful to vary the genre. Even if the content is not similar as in the WWII example above, books of the same genre tend to have a pretty similar style. Reading all your YA books in a row, for example, can make them seem very repetitive. By mixing things up, it should keep your interest in each book fresh.

Tip #5 – Be strategic!

In any challenge, there will be some prompts that you are more excited for than others. Just like it helps to mix things up in terms of length, genre and content, it also helps to avoid reading all your favourite prompts at the beginning of the year. Once you’ve crossed all the best ones off the list, the rest of the challenge becomes a chore. This year, I purposely tried to get rid of some of my least favourite prompts upfront to avoid feeling stuck with them by the end of the year. The longer I put them off, the less motivated I felt to try them. Whenever I ordered a group of books from the library, I’d make sure to have a few books that I really wanted and a few that I was less interested in each batch. Sometimes the prompts you are least looking forward to are the ones that surprise you the most, but if not, it helps to get them out of the way early. The motivation of having another book waiting that you really want to read is sometimes enough to get you through the boring ones more quickly.

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