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The Great Pile of Unread Books

in Joan's Posts, Rants

books-to-read

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

I love to read.

It doesn’t really matter what it is – barring anything else handy, I’d happily read the back of a cereal box at breakfast – but since I was about 3 years old, I’ve rarely been without a pile of books in progress.

In January, I set a goal on Goodreads to finish 75 books this year. I started out great – averaging almost a book a day.

But life happens, and the books piled up into the stack you see above, unfinished and, in most cases, not even started!

The mental drain of being “behind”

Here’s the problem: I have serious issues with being “behind.” It doesn’t matter if it’s my to-do list at work, my housecleaning, my scrapbooking, my Coursera courses, my martial-arts training or even something entirely silly, like my QuizUp challenges from friends and family.

When I get what I perceive to be “behind,” I get paralyzed. I’ve learned this the hard way about myself over the past 31 years. When I feel like I’m in over my head, I have trouble digging in and just getting started. (This, not coincidentally, is why it’s been such a long haul to pay off almost $90K in debt…)

It’s also why I make lists – and lists of my lists. My latest incarnation, Bullet Journaling, is at least allowing me to dump all the pressure out of my brain and onto paper, but fundamentally, I still can’t get over the fact that I just can’t seem to get started when the mountain of stuff in front of me looks overwhelming.

Not coincidentally, when I go through high-stress periods in my life, this tendency gets worse. And while it manifests itself in many ways, the thing that’s stressing me out at present is the pile of to-be-read books on my nightstand (and don’t get me started on what’s on my Kindle!)

What’s on my to-read list

I’ve got a bunch of things on my list – everything from complete quick, one-time reads like my favorite manga series to, essentially, textbooks, plus philosophical essays, literary fiction and anything in between.

Some were recommendations from friends, others things I found whiling away the hours in used bookshops (a kind of big pastime of mine), and yet others are related to online courses I’m taking. Just for fun, here’s a look at 10 of my top “want to reads,” in no particular order, from my collection of physical and digital books:

And that’s just a start…

Making myself a priority

The thing all these books have in common are that I really want to read them. They’re not just time-fillers or assignments or things for work. Maybe that sounds obvious, but it gets to the core issue that I’m struggling with here:

I’m not the best at making my own wants a priority. I make lists of lots of things, but I don’t do a good job of balancing even simple self-care things like reading books I enjoy with the daily grind. And it’s not that I “don’t have time” – it’s that, when I do have time, I’m so paralyzed by the pile of things I might do that I don’t do any of them, instead whiling away my time playing Candy Crush or whatever.

That’s why the Very Next Step concept has worked so well for my financial goals – and it’s why I’m vowing, here and now, to finish ONE BOOK this week. Just one. I won’t worry about the pile – just the work in progress (Christopher Moore’s “Fool,” which, by the way, is hilarious.) And only when it’s finished will I go on to the next thing, or the next, or the next.

Lists are great. But sometimes, you have to take a step back and take a single forward-moving action.

Put down the list.

Pick up a book. 

And, as my husband, Chris, owner of a stunning pile of to-be-read books that makes him happy rather than stressed, just said last night, “There’s nothing worse than no new books to read.”

That’s the perspective I’m striving for – a goal of always looking excitedly ahead instead of striving for that perpetually unattainable goal of “caught up,” whatever that means.

How about you? What’s on your to-read list – or what else are you paralyzed into not taking action on?

Tell us in the comments!

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanie Touschner March 17, 2014 at 8:50 AM

This post has inspired me to clean off my bookshelf. I will take all the books that were given to me to the used bookstore! These are books I never picked for myself, yet sit there waiting. Thanks!

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:52 PM

Joanie, YAY! I hope you had a successful trip to the used bookstore – and good for you for freeing up the mental energy from that!

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Joanie Touschner March 24, 2014 at 9:45 AM

As a person who loves new books, likes to shop yet desires to stop spending, I have had wonderful success finding the books I want through inter-library loan for free. I find I never read through to the end non-fiction books, so I read what I want and return! Yay, it’s free! Recent partial read thru’s: The millionaire Next Door, the Four Hour Work week. I also read The Total Money Makeover, but I suggest we all buy that one! As for fiction I’m able to pre-read books for my teens, renew for about 6 weeks which helps me stay on track and finish. My Kindle & Nook are full and that does haunt me!

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Catherine March 17, 2014 at 9:29 AM

Hi Joan ~

This has been a recurring problem all of my life, but has gotten so much worse over the last two years after starting a small business. What really hit home for me was when I moved from one house to another about a year ago and realized that most of the moving boxes were filled with BOOKS.

I didn’t realize how many books I had because they were all perfectly organized in my last house, therefore did not present a mess.

I also have a habit of reading more than one book at a time, which wasn’t so bad when I had a 9-5 and a regular schedule.

Anyway, once I moved into the new house and there were a billion boxes of books stacked up, I came to the realization that I had some sort of book addiction/compulsion. So, I got rid of all of them.

First, I logged all of the books in a series of Amazon wish lists and kept about 10 books. Now, if there is a book that I want/need to read I simply order it from the local library and dedicate 1 hour a day to read. This way the books are not simply piled up in my house and I can “remember” which books I want to read because they are listed on my Amazon wish lists.

This has relieved a lot to stress for me and has cleared up a lot of clutter and wasted space in my house.

Hope this helps! Catherine ~

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Chris March 17, 2014 at 11:14 AM

Catherine: I like how you tackled your problem of too many books. That seems like a great approach. …. That said, I guess that’s one area where we are different: For me, a super-successful move would be packing all my boxes of books, some clothes and a toothbrush. Who needs all that other stuff? ;)

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Renee Schmidt March 17, 2014 at 10:35 AM

Hi, Wow talk about unread books. We also have piles in our house. We try to organize, put up more bookshelves, shove books in cabinets, pile them places, etc. you can imagine. Yet, it doesn’t stop with books. Over many years my husband was a collector. He would purchase whatever, comic books, tools, milk bottles, Hitchcock chairs, Hummels, keys, another list that just grows but has stopped due to lack of finances. Also his flea market buddie, His Dad died in August. The up side of this is he has been in church with me on Sundays and with no money to Collect things it had to stop. We also have bills up to the sky and back. We are on one retirement income struggling just to pay our monthly mortgage. But to answer the question we are reading a book everyday. We will be reading it for a year. It is The Daily Walk Bible. This is the best book ever written and we hope it leads us to living the life we are suppose to live. So everything else stays where it has been piled, pushed,hung, crammed. This reading has brought us closer. We have been married since 1977 have two adult children which are parents themselves. We have been blessed with 4 Grandchildren so we know God is at work in our lives.So get reading!!

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Ross Lukeman March 17, 2014 at 10:41 AM

Hi Joan, glad to hear how the “very next step” method can be applied to other areas. Two areas whether I have been struggling with paralysis are in business and an upcoming trip. There are so many things to be done I end up wasting my time. Thanks for the inspiration to narrow down my focus, pick one thing to work on, and go with it.

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:58 PM

Ross, how’s the “pick one thing” method going? Are you getting ready for your trip? I’m a little late checking in but I was so glad to hear you were able to find an application for that very next step method in those areas!

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Mario Adventuresinfrugal March 17, 2014 at 10:47 AM

Oh my. It’s always a concern of mine when taking up a hobby that I get so invested in it that it feels more like a chore rather than fun. I read when I feel like it. When it stops feeling fun, I slow down for a while

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Chris March 17, 2014 at 11:12 AM

Great post! I like your “solution” for this and agree it can be applied in so many phases of life. That only thing I’d throw out there, as the avid book-reading husband mentioned in the post, is that while it’s important to find time to read, it’s also important to not make recreational reading a chore to be ticked off a list or something that’s shoehorned into 10-15 minutes here or there. For pleasure reading (which can be fiction or non-fiction) to work best for me, I need to have relative solitude and a decent chunk of time, so that I can concentrate and become immersed in the text (which is what makes is “pleasure reading”). That’s me, anyway. Other people can certainly get what they want out of recreational reading in different ways.

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:57 PM

I made Chris promise to post this when he and I were talking, because it was such a good point. (And something I’m so guilty of.) I make fun things into tasks to check off a list, then they’re not fun any more. I don’t want that to be the case with reading!

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LCM March 17, 2014 at 11:31 AM

I love Catherine’s suggestion of listing books I want to read on my Amazon wish list! Right now, I have pages in a binder filled with titles I want to read. I hate that method…… the clutter of pages and the overwhelmed feeling I get when I scan the list. I will be implementing Catherine’s suggestion today! Thanks!

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:57 PM

That and Goodreads are definitely how I keep track! (And, bonus, occasionally friends and family members can surprise me with a Wishlist gift, too!)

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Cara March 17, 2014 at 11:45 AM

I share your same sentiments when faced with a pile (or a series of tasks that seems unsurmountable). I have discovered a fantastic website that sends me daily emails about chunking my tasks and to-do’s into 15 minute blocks. It’s called Flylady.

Using the same principles, I often will charge myself with doing just 15 minutes (many times you will find that you can do more), but it’s amazing how much you can declutter in 15 minutes. I am a teacher, and this is how I organize my marking and planning tasks, too.

If you are interested in the website, it’s http://www.flylady.net – it encourages me to get “unstuck” from my paralysis.

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Joan Otto March 18, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Ha, Cara, I’m a huge Flylady fan myself. (In fact, her book is on my earlier post about the 5 Books That Changed My Life – http://manvsdebt.com/5-books-that-changed-my-life/!) AWESOME.

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Andrea March 17, 2014 at 5:33 PM

Aw I’m exactly the same. But unfortunately, my pile of unread books almost depresses me. So stupid. I think I’m gonna go for a clean slate and sell/ donate almost all the books I haven’t read so far (some have been lying around for two or even three years…).
Mostly I just buy one e-book at a time. Not depressing and so easy to keep track off :)

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:56 PM

Andrea, that is so true! I actually don’t like having tons of ebooks available. I had to stop getting the free ones because I hated the idea that they were piling up. Sounds silly maybe but it works for me!

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Rebecca March 17, 2014 at 8:44 PM

You have some very good reads in that stack. Quite a few of them are on my goodreads TBR shelf. I set a goal to read 100 books this year and so far I’ve read around 15. I did stack all my books against the wall late last year and I’m happy to say the stack when from four feet to 2 feet and some inches. My biggest read wants are the horrible history book series, With the Light Vol. 7-8 and the rest of the Sisterhood of the Traveling pants series.

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:56 PM

Rebecca, that’s a fun list! We love Horrible History… and I started reading With the Light early on and then didn’t continue (not sure why, actually) – that reminds me I’d like to pick that back up!

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Leah March 18, 2014 at 12:40 AM

Hi Joan! Long time no comment convo! :)

Great post! (they always are!) I, too, always have a big ol’ pile of books waiting in the wings. And I feel the pressure of that big pile of books. And really, the big pile of anything to do that is looming over me feels like a lot of pressure, I totally relate to that!

Lately, I’ve been really trying to take things one day at a time. It’s helping me to really just let go. One of the toughest things ever for me! But just letting go of the self-imposed pressure made such a huge difference. My house is messy, but I’m a little more sane. :)

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Leah March 18, 2014 at 12:43 AM

Oops, I forgot my to read list!

Right now I’m reading or about to read; Game of Thrones 3, Orange is the New Black, The 4 Hour Workweek, The Generosity Network, Parenting From the Inside Out, Stokely Speaks, The Snow Child, and Why Did It Have To Be Snakes. Long list!

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:55 PM

Leah, wait, what is Why Did It Have To Be Snakes? Is it an Indiana Jones thing????

I so hear you on the one-day-at-a-time idea. I’m working on that, and it’s slow going, but I’m doing better and better the more I practice.

Good to hear from you!!

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Charlie @ Our Journey To Zero Debt March 18, 2014 at 4:39 PM

Hi,

I was just curious on how you finish a book in ONE DAY?!? “averaging almost a book a day.” HOW?

As for my reading habits, I tend to start for a few days and then stop for a couple weeks. OR, I would be on a roll, but would not finish the end because of procrastination.

I guess one of the main reasons is because I’m always tired after coming home from work and taking care of a toddler.

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Charlie @ Our Journey To Zero Debt March 18, 2014 at 4:40 PM

Whoops, my current reading list:

The Bible
Lincoln: The Fiery Trial
Pilgrim’s Progress

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 6:54 PM

Yeah, those aren’t books I can read in a day! :) It depends on what I’m reading – novels/fiction obviously go much faster than research books for sure. I mix it up so it just depends. I also have fairly significant insomnia – so while there are days where I don’t read at all, or only a hundred pages or so, there are other nights where I can sit up and read three books at once. I’m not suggesting that as a plan for everyone! ;-)

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Terri March 18, 2014 at 9:36 PM

I love to read also, and know how you feel. For a long time I was too busy with school to be able to read things for pleasure. Now that I no longer go to school, I usually have a bunch waiting to be read, or I find that I’m reading several at the same time. Here’s one difference now, though – if I start reading something, and I don’t like it or “just can’t get into it” I put it down. I realize it’s my choice now – I don’t have to read it, no one is going to test me on the contents of it, etc. But I do understand the idea of getting stressed about having this stuff waiting there for you to get to.

Just, if you are getting stressed, and it looks like you can’t get through all 75 this year, you know what? It’s ok. No one is going to test you on it. Just read at your own pace and for your own enjoyment. (And yes, by the way, i am a librarian, lol. Just a law one, however.)

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 3:10 PM

Terri, that’s one thing I will say I AM good at – I can quit in the middle of books now. (And that was definitely not my previous experience.)

But I feel like when I can’t even get started, that just takes a ton of mental energy!!

(Also, I laughed when you said “just” a law librarian. That would be, like, one of my dream jobs, I think.)

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Theresa March 21, 2014 at 8:41 PM

So how did you do Joan? Finished it?

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 3:08 PM

Theresa (and everybody else)… I am proud to say I DID finish a book!!! (And there was much celebration.)

I finished Christopher Moore’s “Fool,” which I’d started but was only reading in a few minutes here and there. I LOVED IT! It was hilarious and just what I needed to remember how much joy reading brings me.

Now, on to the next!

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Marie @ Financial Debauchery March 22, 2014 at 3:50 AM

Did you finished reading one book a day? Really? That’s good for you.
It takes me couple of days to finish reading the book. In one day, I read 2-3 hours I think and then after that is break time and then I felt lazy in reading again. Haha.

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Joan Otto March 23, 2014 at 3:09 PM

Marie, that’s not bad at all!! I have done a book a day at various points, but that’s not something I can do long-term. Really depends on the book – I can certainly read a novel in a day, less so some of the heavier research-based texts on my to-read list!

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Caitlin March 24, 2014 at 11:24 AM

I’m a librarian as well, in a public library. It’s fun for the most part but sometimes it’s a special form of torture–surrounded by wonderful books, new ones coming out all the time, and not enough time to read! Not to mention all the books I’ve been buying over the years. I also just moved and have been clearing out books as I unpack. I have several shelves of books I plan to read and then donate, and I’m now making an effort to read through them and cut back on library borrowing for a bit. I don’t have to finish each one but I do have to take action on it–if I don’t want to read it, it has to go.

I also do my best to read only one book at a time, with another one or two in the wings if the one I’m reading is too hefty to lug around, or isn’t great bedtime reading, etc. This helps me focus on one thing at a time, I finish more quickly, and I don’t get overwhelmed or confused. If I’m looking longingly at other books that’s a clue that I might not like the one I’m reading very much and maybe I should give it up and move on to the next one.

Another thing I do that helps me keep my reading mojo going is to switch genres and lengths. Sometimes I get into one author or series but usually I try to go from nonfiction to a children’s book to a long novel, etc. I have so many books I’d like to read and I’m interested in so many things that this also keeps me from feeling overwhelmed and lets me dig into a large number of different authors and subjects.

I do agree with Chris that something you love shouldn’t be another thing to check off a to-do list, but I think it’s important for people to make time in their lives for the things they love to do, and sometimes that means you have to schedule it in. I carry my current book around with me everywhere and fit some reading into a few free minutes here and there–it does add up and to me it’s a better way to spend time waiting in line.

Also, as a public service announcement, many libraries with online catalogs have a feature that allows you to create lists of books you’d like to read. Amazon and Goodreads are great too, but with the library website you know that your library has it and you can usually place a request for the item right from there, so it will be waiting for you to pick up (if you don’t find it in the catalog, check with the library staff–chances are they can get it for you). I have several different lists by categories–cookbooks, children’s books, craft books, nonfiction, etc.

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Leah McClellan March 27, 2014 at 6:32 PM

Oh no–books! So many to read, so little time. I still can’t believe I gave away, donated, or sold almost all of my books (stacks and stacks) in my recent (massive) declutter > sell house > move > rent > reduce overhead project. I saved only a few.

Lately my reading has been catching up on everything I haven’t read on my Nook or Android Kindle. And now I’ve been “buying” freebie novels on Kindle–found a couple of good ones! That’s been on my “to do” list: read novels for the pure fun of it just because I love to read and get lost in a story. Ulterior motive, of course, is that I’m studying plot structure and characterization and all that sort of stuff because I’m working on one of my own, but still. I’m not reading and taking notes, exactly; I’m reading in bed before I go to sleep just because I like to read. And I haven’t done that in a very long time! Feels good :)

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Mads May 12, 2014 at 6:51 AM

Totally agree, there is nothing worse than no new books to read. It’s much worse than having a great pile of unread books (personally I don’t think that’s really a problem unless you stress about it).

So I try to keep an updated list of books to read in Evernote, so I can prepare ahead and avoid running out of books.

The only real problem I have is that the books doesn’t arrive as quickly at the library as I would like them to do => I have sometimes changed interests when the books finally arrive…

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