The Surprisingly Short Journey to Becoming A Great Reader

The Surprisingly Short Journey to Becoming A Great Reader | ZenShmen

My journey from starting out as an infrequent, casual reader who never knew what to read to becoming ‘a great reader’ – someone who reads often, on purpose, and gets a ton of value out of it – was much shorter than I ever thought it would be. Why is this so important? In this post I’ll tell you how it happened, the hurdles I overcame along the way, and share some specific steps on how to get started on your own lifelong learning journey.

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Last year was a rough year in my life.  You may have read about it — and what ultimately turned my life around — in my post called The Most Life-Changing Advice I Ever Received. Suffice it to say, it was not an easy one.  Personally, professionally and spiritually, I was completely spent.  I wasn’t happy and wanted, quite simply… to get happy.  

There were complicated issues swirling around me that led me to realize that despite being a smart, resourceful, well-educated person, I had no idea how to solve.  It seemed like I had reached the end of my knowledge base. I was stumped, worried all the time, and frustrated.

I knew I had to do something… and life was comin’ at me hard as I was realizing 3 truths at once:

#1 The only way up and out of a funk is to grow up a little (or a lot).  FYI: if you’re into personal growth, you’ve come to the right place.

#2 Our education does not end when we finish school.  (I was shocked to discover that 42% of college students will never read another book after they graduate!) Source.  Thus began my obsession with lifelong learning.

#3 My brain was starving.  

Here’s what I mean by #3:  I demanded top-level performance from my brain all day at work, then fed it a steady diet of junk-data to keep it busy (in the form of “entertainment” I often didn’t even enjoy that much + a side dish of mindless social media scrolling).  Sound familiar? 

I pretty much gave the opposite of what the brain actually needs to thrive, including but not limited to:

  • lots of sleep
  • lots of water
  • healthy fats
  • exercise/blood flow
  • time to meander/daydream/not perform/be quiet  

And all the while I wondered why the heck it wasn’t coming up with good solutions to all my problems!  It was like locking up a plant in a dark cupboard with no water or sunlight, and then yelling at it for not growing.

Meanwhile, life kept throwing me food-for-thought that got me right in the feels, like this:

The Surprisingly Short Journey to Becoming A Great Reader | ZenShmen

And this:

The Surprisingly Short Journey to Becoming A Great Reader | ZenShmen


In other words — I needed to step up my abilities to deal with things.  Learn some new skills to get myself out of this rut of “feeling stuck”.  

And what is the absolute easiest, surest, best way to do that?  


Read. More. Books.  


(Other options I considered included taking night classes, getting another degree, joining various groups, and other ideas that would cost me money and/or take me away from parenting my small kids and/or weren’t right for me in other ways.)

Then it hit me:

I have a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips in the form of unread books on my bookshelves… and it was time to get cracking.

Note: When I say “books” it can mean different things for different people — some prefer listening to audiobooks or using e-readers — but the message here is the same.


Obstacle #1:

“I’m not a good reader” and “I don’t have time to read”

– Things We Tell Ourselves  


Let me digress for a moment and say that whenever I talk about my love of reading, I always hear this. Let it be said here and now that I’ve never been a great reader. I didn’t read much as a kid (I watched a ton of TV and always panicked when I had to actually read a book to write a report on it. I left it to the last second and somehow always got my hands on Coles Notes (aka CliffsNotes) so I could cut corners…) I guess reading wasn’t perceived as very cool back then. But the only person I was cheating was myself.  

Before I started reading on purpose, I didn’t get it.

FUN FACT: The first time I ever read a book from cover to cover — on my own, not sitting in my mom’s lap as a kid — was Island of the Blue Dolphins. I was about 12 years-old and it was the first time I was ever transported to another place and time. I remember lying on my stomach on by bedroom floor; I opened it after lunch and by the time I looked up again it was after dark.  I thought, what the heck just happened?!  How did all those hours just disappear?  And also…  I want more of that feeling!

(It’s called flow, by the way.)

The point is, aside from that and brief affair with intense reading in my 20’s when I worked in film development and got paid to read movie scripts all day (yes, seriously!), I really never considered myself to be a good reader.  

Certainly not a consistent one.  And not one with a clear intent to feed my mind quality stuff.

Nevertheless, here I was, very motivated to improve.

Obstacle #2:

I didn’t know where to begin.  If I was going to do this seriously, I needed some help in certain areas: 

  • How to choose which books to read for more success in life and a more positive mindset
  • When or how to read to make it a consistent habit (I, like you, don’t have much spare time — I wanted to learn exactly how some people manage to read a lot of books).  Also, with two small children my evenings / pre-bedtime can easily get hijacked and find me crashing into bed in an exhausted heap
  • How to make the most of it (maximise the takeaways I can use right now)
  • How to read faster
  • How to keep track of what I’ve read and what’s next on my reading list

STEP 1 – How To Begin Your Self-Schooling


Before I started reading random books willy-nilly, I figured I could life-hack my way into it by being strategic in my approach. I needed to understand what separates a great reader from a person who likes buying books and putting them on a shelf.  (I’m only partly joking!)

I scoped out Udemy, a platform for online courses that I’d often read about but never had a chance to look at.  And there it was: I found a course called How To Become A Learning Machine – Read 300 books per year.  

I watched the little introduction video about it and signed up right away.  It was as simple as that.  

I got to take the course at home, watching video modules on my laptop while curled up in my bed on Sunday mornings.  (I don’t know about you, but to me this seems like a pretty ideal way to attend school!)  I figured this would be a good first step on my self-schooling path, and it did not disappoint. If you’re interested in learning more about this course, you can check it out here.

The Udemy course was filled with valuable nuggets. Even though the details felt more targeted toward a young business person starting out in life, not a middle-aged mom, it was relatable and useable in such a way that I decided not only apply the bigger lessons in my own life… but also set my kids up to self-teach in this same way in the years to come.  


The Surprisingly Short Journey to Becoming A Great Reader | ZenShmen - Happiness Hacks for Purposeful Moms


STEP 2 – Not Just Any Books – What to Read


Next, I went through my book collection looking for very specific types of books. I wanted to read some classics as well as some newer stuff on self-development and personal growth, looking for practical ways to apply the concepts immediately in my daily life.

That meant that I would put aside the fiction novels for now, and instead focus on:

  • building my skills in certain areas; ranging from gaining a better understanding of human psychology and why we do the things we do, to more practical stuff like money, health, parenting, writing, etc.
  • Reading biographies to learn from the Masters (people who truly excel in their chosen field), because they share a ton of valuable wisdom about what they’ve gone through to become Masters (aka lifehacks)
  • exploring new topics and learning about things that I have a lot of interest in (things I love but deem myself terrible at having a desire to improve at, such as minimalism/essentialism, cooking, gardening, investing, etc).

Another Obstacle:

“But I don’t have any good books” and “Books are expensive”

– Things We Tell Ourselves

You’re not alone on this.  80% of U.S. families did not buy a book this year (!!), and 70% of adults have not been in a book store in the past 5 years. (Source)

Some ideas for you if you like to read (and keep) physical books:

  • Ask around and see if your friends or family are willing to lend/give you some.  Is anyone you know moving or downsizing? This always frees up some books.
  • Ask for specific books or bookstore gift cards for your birthdays, holiday gifts, etc.
  • Get a’ thriftin’:(this my favorite method; it’s the most fun and I’ve found TONS of good books this way) Check out church sales, garage sales, thrift shops, used bookstores, library sales, etc.

Be resourceful and have fun with it!  It quickly becomes your personal and never-ending treasure hunt 🙂

That said — yes it’s true, books do cost something, and bear in mind that you can’t expect to significantly further your education for 100% free… forever.  

Always follow your curiosity and check out:

  • The bargain books and clearance sections at bookstores
  • Discount retailers like HomeSense (in Canada) and TJMaxx (in the US)
  • The cheaper alternatives for books on Amazon (most book listings on Amazon will have additional entries that say something like “see this book new and used from these sellers”.) However, do pay special attention to any extra shipping costs you might need to pay for items not fulfilled by Amazon.

Don’t care to keep any books you read?  Of course the absolute cheapest way to read more is to borrow from your local library!  

HEADS UP: At the end of this post, I share the 7 Books I Recommend for Starting on Your Self-Schooling Journey


STEP 3 — When and How To Read for Maximum Benefit


What I’ve learned is that I’m not a good reader in the early morning (like 5AM) and, if I start too late, I’m also a lousy late-night reader (nothing after 10PM).

Nonetheless, I’ve found a sweet spot at lunchtime, on Sunday afternoons and, whenever possible, I turn in earlier than usual specifically to read for a good hour.  

I’ve cut back on the amount of Netflix I watch because truthfully, it’s rare that I deeply love what I’m watching. We don’t have cable TV.

As I go through phases, some more disciplined than others, I set aside roughly one hour 3-5 times per week.  I don’t get to it every single day, even though I’d love to, because #Reality.  Hey we’re Moms, our time doesn’t always belong to us in the ways we want it to. I try not to beat myself up about it.

Another good thing to remember is that reading lying down horizontally is not ideal for self-schooling.  More on this in the section below!

→ TIP: How to read faster

There are lots of documented ways to train yourself to read faster and you’ll need practice to master most of them. Luckily for you and me, here’s an easy one: consider the fact that your brain learns in images, and each letter of each word on the page is an image that needs to be processed, which can be quite slow. Move your finger or a pen along under the line you’re reading, and your mind will be able to sweep across the words much faster, as if it was watching moving images.  Discover more ways to speed up your reading here.


STEP 4 – Getting The Most of Your Reading Time — Finding Your Applicable Takeaways


I learned that the style of reading that we’re taught in school (starting on page 1 and reading until the last page *** even if we don’t enjoy the content that much ***) is not a good use of my time, and it’s not probably a very good use of yours either.  

In real life we’re not writing book reports or getting tested on how much we’ve memorized.  Plus, I always felt guilty and not very smart when I started a book and just couldn’t bring myself to continue it…  And it would sit on my night table for months.  You know that feeling, when you just can’t get into it?  Well, newsflash — feeling bad about that is for the birds.

The trick here is to evaluate a book more objectively before you even start it:

  • Is this subject really grabbing me right now?  (I don’t care much for what’s trendy for the sake of trendiness)
  • Is there anything in here that’s relevant to what I’m going through right now? Can it help me in any way?
  • If yes, which chapters or sections of this book are more important to read first, and which ones are NOT relevant to me now that I can skip?  

I typically sit down and carefully read the introduction to get a feel for the foundation of the book and then do my own version of a choose-your-own-adventure.  (Remember those?!)  

When you land on super interesting books this reading process becomes…  dare I even say it?…  really exciting!  (Insert 15-year old me scoffing and rolling her eyes.)

The reason I prefer physical books is because I mark them up.  I underline like crazy and write my thoughts in the margins.  I write my memorable takeaways in those first few pages that are mostly blank. Then when I come back to them later, I can remember what was valuable in there for me at the time I read it.  But, you don’t need to do this.  If you are borrowing your books and want to keep notes on them, just do so in a notebook.

→ The Science Behind This

Our brains learn new things by connecting them to other things we already know.  So if you come across an idea that makes you think of something else, by all means make note of it; it’s the connection between the two ideas that gives both of them more meaning and increases the chances of remembering both. More on this here

So you can now see why horizontal reading isn’t the best set-up for your self-schooling.  You’re better off sitting up at a desk or table, brightly lit, with pens and highlighters at your fingertips.


“Yeah, but I don’t have any time to read”

– Things we tell ourselves

Check out audiobooks!  You can listen to audiobooks while in the car, while doing the dishes / folding laundry / cleaning the house, while running / walking, while out running errands, while soaking in the bath. We’re all given the same 24 hours in a day.  There’s no such thing as people with more time or less time — it’s a question of how it’s getting used up!

You can try out Amazon’s audiobooks service, Audible, for free by clicking the image of the logo.


STEP 5 — Keeping Track of It All

If you’re a really motivated book nerd like me, there are a few ways to keep track of your reading list:

  • Keep a notebook of titles, authors and/or subjects you want to explore, carry it with you
  • Snap photos of book covers with your phone when you’re out at bookstores or checking out someone’s home library, and later transfer them to some kind of list
  • Ask people you admire for book recommendations
  • Use your phone to keep an ongoing typed list, or record an audio note for yourself when a book comes up in conversation

I personally use a mix of these. I take photos in bookstores and also keep a spreadsheet on my computer of books I want to read, by broad category, by author (ahem, nerd alert!). Once completed, I move a book title that I really enjoyed to my favorites tab. I go back to those often. I do recommend keeping some kind of list — even a super simple one.


IN CONCLUSION  – Reading Begets Reading – Here’s the best part


What I have found is that reading creates an unstoppable momentum of wanting to learn more.  If you read good books or articles, you’ll find that other books are often referenced, and then those might land on your reading list. 

It’s a snowball effect.

You might find, like I did, that you become curious about the authors themselves — and then dig around to discover that they host a cool podcast, or they’re regular contributors to big magazines, or will be in town at an event near you sometime soon.  

This is not a world I knew anything about until I let my curiosity take the lead, and it all started to magically unfold in front of me in so many interesting and fascinating ways.  

Why do I say the journey so far has been short?  Because if I’m being honest, I believed it would take me years to consider myself even a half-decent reader.  

All it took was a degree of focus and a degree of interest, and within a few months I looked up and found myself on a different path.  A way more interesting one.  One where I developed a genuine passion for lifelong learning, where I feel a responsibility to keep feeding my mind, one that I am very motivated to continue to share with you.  


P.S. Bonus! — Recommended Reading


7 Books I Recommend to New Readers on A Self-Schooling Journey

There’s a wide selection here.  Remember to go over the contents of the book and ask yourself, what will I get out of this that I need right now?

To learn more about or obtain any of these books, just click on the images of the book covers.


  1. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie

This classic from 1948 does exactly what it promises to — in fact the back cover literally lists “Ten ways this book will help you” —  and it delivers that many times over.  It’s like sitting down with a loving, thoughtful, and well-informed grandfatherly-type who will give it to you straight and set you on the right path.  (One who mercifully helps relieve you of your gnawing worrying habit.)



  1. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Liz Gilbert has been a favorite of mine since back in the Eat, Pray, Love days.  I’ve found her to be so warm and wise, completely fearless in opening up and laying herself bare. A fast friend. And funny as hell. Big Magic is all about embracing your creative streak (no matter how big or small) and truly showing up in your endeavours.  A must for anyone who’s ever had a dream… to do anything. I get goosebumps thinking about it. Fun Fact: Will fill you with wonder and amazement, and make you want to create things asap.


  1. The School of Greatness by Lewis Howes

We’re hearing about Lewis everywhere these days!  What strikes me about this book is that the overall concept is just plain smart: a washed up former athlete with little to no prospects goes on a life-changing journey to discover what defines greatness in people, and stumbles into greatness in the process.  Explore this one for all kinds of inspiration from taking better care of your health and cultivating a better attitude, to leaving an impactful legacy behind.  Lewis also has a great podcast.



  1. The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod

Oh my gosh, The Miracle Morning will light a fire under your butt. Hal is such a motivated and motivating guy, I read this short and exhilarating book in one evening and by the next morning felt like I was ready to conquer the world! Just please trust me: allow his infectious enthusiasm to make you excited about things again.

A step-by-step undoing of all your issues about not being a morning person.


  1. Awaken The Giant Within by Tony Robbins

A monster of a book — that I’m still working my way through, btw — but can’t not include here.  Tony didn’t become a world-renown expert in neurolinguistic programming by accident.  To read this book is to give yourself the gift of challenging and shifting your old thinking patterns and deliver major returns in all areas of your life over and over again.  I can barely get through one whole chapter without having to put it down to take in all that I’ve read.


  1. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Ronson

You’ll soon count Mark among your smartassiest — and bluntest — friends. Be on the lookout for the important passages on how your life’s problems shape and define your character — but only once you learn how to overcome them.  This motivated me to want to face hard things head on and initiate those hard conversations rather than avoid them (which we all naturally try to do), ’cause I want the growth that comes as a result of it.  


  1. Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Another older classic that kept popping up on must-read lists everywhere — this book is not exclusively about building wealth but larger than that, about harnessing the power of our thoughts, approaching them as things we control as opposed to things that just happen to us. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of this book that has shaped millions of lives… for very good reason.



Now over to you —


I’d really like to hear your feedback in the comments section below!  

Do you love to read for personal growth?  If so, can you share the ways you make time to read?  Can you recommend some of your favorite books?

Do you consider yourself a terrible reader?  Why is that?  And has this post inspired you at all to try a different approach?

Do you share the belief that we are entirely responsible for what we feed our minds and that we should not quit learning after school ends?

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Val Lonergan is the founder of, where she shares happiness hacks for purposeful people. To get the ZenShmen cheatsheet to jumpstart your joy - 10 easy things you can do right this minute to hack your way to increased happiness - join the free newsletter.
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  • Reply

    I really love reading, but of course, find myself in front of entertainment instead – oi. I do prefer to listen to audio versions rather than read- unless it’s fiction. I found my commute to work was a great place to listen to a book – I used to find myself sitting in the parking lot waiting for the chapter to end! Now that I work from home-I find myself ‘reading’ more books in the summer while walking – and now I can’t wait to ‘read’ BIG MAGIC!

    • Val @ ZenShmen

      Yes audio while commuting is such a great idea, it’s like a little escape for your brain while you’re doing your daily stuff! It’s not always about finding MORE time outside of what you’re already doing — sometimes we can find a more enjoyable way to add on to things that already take up our time. P.S. Big Magic = <3 <3 <3

  • Reply


    I do love my library!!
    I hadn’t picked up a self development book EVER- I actually was quite snobby about them until I discovered podcasts!
    They were such an easy way to get the gist of a book.. and then I was hooked!

    But keeping track of what you read is a great idea! Do you use a special journal?

    These books were really profound for me…

    Badass at Making Money (Jen sincero)

    When Things Fall Apart (Pema Chodron)
    Women Food God (Geneen Roth)
    The Untethered Soul (Michael Singer)
    The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron)

    Great post! I’m going to bookmark for my next library run!

    • Val @ ZenShmen

      These are such great suggestions! I too am really enjoying Badass at Making Money — it’s really helping me get out of some old thought patterns that really don’t serve me in any way whatsoever! The Untethered Soul is a favorite to read in a long bubble bath (I can only read little bits at a time because it’s just so… enormous in scope!) and I really enjoyed The Artist’s Way but it’s been a while. I should dust it off again! I’ll be checking out your other suggestions too. Thanks so much!

  • Meg

    Brilliant! Great tips to try out.

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