Of all the important academic exercises, none are as critical to your success as routine reading. Throughout your education, teachers will assign mounds of textbook reading in social studies, English, the sciences, and beyond. While it is imperative that you take your assignments seriously and blast through your requisite reading, that is simply the bare minimum. Your eventual goal should be to read as a pastime. Reading shouldn’t solely be an activity guided by obligation, but one prompted by an organic desire.

You all know what it’s like to be driven by desire. It’s all encompassing, automatic, and thoughtless. For example, some of you likely possess a powerful sweet tooth, causing you to gravitate towards cookies and chocolates whenever there is an opportunity to indulge. Others are might be fans of video games, eager to squeeze in playtime whenever and wherever possible. The interesting thing about these activities is that you don’t need to actively tell yourself to play video games or eat chocolate; your body naturally pushes you towards those activities. These subconscious desires and urges to perform certain activities or routines are what are known as “habits.”

Habit Formation

Habits can come in two broad categories: good habits and bad habits. A few examples of good habits are (1) regular exercise routines, (2) diligent homework completion, and (3) well oiled cleaning rituals. Bad habits are things like (1) biting your nails, (2) eating junk food on a regular basis, (3) and playing four hours of video games per day. Habits, both good and bad, are formed the same exact way: via a feedback loop. It works like this: when you try an activity, it will either cause you pleasure or pain. Your brain then links that activity with the particular feedback.

Once the activity and pleasurable feedback are linked, your brain has formed a habit. But you don’t start engaging in that activity non-stop as soon as the relationship is formed; what then prompts the activity is what is called a “cue.” A cue is any sensory input that reminds your brain of the embedded activity. For example, a cue for junk food might be the smell of a candy bar or the sighting of a candy wrapper. Once you receive the right cue, your brain will create a response based on the associated feeling. If pleasure was associated with this activity, your brain will generate a craving or desire to partake. That craving is the feeling you get when you really want to eat a chocolate bar. In sum, the basic cycle is “cue -> action -> reward.”

The Benefits Of Regular Reading

So why have I gone through the trouble of explaining the mechanism behind habit formation? Because the goal of any ambitious young person should be to create a soundly ingrained habit of reading. Why? The benefits of reading are innumerable. First, regular reading is the surest way to boost your vocabulary. Reading different words in various contexts multiple times is the best way to learn their meanings and correct usage. Over a lengthy period of time, this method of learning words is far superior to rote memorization because it is more likely to engage the visual parts of your brain.

Second, reading will naturally bolster your writing ability. At the end of the day, learning to write is a very complex process. The English language has numerous idiosyncrasies and bizarre rules that are very difficult to master. But with enough reading, you will be able to learn these rules and nuances by osmosis. You will naturally develop a feel for what looks right. You will subconsciously know that a comma is out of place or that a period needs to be deployed to break up a lengthy sentence.

Finally, reading will massively boost your ability to… well, read. Reading is the fastest way for any person to absorb new information. That is why it is a staple of all educational disciplines. Most people speak at approximately 100-125 words per minute, whereas the average reading speed is around 300 words per minute. That’s nearly three times more information via reading than listening to a lecture. Until scientists invent a way to upload information directly into our brains, reading is the optimal delivery vehicle for knowledge. The more you read, the faster and more efficient you will become.

How To Build A Habit Of Reading

Point made: reading is really important. But how exactly do you build in this habit of routine reading? Here’s how.

My first piece of advice is this: “follow your bliss.” This philosophically charged phrase was coined by Joseph Campbell, a famed scholar with an unbridled passion for the humanities. It’s simple, elegant, and spot on advice for all walks of life. In essence, it is a straightforward directive to do what warms your heart and makes you happy. Translation: if you like science fiction, read science fiction. If you like fashion, read about fashion. Simply take inventory of your passions and choose books accordingly. This will make reading fun, and when things are fun, you tend do them more frequently.

My second piece of advice is to create a reward system in order to forge a strong habit. Remember the “cue -> activity -> reward” progression? The idea is to take advantage of this mechanism and use it to build a positive habit. It’s all about inserting the right rewards for the right activities over and over until the habit has been formed. For example, every time you read for 30 minutes straight, give yourself a quick reward. This could be a brief intermission to play a favorite video game on your iPhone, or a few bites of your favorite food. The idea is to associate a reward with the activity of reading.

Once you put the reward in place, the cue (which is anything that makes you think about reading) will eventually trigger a craving to read. Once this habit is hardwired into your brain, you will naturally want to read in your spare time. It won’t be a task that you will have to force upon yourself; instead, you will do it of your own volition. If you can reach this point, you will be well on your way to achieving academic excellence.