The best thing I’ve done for my reading life (a TBR trick)

Improve your reading life with this TBR trick for avoiding overwhelm.

Readers, I’ve heard a common refrain from many of you lately—in blog comments, on my podcast, and in Book Club. “My reading life was weird this year.”

I know it’s not just me. Maybe you missed listening to audiobooks on your daily commute, you couldn’t focus on a novel unless it grabbed your attention in the first five pages, or you saw your reading taste do a complete 180. Life circumstances always affect our reading habits, and the impact of big and small life changes was starkly apparent in 2020.

While my reading year was weird, it was also pretty great. I credit that largely to long-established routines (even if I did deviate from them A LOT), and one simple TBR strategy I developed to counter the pitfalls I noticed myself constantly falling into early in the year.

Good things take time

My TBR trick for avoiding overwhelm

When it comes to managing their reading lives and deciding what to read, we know readers everywhere struggle with capital-o Overwhelm. There are so many good books, and so little time to read them in! Given the stacks and stacks of books I’m surrounded by each day, it won’t be a surprise to hear that I succumb to this myself from time to time.

This past year, in an effort to keep my reading life on track, I tried a simple trick for my To Be Read list using one of my all-around favorite tools: post-it notes. It’s turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done for my reading life. And it’s so quick and easy!

Here’s what I do: I grab a post-it and write down the top five books I want to read next. This is my “Priority To Be Read list.” When it’s time for me to choose my next read, I don’t go to my shelves. I go to my Priority TBR and select my next book. (My priority TBR is not ranked numerically—I might choose any one of the titles to read next.) Whenever I finish a book, I spend a minute or two updating my priority TBR.

Because I’m thinking of my next reads in groups of five instead of one-by-one, this method ensures I choose the right mix of titles for my reading life. More importantly, my Priority TBR helps me stay focused on the books I want to read—as opposed to getting distracted by whatever catches my eye on Instagram, or that new release that came in the mail. (To be clear, I add titles to my TBR ALL THE TIME based on what I see on Instagram, or what comes in the mail. But because of my priority TBR, now the newest thing that catches my eye doesn’t hijack my intended reading plans.)

This simple TBR trick works because it helps me avoid several of the too-common mistakes I see people making in their reading lives every day.

What’s tripping you up in your reading life?

Because of what I do, I’ve spent years talking to thousands of readers about their reading lives. Here’s what I know: everyone encounters mistakes in the reading life. You might not succumb to overwhelm like me, or get distracted by the shiny and new, but perhaps you find yourself trapped in comparison or absorbed by data and numbers. In order to overcome your reading mistakes, you first need to identify them.

I’m here to help. Because I’ve seen readers struggle with the same mistakes over and over again, I can tell you exactly what the common pitfalls you’re likely to encounter are. (As a longtime reader, you better believe I’ve made every one of these mistakes myself at some point!)

But there’s no sense in identifying the mistakes if we’re not going to offer solutions—so we’ll also discuss simple strategies (like my TBR trick) to pull you out of those pitfalls and get your reading life back on track.

7 common mistakes people make in their reading lives (and what to do about them) class

I hosted a free class about the common mistakes people make in their reading lives. In this hour-long session conversation, we unpack the common mistakes readers make to help you reflect, refine, and refresh your reading life in the year ahead.

If you’re struggling right now, we can figure out why, and what to do about it. You can watch a replay here.


Leave A Comment
  1. Allison Smith says:

    I love the TBR Priority List suggestion. I am working this week, but I am going to try to make the class, it sounds like fun!

  2. Adrienne says:

    I have a similar method only I use the notepad function on my computer. I have a list of 12 genres (e.g. historical, mystery, fantasy, nonfiction, etc) and record a book against each one. When I finish a book, I turn to this list to identify my next read. When I’m halfway finished with the reading list, I take a good look at it. I add new books for those genres I have read and try to figure out why I haven’t read the others. Am I no longer interested in the book I identified? Or was it just a lack of time? I find this method keeps my reading varied and I look forward to reading the next book.

    • Katie says:

      I like this list idea! And it seems it would maybe help me to read other genres (cough non-fiction) that I always intend to read, but never do.

  3. Brittany says:

    I love this idea! I like to use my Goodreads TBR shelf, but I also can’t help but keep a list in my Bullet Journal. It would be nice to have a way to get those top four or five to stand out. I just might have to take out my trusty post-it notes!

  4. Keri says:

    I had new bookshelves made this year and started moving books onto a separate TBR shelf. Once I need a new book to read I just walk over and randomly select one from the shelf. I like this post it idea for when my shelves are full!

  5. Rachel says:

    I try to use a similar version of this in Goodreads. I have my entire TBR list saved there, but I also have a “hold-next” list for the next couple of books I want to put on hold and an “available-at-library” list for the next couple books I want to read that were available on Libby/Overdrive. Not a perfect system, but it helps me avoid the overwhelming TBR and helps me focus in on what I’m ready to read next.

  6. Katie says:

    I should try this! I have SO many books stacked in my library and I want to read them all. I definitely feel the overwhelm. So much so, that in the past year I found myself trying to finish a book as fast as I could in order to just get to the next one. I’m not taking a breather, or enjoying other hobbies, or even thinking about the book I just read. It’s become a little bit of a job and less of an enjoyable hobby.

  7. Yvonne North says:

    I am going to add a post it to my TBR in my new reading journal. I have never done one before, but last year I read 290 books total which is problematic because I think I wasn’t really reflecting much on what I read. SO, this year my reading goal is a lower number but I want to keep a physical reading journal and write Goodreads reviews for EACH book I read.

    Question: in your reading journal, for “How I discovered this book”, what categories do you use? So far I have WSIRN podcast, judge a book by its cover and author love (ie- reading the backlist). I would like a set of categories so later I can graph at the end of the year and see some stats.

    • Sharon T. says:

      Have you been a podcast guest? I hope you apply, your processes sound interesting and I’d love to hear more about them!

  8. Susan R Wiedl says:

    Loved this suggestion, Anne. It not only helps me with my TBR list, it will help me with my RTT list (recipes to try). I have so many new recipes I want to try but the list just seems to grow. I will make out a priority list and work from that! Thank you!

  9. Desert Island bookworm says:

    For those who can’t buy all the books that tweak your interest, WISH LIST FEATURE on library apps such as Overdrive can, in effect, siphon off titles not available right away because of long waiting lists. Such books are often TBR impulse-adds of brand-new (and highly publicized) books, which may with time and hearing feed-back, not sound like something you really want to read after all.
    Library e-book app also has “Recommendation” feature for suggestion of titles they don’t own, but you’d like to try (and you can often read sample beforehand). If library decides to purchase, you will get e-book in order of your position as recommender. If you really long to read something that seems of limited interest to their patrons, at least your book shopping cart should be a lot smaller, fit limited budget better.
    Finally, you could also read more CLASSICS, often “always available” library

  10. Valencia Taylor says:

    *Smile* This post is so very timely. I am suffering from overwhelm and not being able to focus on a book. Also I am totally unmotivated to make any goals right now. I can at least work on the post-it trick. Thanks for the suggestion.

  11. Ruth says:

    I created a TBR board on Pinterest. It is easy to reorganize the board by dragging books to the top of the page. I also have lists on paper but the advantage of the Pinterest list is that it goes with me in my phone for easy reference wherever I am. Plus I enjoy seeing the book covers.

  12. Colleen Heidecker says:

    A great idea and something I also need to do with places to eat because every time we decide to get some curbside pick up, we can’t remember where we wanted to eat LOL

  13. Mariah Hanley says:

    I made a collection on Kindle the other day called “Books I’m Excited About.” It’s a one out-one in collection with a mix of newer books and books I’ve had for awhile that I was excited about but was waylaid by something newer. I plan to pick out of there for the next few months, and will do the same thing with a physical TBR stack and an Audible collection!

  14. I do something similar! Every month I pick 10 books to read and try to make it a mix of fiction and non-fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, contemporary novels, etc. That way I’m not reading too many of the same kinds of book back to back. Once I get through that list (and sometimes I just barely get through it in a month) than I can skip around and pick up anything else that I can get from my library or have on hand before I start with a new list of 10 for the next month! It’s made picking what we read A LOT easier!

  15. Wes says:

    Love this idea! I’m adding a post-it-note Priority TBR to my passion planner right now. I’d love to hear more about your system. For instance, do you create an all-new post-it after you finish a book, or do you simply cross that book off and add another title? I also wonder if you keep separate lists for hard copies, ebooks, and audiobooks? I find that I usually have one of each going at any given time.
    Thanks for helping us elevate our reading lives!

  16. Emma says:

    I’m going to give this a go, because I absolutely HATE that feeling of “What am I going to read next?” when I’m nearing the conclusion of a book. Such pressure to pick a worthy successor!

    The only problems I can foresee for myself is that I’m a major mood reader (for example, at the moment, the only genre I can stomach is crime, weirdly!) and I rely heavily on library reserves, which means timeframes are often out of whack with when I actually want to read something!

    But off I go this evening to make up a post-it note regardless. 🙂

  17. Post-its are brilliant! I’ve recently started something similar with books that are available through the library. I try my darndest to not hoard library books, so I keep a running list of the ones I want to borrow. It’s been working!

  18. Tera says:

    I love this idea! I typically write a list of 2-4 books in the notes section in my planner. I love the idea of using a post it and adding color to the page!

  19. Tara says:

    This year I created a physical TBR shelf (cultivate a shelf that brings you joy) to help me tackle some of the books that made it onto the bookcase but get passed over year by year. Kept this to about ten. I use the post-it method for narrowing down my library requests as those tend to trump all because they have that window of opportunity attached to them.

  20. Janet says:

    I love this idea. I’m always floundering when I finish a book, and I start looking through my kindle library (which has hundreds of TBR books in it, many of which I can’t remember anything about anymore!) and just pick the first thing that, as Anne would say, looks “shiny”! Now I have a post-it note with five well thought out choices in the inside of my kindle cover! I took a picture, but alas! don’t see a way to attach it!

  21. Lindsey says:

    I love this idea so much! Last year I made a list of 20 books that I wanted to read next (and every month I updated the list and added new books to it to bring it back up to 20), but in the end I felt like there were always too many options and I was still a little overwhelmed. Having 5 books on a TBR post-it seems much more manageable and fun to me!

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  23. Kathryn says:

    Great idea, Thank you!
    I would love some suggestions for young adult readers, 7th and 8th-grade titles from you and your readers. I am getting back into teaching English Language Arts after working in another area for the last 11 years and want to be current with what they are reading and help build my in class library. I searched your blogs, but would love some direction. Thank you!

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  26. Marie says:

    I do something similar, but on just a slightly larger scale. My Goidreads TBR is what I call my “working list”. I keep it at no more than 40 books and it’s the list I pull from to place library holds, what I glance at when I’m at a bookstore or looking to purchase books in general. I do leave room for random books I find along the way as I do tend to be a mood reader. But the list helps me when I’m stuck and looking for a book. Also, since I prefer romance or rom-com style books on audio all of those get saved in a Libby tag so it’s easy to find when I’m searching for the next audio.

  27. Ann says:

    I have a 400+ TBR list and it grows daily. To keep from being overwhelmed, I request 5-7 books at a time from my library, and then have those on hand to choose from. Saves $ too! I purchase books for friends from Indy bookstores after I know they are great reads.

  28. Carol says:

    I like this suggestion of the post it notes. I am often overwhelmed when picking the next book because yes, I have WAY too many on the shelf that are still unread. SO MANY BOOKS!

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