Reading pile akrasia

Recently, I read a tumblr post which has been around for a while, which hypothesises that cognitive dissonance plays a part in why some people just never get to the end of their TBR piles.

Basically, there was an experiment where people assigned values to a number of objects. Then they had to pick one to keep, and re-rate all the objects again. When they rated the objects again, they gave higher values for the one they kept, and lower values for the ones they didn’t choose. The post hypothesises that something like this is happening with choosing books to read from your shelves: the book you’ve just chosen becomes more appealing to you, and the ones you didn’t choose less appealing, because your brain is working overtime to justify your selection.

This came up in the gratitude thread, and I’m moving it here because I think it’s of wider interest!

So, tada, here’s my reply:

I was wondering about this too! For me, I have the future goals because I have a problem with “out of sight, out of mind”, and they have been a net improvement in that sense… but they probably do add to the “unchosen books” effect as well.

I think I’m going to create a shortlist of books that right now at this moment I want to read, and then use a random number generator to go through them in a random order. That way I know that I really want to read all of them, regardless of the order in which they’re chosen… and the random choice means I can’t end up putting a specific book to the end of the queue (either because I’m saving it or because it’s too heavy to fit in my bag or any other reason), and the “unchosen books” effect doesn’t get a say in the matter.

I’ll make the list pretty short to allow for changes of whim and mood, because I do read very much according to whim and I don’t want to take the fun out of it. Maybe 5 books? And probably I’ll beemind that as well, so I stick to it. (I usually read multiple books at a time, so I will also keep doing that and just ensure I have one book from the random list on the go at all times.)

If anyone else wants to join in, we could get accountability here… :grin: I will also probably make a Habitica challenge for it as well.


I like your plan! I think the idea of making mini, mood/time-specific TBR piles to avoid the cognitive dissonance has already inspired many of the “read your TBR” challenges and readathons that exist in online communities. The Tumblr post is great because it ties what’s a probably a fairly universal pain point among bookish folks (I keep not choosing to read all these books I want to read) to a reasonable psychological explanation (Festinger’s theory). It’s uncomfortable! We want to read all the books! But we can’t!

The random choice aspect is complicated. On one hand, it should keep me from thinking I’ve chosen one book over another because of its superiority. However, our silly brains might still think the unchosen books are worse, and I’m not capitalising on any “I must read this right now!!!” excitement. I think there is a similar effect, sometimes, with TBR or reading challenges, because while they are great for finding new books and stretching horizons, the feeling that I haven’t fully chosen a book of my own free will and excitement still lingers (school reading list effect?) and I find that I can procrastinate more.

I feel like I’ve just listed a bunch of problems, but thinking about this and optimising accountability methods is a good thing. Like anything, the best system for each person will be different. For now, I’m thinking I will:

  • Keep adding the books I’m really excited to read next / have to read as Beeminder goals. I usually add them with a 3 to 14 day flat line, and for library books I have the due date as a deadline. Adding data to the graph is extra reinforcement to pick up the book during 5-30 minute random breaks.
  • Resist the urge to join too many reading challenges. This one makes me really sad, but I’ve recently found myself joining too many of these. I’m motivated by the social aspect and I love the creativity of the bookish community (like has anyone seen the Magical Readathon - Orilium going on right now? omg!) but for me, personally, right now, picking a book based on a prompt/randomly seems to decrease my excitement.
  • Accept that some degree of book akrasia is natural, and … fine? I will never be able to read All The Books In The World, so if I no longer want to read a book, well… that’s okay. (This applies more to fun reading than reading for school/knowledge/reviews that have to be done.)
  • More buddy reads! I haven’t done many of these, but I’m curious if choosing a book tricks my brain into thinking it’s better, does knowing that both I and my friend chose a book make it seem twice as good?
  • The “Read Next” feature of the To-Read list on StoryGraph (an independent, non-Amazon Goodreads alternative) could be really useful for the mini-TBR! It’s limited to 5 books currently. Their algorithm-recommended reads could also be an additional nudge to read a book!

I feel like akrasia with book reading is an interesting case, so I’m curious to see how others feel about the points in that article and if it’s an issue for other Beeminder users or for things other than book choices!


I feel like I pretty often get an initial boost from reading challenges and readathons, and then the prompts/books/etc I haven’t chosen slowly start to look less rosy as the time wears on… so there’s a kind of novelty effect there as well as the unchosen options thing.

I guess my plan is to pilot the “short, mood-specific TBR” + randomisation and see if it helps – it might be that the randomisation will stop the choice effect from kicking in? If it doesn’t, I’ll rethink. (Most likely the goal will be capped at $0 the first time so I won’t be punished if it doesn’t work out as an idea.)

I need to check out StoryGraph again, maybe delete/recreate my account or ask them if they can just wipe out my Goodreads import so I can get a fresh start over there. I want to be part of a reading community, but I’m hampered by the fact that I took a long, long break from Goodreads (because of a stupid bug they still refuse to fix or even mitigate by doing a one-time manual fix on my account) and I don’t like the huge gap. :joy:

Yes! This one is important. I no longer think in terms of “finishing all the books I’ve bought”, even – I got rid of all my lists a couple of years ago and don’t regret it. Nor do I track the number of books I read anymore. It frees me up to read and reread as I see fit, and just pick what gives me joy, which is supposed to be the entire point of reading for me.

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I’ve found the customer support at StoryGraph to be great so I hope they can help you out!

This! I think it’s good to keep this in mind as quantified-self type people, that reading on a whim and reading whatever strikes our fancy is actually wonderful and a huge part of the pleasure.

Keep us updated on how the random selection works! I’m curious if you will feel like it helps or hurts the cognitive dissonance.


This reminds me of the issue I have in buying frozen foods, vegetables, and food in general. I tend to buy a larger variety of stuff than I normally consume. Some frozen foods get placed on the bottom of the drawer, and stay there forever, even after I’ve gone shopping to replenish my frozen foods supply many times.

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For accountability, here’s my shortlist of five books:

  1. Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead
  2. Deanna Raybourn’s An Unexpected Peril
  3. Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit
  4. Sarah Bell’s Murder Next Door
  5. Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill

All picked not to make a point or finish an advance copy of a book that’s due to come out or get rid of some of my Beeminder goals, but because they’ve been on my mind lately and I want to give them a try. Murder Next Door is the one I’m least sure of, but I’m very curious about it.

Also, I wiped my Storygraph history and I’m starting over from scratch, adding books as I read them: my profile.

And here’s my Beeminder goal for this: /rngthetbr

It has a rate of 0, but there’s a step down to 4 in 30 days.


I hadn’t read that particular post, but the psychological principle has come up with regards to to-do lists (I think by Mark Forster) – the same thing happens when you keep not choosing to do an item on your to do list, if you keep a long-term to-do list. This is one reason that discarding “stale” tasks is useful, and a reason that an ad-hoc focused list is often a lot more effective than a List of Doom. And it’s one reason that I love choosing tasks from my to-do lists via random number generation!


Well, I’ve read the first book that got chosen for me! It’s been something I’ve been meaning to read for a while, but always chose something else first… but there was no reluctance about it. However, the next book is another I’ve been doing that with, and feeling kinda guilty about it since I had a pre-release copy, so… I feel kinda meh about actually picking it up.

I suspect I’m actually going to enjoy it a lot once I do pick it up, so here goes!

(For anyone interested, the first book out of the hat was #2, An Unexpected Peril, and the second was #3, Winter’s Orbit.)


Experiment update: well, I practically swallowed the second book I had to read whole, and the third was a pleasant but not inspiring read which I finished today. I’d be fine with reading whichever is the next book out of the hat, so… so far no “unchosen book” problem here.

Funnily enough the RNG is choosing them in almost the order I put them on the list, except it’s gone 2, 3, 4, 5… and the last book will be 1.

I figure I’m not really going to know if the experiment works from just one attempt, since I intentionally kept the list small. So I’m already thinking ahead to what I might choose for the next list…

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Update: the mini-TBR pile is finished, and the RNG method worked well! It probably helped that it picked a book I was very excited about last, so the possible choice effect was weak (compared to if it had chosen a book I felt kind “blergh” about last). But, based on my experiences with set reading lists before, I think this did actually help. Normally I’d drag my feet as I get to the end of the list, even a short list of things I was super keen to read.

Still, this was only five books and a really limited timeframe, and I often have things help at first, or seem to help, while I’m excited about them. So, onward to another!

I’m still going to keep the list small, so for accountability:

  1. Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop.
  2. K.J. Charles’ Slippery Creatures.
  3. Adam Christopher’s Killing is My Business.
  4. Tasha Alexander’s Tears of Pearl.
  5. Pete Brown’s The Apple Orchard.

Quite a different set of books here, and a bit more variety of genre. Let’s see how it goes!


I’m happy to hear your RNG experiment has been going so well! I haven’t tried an RNG (yet), although I’m intrigued. I realised that I kind of have one already in the form of library holds. The choice comes when I’m putting things on hold, but when they become available is out of my control. It has the added benefit that getting the book feels like winning something!

I’ve gotten some new-to-me paper books from friends recently, though, so once I’m done with my library books I’ll join you with a list of 5 of those to try out the RNG.