The Inbox/Outbox Method: How I Whittled Down My TBR Pile

Towards the end of 2015, Rioter Andi started #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, a loosely-structured challenge aimed at tackling one’s own TBR pile, whether physical or digital, before buying any new books. Like most avid readers, I had a precarious stack of books to read sitting by my bed, plus a generous assortment of impulse purchases squatting on my Kindle, so I decided to jump on board.

Part of Andi’s challenge included “not buying any more books until I’ve read a significant amount of my own,” but I know myself and my poor impulse control, and I knew I’d fail that particular restriction. But the idea of adding some structure to the process of clearing out my TBR pile appealed to me, and I finally settled upon a system that worked satisfyingly well.

Here’s the deal I made with myself: I could not buy a book until I had read two books off my TBR pile. That way I didn’t have to delay gratification for too long, but I was always reading books at a faster rate than I was buying them.

I gave myself a few further guidelines:

  • Rereads didn’t count. I’m a big rereader, so this slowed me down a bit, especially when I had a new book in a series on my TBR pile but had to reread the previous books to remember what the heck had already happened, but the point was to make a dent in my TBR list, not to pat myself on the back for wallowing in Pride and Prejudice for the 20th time.
  • Books that were given to me, whether as gifts or review copies, didn’t count as “purchased” books. It’s not my fault if people shower me with books! (Please shower me with books.)
  • Single issue comics didn’t factor into this challenge at all – I read too many to work out the math on that – but trade paperbacks and graphic novels did. So for example, I got no credit for reading a new issue of Adventures of Supergirl every week, but I had to read two books to “earn” permission to purchase the trade collection thereof.

To keep track of how many book purchases I’d “earned,” I added a really simple spread to my bullet journal, envisioning books I’d read as being in an outbox, and books I’d purchased as being in an inbox:

2017 so far.

It worked great. I felt like I was making measurable progress – not just when I looked at my tracker, but when I looked at the dwindling physical pile, or opened my Kindle to see fewer and fewer unread books. I also had a really simple at-a-glance tracker of how many books I was buying and reading in a given time period.

Now, I’ll be honest: that impulse purchase, uh, impulse never went away. But that was fine! If I bought a book I hadn’t “earned,” I just added it to the next blank “In” line, and knew I had to read that many more books to catch up to the point where I could purchase something else. I’d buy a few (Samhain’s going out of business sale put me in the red for months), then read twice that many, then buy a few more. Since we’re all friends here, I’ll even show you what the last page of the tracker looked like by the end of the year:

Oops.

The TBR pile’s a little out of control again, thanks to that last page and assorted holiday gifts, but now I know I’ve got a workable method for wrangling it. I’ve purged by TBR pile back down to books I know I truly want to read, canceled out my imaginary debits from 2016 (along with setting fire to the entire year in my mind), and started with a clean slate in my new, shiny 2017 bullet journal (!).

The beauty of this method is its simplicity, so it’s easy to add to however you’re already tracking your reading, and tweak the guidelines to fit your habits. (For example, I know a lot of my fellow Rioters get way more ARCs than I do and have a much bigger problem with them accumulating.) If you try something like this, though, or have in the past, I’d love to hear about it!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve earned myself some time at the bookstore.

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